In his nine seasons at Kansas University, Bill Self has coached more-polished basketball players than junior post man Thomas Robinson. But has he ever had a player as difficult to replace, as valuable to his team?
Not since Wayne Simien.
Sherron Collins as a junior and senior? Close. Collins broke down defenses with the same relentless spirit the late Joe Frazier took on taller, faster opponents. He opened up scoring opportunities for everybody and gave his team an edge off of which teammates fed. But when Collins sat, Kansas often became a better defensive team.
Brandon Rush? When Rush hit the bench, KU missed him defensively, on the boards, as a scorer, and in transition in both directions. The man never grew tired. But every team on which Rush played had more talent on the wings than this season’s post depth.
Darrell Arthur? He always had Sasha Kaun and Darnell Jackson to share the load up front and had Julian Wright his first season, Cole Aldrich his second.
Robinson ranks right there with Simien and Collins as the sort of difference-maker who completely changes the team when he’s on the floor.
Even against schools with bigger, thicker, more skilled frontcourts, KU can take comfort in knowing it has the nation’s best rebounder battling for possessions, except when foul trouble forces Robinson to take a seat.
The dropoff in frontcourt production when that happens projects as enormous. Robinson has no peer on the team in terms of rebounding, defending the goal and scoring on the blocks.
Avoiding foul trouble always presents a challenge for an athlete who plays with such passion.
A coach can do only so much to minimize a player’s fouls. One way Self likely will do so is to shelve a staple of recent seasons, big men moving to the perimeter to trap the ballhandler. Blessed with quick-afoot big men, Kansas has been one of the few schools able to execute it consistently in recent years. But it can lead to fouls, and KU can’t risk that with Robinson. Plus, Jeff Withey’s not a player that tactic suits.
Self can give Robinson a quick seat on both sides of media timeouts to reduce fatigue fouls, but the rest is up to Robinson to keep his head, avoid technical fouls and learn how to play defense while staying out of foul trouble. To hear Self explain it, the art has a counter-intuitive element to it in that the earlier and more aggressively a post player defends on a possession, the less chance he has of picking up a foul.
“Thomas is a big key,” Self said before explaining where Robinson fell short defensively in Friday night’s 100-54, season-opening victory against Towson. “Thomas’ man is a pressure release. (The guard) can throw it to him whenever he wants to. He’s going through some things that when he gets two fouls, his idea of playing defense and not fouling is to not guard, when it’s even more important that you play your man before he catches when you get two fouls so he doesn’t put you in jeopardy.”
It’s nothing an eager, athletic talent such as Robinson can’t learn.
“We just have to spend some time and work on that,” Self said. “He wants to do it. He’ll try, but certainly, we’ve got to do a better job with that.”