During this season’s run to the national championship game in New Orleans, Kansas University standouts Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson were KU’s top two scorers in 20 of the 39 games the Jayhawks played.
Remarkable? Ridiculous? Hard to fathom?
The better question might be, is it fair to expect two players to do such a thing again next year?
Fair or not, several Jayhawks said after KU’s loss to Kentucky on Monday night in the Superdome that returning seniors-to-be Elijah Johnson and Jeff Withey could assume the roles left by Taylor, a senior, and Robinson, a junior who is expected to forgo his senior season and enter the NBA Draft.
“I could see that,” junior Travis Releford said Monday. “I could see that happening because that’s how it’s been in the past. Guys leave, other guys step up. And it’s going to continue to be like that at a program like Kansas.”
Although not exactly the same as the 1-2 punch of Taylor and Robinson, physically or emotionally, Johnson and Withey bring similar skills from similar positions. Johnson, like Taylor, is a tall guard with great athleticism who is capable of driving to the rim and knocking down outside shots. The 7-foot Withey, though not nearly as chiseled as Robinson, has great size and an improving post game. He also grew to enjoy hurting the rim with highlight slam dunks.
“They’re definitely different players,” senior Conner Teahan said Monday. “But, at the same time, in terms of importance, I think that could happen. I think Elijah can lead a team from the point-guard position very easily, and I think that Jeff can be somebody that you can throw the ball into in the post. This year just gave him more and more experience.”
While Robinson (17.7 points per game) and Taylor (16.6) led the Jayhawks in scoring, Johnson (10.2) and Withey (9.0) were not far behind. Because of his performance in KU’s final eight games of the season, when he averaged 15.1 points, led the team in scoring twice and reached double figures in all eight of the Jayhawks’ Big 12 and NCAA Tournament games, Johnson’s season average does not seem to fit. Many of his current teammates believe that stretch will go down as the springboard to a big senior season.
“He blossomed in this tournament,” Teahan said of Johnson. “He understood what it meant to be aggressive. He was always aggressive in terms of taking shots but not always in terms of getting to the basket and wanting the ball in the last minutes when great players make the plays. But he was in the tournament, and hopefully he just keeps this momentum going into next year.”
In the locker room following the loss to Kentucky, both Johnson and Withey said they would be back at Kansas for their senior seasons. And both already were looking ahead to how they could take on a larger role.
“Obviously (I’ll work on) my offensive game,” Withey said. “I don’t think I was too much of an offensive threat this year. A little bit here and there, maybe, but not what I’m capable of. So for next year, offensively, I’m going to try to get better and stronger and try and look like T-Rob. That’s the game plan.”
Asked if he thought KU’s future top duo could have the same type of chemistry that Taylor and Robinson enjoyed throughout the past couple of seasons, Withey said there was no question about it.
“Definitely,” he said. “Me and Elijah get along really well. I love the guy. He’s a great point guard, we’ll both be seniors, and we’ll have a great team next year. I’m really excited for the opportunity to be a leader. If we keep on getting better, I think this experience will only make us more hungry for next year.”
That’s the way teammates see things.
“Because of their experience and what they’ve done this year, there’s no way that they won’t be better players than what they were this year,” freshman guard Naadir Tharpe said. “That’s only going to help us get back to this point.”