Sports

Robinson’s ascension comes on, off court

Thomas Robinson was not named college basketball’s player of the year Friday. But he did finish second to Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis.

And none other than Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, who will oppose Robinson and Kansas in Saturday night’s national semifinals, said while he respects the opinion of the voters, he thinks Robinson got robbed.

“You know,’’ Robinson said, “me and Jared built a relationship all through the summer. We were at every camp together. Like he said, everybody’s got their opinion. But I agree with him.’’

That the 6-foot-10 Robinson was second is a testament to a player who has exploded during his third season at KU. Just think back to his freshman season, when he was a wild stallion with an incredible physique that stayed mostly hidden on the bench. He averaged only seven minutes and started once.

Even last season, Robinson averaged only 14.6 minutes and started two games while he bided his time behind the Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff. And, of course, while he went through the unimaginable grief and turmoil of losing his mother, grandmother and grandfather in a one-month period.

Driven by desire and coached up by Bill Self and his assistant coaches, Robinson is now a beast. Muscles protrude from his muscles, fire shoots from his eyes. He has been hellbent and, like the Apollo mission, he has been thrust into orbit.

“I expected Thomas to maybe have a shot at winning conference player of the year, I really did,’’ Self said. “And if you’re the best player in our league, you’re going to be one of the best players around. But the national player of the year attention that he’s been getting would have been a dream. I would never have anticipated that.’’

Robinson doesn’t talk much about the tragedies that bowled him over last season. At least not verbally.

His actions on the floor, though, express a dedication to family that cannot be put into words. He speaks with every dunk, rebound, blocked shot.

“Coming into this season I set my expectations high,’’ Robinson said. “I think I had a great year. I think I did a pretty good job of living up to what anybody held me accountable for this season.’’

For Kansas to have a good season, the experts said in November, Robinson would have to play at a high level.

Instead, the Jayhawks have had a Final Four season. And Robinson has carried a team on his massive shoulders, becoming the 11th player in KU history to average a double-double. His 11.8 rebounds are the most by a Jayhawk since Dave Robisch averaged 12.1 in 1969-70.

Robinson, even with limited playing time and pedestrian numbers, was regarded as a prime NBA prospect last season because, hey, those NBA guys aren’t dummies and they could smell the potential.

But Robinson has a head on his shoulders, too. And instead of jumping at temptation, he decided to come back to Kansas and put up the kind of numbers that made his NBA case open and shut.

“I wanted to prove to everyone that I’m a good player,’’ he said.

Check and checkmate.

Even at 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, Robinson moves like a point guard. He sometimes thinks he’s a point guard, in fact, dribbling the ball up the court after a rebound even though Self would prefer he not do that.

But Robinson’s energy is difficult to contain. He plays with an intensity that can border on recklessness, but he’s gotten better about staying within the lines.

A Robinson spin move on the low post affects tidal waves and his dunks rally the stock market. He adds six sticks of dynamite to every game he plays.

“The thing that amazes me from a production standpoint is how consistent Thomas has been,’’ Self said. “The kid has (26) double-doubles. I know that’s not the most important stat, but still it’s a sign that you can pencil in 15 (points) and 11 (rebounds) on a bad night. That’s what has amazed me as much as anything.’’

Self and everybody who has been around Robinson, of course, has been amazed by his resiliency.

Imagine being so young and losing your mother just after your grandmother and grandfather died. Imagine having no family to speak of left except for a young sister, Jayla, who is now 8.

When Robinson needed to be away from the team last season, for his mother’s funeral and to address other family matters at home in Washington, D.C., KU director of basketball operations Barry Hinson accompanied him for 10 days.

The experience still resonates with Hinson, who was just named to replace Chris Lowery as coach at Southern Illinois. But wherever Hinson goes, he’ll continue to have a relationship with Robinson.

“No question I’ll stay in touch,’’ Hinson said. “You don’t go through those 10 days together without their being a bond formed. I was blessed. I left on that trip with a kid and came back with an adult. They wanted me to go to be able to help Thomas in a tough situation, but in all honesty it was something that helped me. It made me grow as a human being. To see how Thomas handled those circumstances was really inspiring.’’

When Robinson leaves Kansas for the NBA — and most suspect it will be this summer — he’ll embark on an amazing journey. But it will be without much parental influence since Robinson’s father has not been in much contact.

Self, though, thinks Robinson is better suited for the transition than he would have been last year.

“This is just one guy’s opinion, but I’m not sure guys who leave (college) are always prepared to make a living,’’ Self said. “Guys can be prepared to get a check, but not a living. Thomas wasn’t prepared to make a living. So to me, him coming back to KU wasn’t a hard decision. He needed to show everybody and himself that he was a guy that could make plays to impact a game.’’

Self would, I’m guessing, take Robinson back for his senior season, but is resigned to that not happening.

But if Robinson leaves, Self will send some of his heart with him.

“I think there will be a deeper relationship because of what he’s gone through,’’ Self said. “I hope that’s something Thomas wants because I do love the kid. I’ve gotten on his butt pretty good this season, but I know he respects that and wants that. But when he gets out of here, I think he’ll know that he’ll have somebody he can always lean on or call whenever things get a little cloudy. We have a good-enough relationship that he knows I’ll shoot him straight.’’

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