LAWRENCE — At some point in March, the Kansas Jayhawks are going to play a school with a name like Texas-Arlington. It will be a team that built its mettle as a conference champion but hardly makes it onto KU's radar, and it will scare the crimson-and-blue faithful into conjuring up names like Northern Iowa, Bradley and Bucknell.
It happens every year, even when the Jayhawks make it past the first weekend. In 2007, Kansas had to get through scrappy Southern Illinois in the Sweet 16. In 2008, the Jayhawks needed a Herculean effort from Sasha Kaun to beat Davidson in the Elite Eight. In 2009, North Dakota State hung around before Sherron Collins said enough was enough.
When the inevitable moment comes this spring, KU is going to be glad that it has Thomas Robinson on its team. Because on Wednesday night, when a 34-point underdog was clipping annoyingly at the Jayhawks' heels, it was Robinson who played like the game mattered and sent KU to an 82-57 victory over Texas-Arlington at Allen Fieldhouse.
"Thomas is without question our best post guy right now," KU coach Bill Self said. "He deserves to be out there, even though it's probably not best for our team over time."
That wasn't a dig at Robinson but a dig at juniors Marcus and Markieff Morris, who have irritated Self in recent weeks. Self did not start Marcus on Wednesday as punishment for his flagrant foul and ejection against California last week, and Markieff did not start the two previous games because Self was unhappy with his effort.
Self may say that Robinson has been better than the Morris twins recently, but he still believes Marcus and Markieff should be the better players for KU long-term. It's the curse of having a team stocked with Grade-A talent, one that Self will always welcome. But that doesn't make it easy on disappointing nights like Wednesday.
"The thing that really concerns me: Who's our best players?" Self asked. "I have no idea. When we've had our best teams, you may play a core seven, but you knew who the best players were and you knew roles. A certain guy was going to back up a certain guy. I don't know who our best team is."
Without Robinson, a sophomore forward from Washington, D.C., Kansas could have lost some style points against the Mavericks, who led 18-13, trailed by just eight at halftime and 40-35 early in the second half. Texas-Arlington, which lost to struggling Texas Tech by 17 points in its last game, was not supposed to compete with the No. 3 team in the land.
Robinson made his first start of the season on Wednesday — part of a new starting lineup that also featured Josh Selby, Elijah Johnson and usual starters Tyrel Reed and Markieff Morris — and played like the junkyard dog he's been all season coming off the bench.
Robinson had a career-high 20 points and 10 rebounds, and he scored the first seven points of the second half as Kansas began to break away from the Mavericks.
Self already knew that he could count on Robinson, but that wasn't the case for Johnson, a sophomore guard who hasn't etched out a clear role for himself as 2011 approaches. Johnson started in place of Tyshawn Taylor, who missed five practices this week when bad weather left him stranded in New Jersey. This game became a chance for Self to see Johnson play for extended stretches.
The Jayhawks (12-0) looked more comfortable offensively when Taylor was on the floor, but Johnson took advantage of his season-high 26 minutes, scoring 11 points and dishing out five assists. Johnson would likely need to outplay seniors Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar to gain more minutes, and he showed once again that he is a capable long-range shooter. Johnson made three of four three-pointers and is now 10 of 18 on the season.
"It felt good, looked good and was good," Johnson said.
Johnson finished the night with an alley-oop pass to Robinson, who plans to keep giving the maximum as long as Self will let him.
"That's something I wanted to work on coming into the season, just being consistent," Robinson said. "It doesn't matter who your opponent is. You have to go hard every time. That's what I'm going to stick with."