LAWRENCE — The double-doubles have turned into double troubles for Thomas Robinson.
The player of the year candidate for No. 2 seed Kansas got a taste of what life will be like in the rest of the NCAA tournament last weekend. Hounded and harassed by Purdue all night, the big guy was nearly shut down, and the Jayhawks nearly sent home before the second weekend.
“They did a good job throwing bodies at me,” Robinson said. “They sagged their players on me and forced our guys to shoot. My guards stepped up and made big-time shots.”
That’s the biggest reason why the Jayhawks survived and advanced.
Kansas will play No. 11 seed North Carolina State on Friday night in St. Louis for the right to play in the Midwest Regional final. Just two games separate an unheralded bunch of former backups and walk-ons from playing in the program’s 14th Final Four.
Robinson and the rest of the Jayhawks know that those two games — including a potential match up against No. 1 seed North Carolina — won’t be easy. They also know the job got much tougher when Purdue revealed a comprehensive blueprint for slowing down the Big 12’s player of the year.
The Boilermakers started with matching size for size.
They went with one of their biggest lineups of the year, and seemed content to use all their fouls to push the 6-foot-8 Robinson off the block and denying him the ball whenever possible.
When he did get touches, he was never alone.
One of their guards would drop down from the top of the key to bracket him in the corners and along the baseline. If Robinson got the ball in the paint, the two post defenders would converge on him, forcing him to put up a tightly guarded shot or kick it right back out.
Sometimes, a third defender would drop off Kansas guard Travis Releford and join the fray.
It quickly became evident that the Boilermakers’ top three priorities were to stop Thomas Robinson, stop Thomas Robinson and stop Thomas Robinson.
“They played smart,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said. “They basically said, ‘We’re going to put two around Thomas, and two becomes three, because we’ll leave Travis.’ They just gave us shots.”
For the longest time, nobody made them.
And the plan put together by Purdue coach Matt Painter nearly worked to perfection.
It wasn’t until Elijah Johnson caught fire late in the game that Kansas finally pulled ahead, and his 3-pointer and transition lay-up in the final minutes allowed the Jayhawks to escape.
Robinson finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds, and his nation-leading 25th double-double tied the single-season school record set by Drew Gooden in 2002.
Here’s the thing, though: He shot 2 of 12 from the field to get there.
“Thomas tried so hard the other day that he tried too hard,” Self said. “That brought up a tightness point. I think the longer that goes on, you feel like nothing is happening.
“He throws a jump hook to start the game and it’s an air ball, so he doesn’t go back to his jump hook and that’s his best shot,” Self added. “We have to do a better job of getting him the ball in positions, but I’ve said all along it’s easier to take a big out than a guard out.”
That doesn’t mean it’s been easy to take Robinson out.
Only three times this season had he been held to fewer points — he had 10 each in a blowout win over Southern California and a hard-fought road victory over Kansas State, when the Wildcats also sent two and three defenders at him the entire night. His season-low of nine points came in just 22 minutes during an 89-34 rout of Howard early in the season.
Robinson’s shooting percentage of 16.7 from the field against Purdue was easily a season low, and about nearly 40 points below his season average.
Self said the answer for the double teams is for Robinson to become a better passer. Too often he’s waited for defenders to collapse on him, taking away clear passing lanes and in turn preventing him from hitting his teammates in stride for open jump shots.
“If people want to double him — which naturally they could, just like we double some guys — then you have to be good enough behind that to make plays,” Self said. “We have guys good enough behind that to make plays. We just didn’t do it that night consistently.”
He expects his team do a little better against North Carolina State.
The Wolf Pack has a more traditional lineup than the Boilermakers, but Kansas still expects them to clamp down on Robinson and force everyone else to make shots.
“They’re playing three guards and two bigs. That’s definitely how we want to match up,” said guard Tyshawn Taylor. “They’re athletic, and they play in a good league. I’m sure it’s going to be a fun game. I’m sure they’re going to come out excited to play.”
NCAA TOURNAMENT ON TV
6:15 — Syracuse vs. Wisconsin, CBS
6:47 — Michigan State vs. Louisville, TBS
8:45 — Ohio State vs. Cincinnati, CBS
9:17 — Marquette vs. Florida, TBS
6:15 p.m. — Baylor vs. Xavier, CBS
6:47 p.m. — North Carolina vs. Ohio, TBS
8:45 p.m. — Kentucky vs. Indiana, CBS
9:17 p.m. — Kansas vs. NC State, TBS