How big is big
Kansas enjoys an edge in the lane against most teams because of Thomas Robinson’s fierce play and Jeff Withey’s shot-blocking skills. That should be no different Friday night.
“I think everybody in the Big 12, they have tried everything,” North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried said. “Whether it’s doubling post-to-post, whether it’s sending a guard down to double (Robinson), (or) front the post. He just finds a way throughout the game to figure it out.”
N.C. State forward C.J. Leslie is used to good competition in the ACC. Robinson, however, stands out even in that class.
“I would say he’s in a class of his own,” Leslie said. “If I had to compare him to anybody in our league, maybe the Plumlee brothers (at Duke): big, strong, quick.”
Withey averages 3.3 blocks, seventh nationally.
“Withey has more blocked shots than (North Carolina’s John) Henson,” Gottfried said. “That jumps out at our guys real quick because they have great respect for North Carolina’s front line.”
Leslie averages 14.6 points and 7.4 rebounds. Forward Richard Howell averages 11 points and 9.1 rebounds. They present KU with challenges, as well.
“Their bigs are really, really quick,” KU coach Bill Self said. “They can catch the ball at 17 feet and put it down and drive it, or they can make shots.”
Multiple ways to help
Purdue’s defense swarmed Robinson and held him to 11 points on 2-of-12 shooting. Robinson can expect similar attention as long as KU remains alive.
“Purdue did a great job on defensively,” he said. “I just had to find other ways to affect the game and that’s where rebounding came in. Coach always preached to me throughout the year that part of being a good player (is), I have to find other ways to be effective.”
Robinson grabbed 13 rebounds against Purdue. Self, like many coaches, reflects favorably on winning a difficult game after the stress of the moment fades.
“I think sometimes coaches take more pride when their team plays tough than when things aren’t going their way,” Self said. “It’s not hard to have a good attitude and a great outlook if everything’s going perfect for you.”
Monumental in March
KU junior Elijah Johnson is almost doubling his scoring average in postseason play. He started the run with a career-high 26 points against Texas A&M in the Big 12 Tournament. In four Big 12 and NCAA games, he is averaging 18.5 points.
“He just had to realize he’s good,” Self said. “He’s a deferrer, a pleaser. He wants to have everybody around him to be happy. He’s done such a good job here of late of being more aggressive and doing things maybe he that he wouldn’t have done two months ago, or a month ago.”
In the game for good
Gottfried doesn’t go deep into his bench, using a rotation of seven players in most situations.
Three players average 30 or more minutes. N.C. State’s starters account for 81.6 percent of its scoring and 70.4 percent of its rebounding.
Let them play
Don’t expect Gottfried to yank a player for a bad shot or a turnover. That’s not his style, according to Wichita State senior associate athletic director Darron Boatright.
“He doesn’t put his players in a position of being fearful to make a mistake,” Boatright said. “If you’re playing for Mark, you’re not afraid to miss a shot.”
Boatright spend 10 years with Gottfried, three as a student assistant coach at Murray State and seven as his director of basketball operations at Alabama. They still talk and text regularly.
N.C. State’s success reminds Boatright of Alabama’s NCAA run in 2004. The Crimson Tide entered the tournament as a No. 8 seed and beat Southern Illinois, Stanford and Syracuse before losing to eventual champion Connecticut.
Gottfried runs the UCLA high-post offense, an attack that lets a lot of players score and play important roles. That adds to his reputation as a coach whom players enjoy working with.
“He has a knack for allowing players to play in their comfort zone,” Boatright said. “He instills a lot of confidence into his players, allows them to have freedom.. If you stay within your role and you run the offense properly, eventually every player on the court has opportunities to score.”
— Paul Suellentrop