LAWRENCE — Bill Self is rarely happy with his team this time of year, and the reason is that his players still aren't focused on the things that matter to him.
Take the performance of freshman point guard Naadir Tharpe during Kansas' 101-52 exhibition victory over Fort Hays State. While Self said Tharpe was better on Tuesday night because he made the simple plays — a lot of good ones that added up to a great showing — Tharpe and Thomas Robinson were busy talking about their rim-rocking days spent together during the 2008-09 school year at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire.
"YouTube us," Robinson said.
"A lot of highlights," Tharpe said. "A lot of highlights."
Tharpe was a sophomore when Robinson was a senior at Brewster, a prep boarding school that now routinely churns out Division I basketball talent. They've been apart for two years, and, with KU guards Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson sitting out the final game of a suspension on Tuesday, Robinson and Tharpe were going to get plenty of time against Fort Hays to recreate the chemistry they once shared.
Late in the second half, Tharpe made a clean swipe on the defensive end — one of his five steals — and flipped the ball ahead to Robinson, who took the opportunity to test the right knee he hyperextended 12 days ago. Robinson, with a short running start, rose for what turned out to be an abbreviated windmill dunk, a slam that Robinson would later describe as "sloppy" but a slam that brought Allen Fieldhouse to life nonetheless.
Robinson's energy from the opening tip made last week's slow start against Pittsburg State without Robinson in the lineup disappear from the memory of the 16,300 fans who packed the arena for this final preseason tune-up.
KU jumped out to a 40-16 lead with 7:28 left in the first half with Robinson showing everything from a step-back 14-foot jumper to a hanging drive from the top of the lane. Robinson, a junior forward who will begin the season as an All-America candidate, finished with 22 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 blocks in 28 minutes.
"He looks like a different player than when we were here two years ago," Fort Hays State coach Mark Johnson said. "His body looks even bouncier and his confidence level, more than anything, he's just so confident now and wants the ball and expects great things. That's what makes great players. He has the confidence level to be a great player."
Sure, it was just Division II Fort Hays State, but Robinson needed Tuesday to go well just like any player who hasn't played in a game in more than seven months.
"I was more nervous than I thought I would be before the game," Robinson said. "But as soon as I got out there, I felt like I was home again."
Robinson's immense presence made Allen feel more like home to Tharpe, a Worcester, Mass., native who had nine turnovers in last week's exhibition. With Robinson out there, the game was easier for all of the 13th-ranked Jayhawks but especially for Tharpe because of their past connection.
Tharpe finished with a line of 19 points and 7 assists with 2 turnovers and showed that Self can feel comfortable with him as a third floor general behind Taylor and Johnson.
"With young kids," Self said, "when they figure out that they don't know, then they'll get better faster."
KU will get to play with its full complement of players for the first time on Friday against Towson. Because of the absence of Taylor and Johnson during the exhibition games, Self now knows more about guys like former walk-ons Conner Teahan (14 points on 5-of-5 shooting) and Justin Wesley (12 points and 4 rebounds) than he would have otherwise.
Tharpe falls into that category, too, but at least Robinson knew what KU was getting in Tharpe.
"A shooter, a passer, an all-around point guard," Robinson said. "We were eye to eye at Brewster. Hopefully, that will transfer over here."