NEW ORLEANS — Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey are ready to tackle Ohio State star Jared Sullinger.
The way the two Kansas big men have been playing, Sullinger had better be ready, too.
The Jayhawks’ inside tandem didn’t get the chance to play against the Buckeyes’ All-American in December, when he missed the second of two games with a bothersome back. Robinson in particular took advantage down low, scoring 21 points and leading the Jayhawks to a 78-67 victory.
Robinson said he’s throwing out that matchup in preparing for Saturday night’s national semifinal at the Superdome. The Buckeyes are too different with Sullinger in the lineup to put much credence in an early season game played at Allen Fieldhouse.
Besides, Robinson said, the guys in the paint for Kansas are a whole lot better, as well.
“It’s going to be a fun matchup. Throughout the year we’ve played against some really good big men,” Robinson said Thursday. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge.”
The rise of Robinson, and to some extent Withey, mimics the rise of Kansas this season.
Neither played significant minutes last year — Robinson had trouble cracking the lineup, Withey was an afterthought. Neither showed up on major early season watch lists, and neither had the kind of imposing post presence they’ve established over the past five months.
Meanwhile, Kansas was picked as co-favorite in the Big 12 almost by default, though whispers had grown louder that perhaps this would be the year the Jayhawks finally slipped. They had lost a bevy of talent to the NBA. When a trio of recruits failed to qualify academically, it left a team that was supposedly short on talent even shorter of depth.
Bill Self even recalled a visit by former NBA coaches Jeff Van Gundy and Larry Brown — who, incidentally, won a title for the Jayhawks — early in the year. Brown watched the team practice without Robinson and thought Kansas would be fortunate to win 15 games this season.
“I think he’s amazed at how far this team has come,” Self said.
The 6-foot-8 Robinson and 7-foot Withey are the biggest reasons why.
Robinson has evolved into the dominating post presence that Self hoped for when he chose the Jayhawks over overtures from Memphis a few years ago. In fact, Robinson has in many ways eclipsed the expectations of a coach who is rarely content shy of perfection.
“He only played 14 minutes a game (last season), but we still thought he could be an all-league-type guy,” Self said. “He had to realize what he wanted. He saw basketball as a safe haven and an avenue to help his family more than anything else he could do.”
Robinson’s backstory has become part of his very fabric: He lost both of his grandparents along with his mother during a devastating stretch late last season, leaving his younger sister as the only significant family member still in his life.
“Regardless of whether he plays well or not, I don’t think anyone in our program ever questions how much admiration and respect we had for him,” Self said. “If it was me, I would stay in bed and pull the covers over my head and hope time passed, and he’s totally different.
“He had to attack life.”
He’s certainly attacked it on the court.
The first unanimous first-team All-American since Blake Griffin in 2009, Robinson already has set the single-season school record with 26 double-doubles. He’s averaging nearly 18 points and 12 rebounds per game, and always seems to be at his best when the opponent demands it.
“I’m lucky I get to go against T-Rob every day in practice,” said Withey, who has used every elbow he’s taken from his bruising teammate to toughen up his own game.
It’s not as though Withey was overlooked coming out of high school. The kid from California at one point committed to Rick Pitino and Louisville, which plays Kentucky in the other national semifinal Saturday night, before switching his allegiance to Arizona to be closer to home.
Wildcats coach Lute Olson soon retired, and Withey went looking yet again.
He settled on Kansas, even though he knew he’d be stuck behind a bunch of big men. He was willing to bide his time while Cole Aldrich and the Morris twins headed to the NBA, and has become one of the Jayhawks’ most important pieces after rarely playing a season ago.
“Jeff is one of those kids that is kind of laid back,” Self said with a smile. “I don’t think he realizes how important he is to us sometimes.”
It’s become evident in the NCAA tournament.
Withey nearly set the single-game record by swatting 10 shots against North Carolina State last weekend, and then came up with two critical blocks in the closing minutes to help Kansas slip by North Carolina and reach the Final Four for the first time since winning the 2008 title.
“This tournament is an awesome opportunity for a lot of people that didn’t have a chance to show their skills during the regular season to have a chance,” Withey said. “There are a lot of great guys playing and to be able to go against guys like that makes me more excited to play.”