OMAHA, Neb. — Bill Self knows better than most that matchups dictate success in the NCAA tournament.
The coach of second-seeded Kansas led his team to the top line of the bracket the past two seasons, only to run into mid-major wonders — Northern Iowa as the top overall seed two years ago and VCU last season — that created agonizing matchup problems for the Jayhawks.
Well, Kansas appears to have the matchup advantage this time.
His name is Thomas Robinson.
The bruising 6-foot-8 forward is on the short list for every national player of the year award. He averages a double-double every time he steps on the floor, and he’s been at his best against ranked opponents, averaging nearly 20 points and better than 12 rebounds.
In short, he’s a nightmare for Ray McCallum.
“They have a guy who may be the player of the year,” the Detroit coach said.
It will be up to McCallum to figure out a way to slow down Robinson when the No. 15 seed Titans meet the Jayhawks in the second round of the Midwest Regional on Friday night.
There are few folks he can rely on for advice.
Robinson bullied his way through the Big 12 schedule, making his evolving offensive game work against all manner of defenses: zones, traps, double-downs and, from the most daring, man-to-man.
He still managed to make teams miserable.
“He will rank right up there as one of the best that has played for me,” said Self, who has tutored Wayne Simien, Cole Aldrich and other NBA-bound big men.
“It’s not official yet, but if he’s a first-team All-American, he’s going to get his number and name hung in the rafters, and he’s going to be a lottery pick,” Self said. “He’s impacted this place in a positive way and his legacy will be great forever.”
If his name and number are hoisted to the rafters in historic Allen Fieldhouse, it will have company along with Danny Manning, the last Kansas star to be national player of the year and the guy who may be most responsible for Robinson’s evolution.
After spending 15 years in the NBA, Manning returned to Kansas in 2003 as a team manager and director of student-athlete development. He was promoted to full-time assistant four years later, and has become one of the premier tutors of big men in college basketball.
“Thomas has grown tremendously, going from his freshman year playing eight minutes or less a game, to last year playing less than 15, to this year. He’s been someone who has come in learned, and gotten better,” said Manning, who rarely speaks to the media.
“The reason he’s gotten better is the guys that he has went up against,” Manning said. “There aren’t a lot of guys who put themselves in that type of situation, in terms of coming to a school that has three players end up being first-round picks. There are a lot of guys who wouldn’t want anything to do with that situation and he met it head on.”
When that trio of post players — Aldrich a couple years ago, Markieff and Marcus Morris last season — left for the riches of professional basketball, Robinson took over the team.
“We thought he could be a talented basketball player here. We thought he could help us win a lot of games,” Manning said. “We felt if the cards fell right, he could have a tremendous year. I can’t say I saw a potential player of the year candidate, but he’s seized his opportunity.”
Kansas (27-6) is not nearly as deep as in years past, putting even more pressure on Robinson and senior guard Tyshawn Taylor to deliver. Only seven players log regular minutes, so when one of them goes silent — as Robinson did in the Big 12 tournament — the results can be dire.
“I’m confident in my team. We’ve been practicing hard all week, and our loss last week kind of put us on a new track and focus,” Robinson said. “I’m pretty happy about it.”
A happy Robinson could make for a very unhappy Detroit.
The champions of the Horizon League, the same conference that sent Butler to two straight NCAA title games, have a matchup problem of its own in scoring guard Ray McCallum.
The son of the Detroit coach of the same name, McCallum was actually recruited by Self to Kansas a couple years ago. He was a four-star prospect with scholarship offers from Arizona, UCLA and Florida, yet decided to spurn all those big-name schools to play for his pop.
Even now, Self only grins when he thinks about McCallum playing for the Jayhawks.
“We thought there was a great chance he’d stay and play for his dad,” Self said.
If Robinson holds the key to stopping Kansas, McCallum makes everything run for Detroit.
The all-conference guard led the Titans (22-13) in points (15.6 per game), assists and steals for the second straight season, and was the first player from Detroit to be the Horizon League’s player of the year since future NBA player Willie Green in 2002-03.
“I’ve caught a lot of their games and they’re a really good team,” McCallum said of the Jayhawks. “It’s a great opportunity for us to showcase our talent. They like to get up and down the floor and we like to get up and down the floor.”
McCallum made an official visit to Kansas during his recruitment, but ultimately chose to play for his dad in part because the Jayhawks were brimming with guards at the time.
It’s a decision he has never regretted.
“It’s really special. Not a lot of people get to play for their fathers,” he said. “That was the deciding factor for me coming here.”