The harsh reality sunk in quickly for Kansas coach Bill Self during one week last spring. First, on April 7, twin power forwards Markieff and Marcus Morris announced they were skipping their senior years and entering the NBA draft. (They were selected 13th and 14th, respectively.) Then, on April 14, √ºbertalented freshman Josh Selby tweeted that he was gone too. (The 6'2" guard was drafted 49th.) When Self added in the departures of senior guards Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar, a combined 65.4% of the Jayhawks' points last season had gone up in smoke. "We're not nearly as deep as we could've been," Self admits. "But we've still got good players."
The best is Thomas Robinson, a 6'10", 237-pound monster whose dominance down low may well determine whether the Jayhawks win their eighth straight Big 12 regular-season championship. While Robinson's 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game off the bench seem modest, advanced metrics tell the story of a future lottery pick: His defensive (31.1%) and offensive (18.8%) rebounding rates would have ranked second and third in the nation, respectively, had he played 40% of his team's minutes, the minimum needed to qualify for a rating on kenpom.com. (Robinson was on the court just 31.6% of the time.) But this season, Self says, "Thomas is going to have more touches than any big guy we've had since Wayne Simien," a first-round pick in 2005.
Robinson, an explosive finisher who's "been waiting for this since I committed to Kansas," says he's been polishing every aspect of his game in preparation for the increased workload—from post moves to ballhandling to facing up to seeing the floor. The latter skill will prove especially critical because the once-democratic Kansas offense will run primarily through Robinson and point guard Tyshawn Taylor, another potential NBA pick. "I see us playing really fast in transition," Self says. "And if we don't get it in transition, we have to make sure that Thomas gets a touch or Tyshawn gets a chance."
Yes, the margin for error will be limited. And two first-half fouls on the big man, once merely inconvenient, could now spell doom. "But we all knew this day would come," an excited Robinson says. "And one of my goals is to prove to anybody who has doubts that I deserve to be respected as a top player."
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
COACH Bill Self (9th season)
2010--11 RECORD 35--3 BIG 12 14--2 (1st)
NCAA TOURNAMENT Elite Eight
*2009--10 Loyola Marymount stats
164 CONSECUTIVE sellouts at Allen Fieldhouse (capacity: 16,300), dating to the beginning of the 2001--02 season. The Jayhawks have led the conference in attendance for the past 25 seasons.
Tyshawn Taylor's NBA-level talents are awakened, Thomas Robinson breaks out and Kansas returns to the Final Four for the first time in four seasons.
Taylor cracks under the pressure of having to lead the Jayhawks, and Robinson's power down low is only enough to get to the Big Dance—not to stay there.
THOMAS ROBINSON The forward's efficient use of limited minutes last season suggests that he's ready to go from sixth man to star.