LAWRENCE The basketball Gods got right to the point on Friday night at Allen Fieldhouse. Less than four minutes into this season of Kansas basketball, the Jayhawks were confronted with their nightmare scenario.
First, All-America candidate Thomas Robinson picked up a foul away from the basket. Then, with 16:07 left in the first half, Robinson did not box out a shooter, Towson's Erique Gumbs, and fouled Gumbs after he retrieved his miss.
No. 13 KU had jumped out to an eight-point lead on a Towson squad that went 0-18 in the Colonial Athletic Association last season the Jayhawks would go onto win 100-54 so there wasn't exactly panic spreading in the fieldhouse when Robinson had to leave the game. But with the Jayhawks as thin as they've been in years on the bench, the biggest fear about this year's team is how it will play without Robinson, and the 16,300 fans in attendance were about to get a sneak peek.
Enter Kevin Young, a 6-foot-8 junior transfer forward from Loyola Marymount who sat out last season while trying to get his grades in order. Young was a late addition to KU's 2011 recruiting class and was advertised as a hustle guy. Young had not looked especially prepared to play at this level in KU's two exhibition games, but Robinson has left KU coach Bill Self no choice.
"I've been on him kind of hard," Self would say later. "He hadn't really gotten it yet. He's a thinker, not a reactor, so he gets slow and not aggressive."
But the player that Self had seen laboring in practice is not the guy who walked on the court for his first official action at KU. Within a minute, Young grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back for two. On the next possession, Young streaked into the passing lane, stole the ball and motored down the floor for a dunk.
Young had helped to spark an 11-0 Kansas run, and he wasn't done. Later in the first half, he mimicked his first steal and finished with another emphatic slam that gave KU a 47-18 lead. Young had 13 points and four rebounds in 14 minutes.
"He was aggressive," Robinson said. "That's what we need. I don't count on that happening anymore, me picking up two dumb fouls like that. But I didn't come ready to play right away, and for Kevin to come and step up, it's kind of like you didn't miss me for those couple minutes I was gone."
Self wasn't about to let Robinson sit on the bench for the rest of the half. Friday night won't be the only time Robinson gets in early foul trouble, and he has to learn how to play smart with two. Robinson ended up playing 24 minutes and filled up the stat sheet as expected with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Self says Robinson has more to learn about playing with foul trouble.
"When he's got two fouls, his idea of playing defense and not fouling is to not guard," Self said, "when it's more important to play your man before he catches it so he doesn't put you in jeopardy."
The No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats are up next at the Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. The Jayhawks (1-0) certainly couldn't have had better opportunities to get their bench players ready for the challenge than they've had in their two exhibition games and Friday.
Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson (who combined for 20 points, 12 assists and one turnover Friday) sat out the exhibition games serving a suspension, giving freshman guard Naadir Tharpe and senior guard Conner Teahan a chance to play major minutes. Then Robinson's foul issues against Towson allowed Young and sophomore forward Justin Wesley a chance to get more comfortable.
The Jayhawks pounded Towson from the opening tip and got 38 points from their bench.
"Our depth situation is not the best," Self said, "but through these three games we've played, maybe we have found that we're not as thin as what we had thought. Look out there tonight, there were nine guys that contributed pretty well."