New Orleans In case you haven’t noticed by now, I can be a little dense sometimes. For example, it took me 38 games to figure out what “a tough match-up for KU” means. It’s code speak for either Thomas Robinson is going to have to show he can defend the perimeter, or Jeff Withey will head to the bench for long stretches.
The latter is not an option in Kansas University’s national semifinal game Saturday against Ohio State because Withey will be needed to guard All-American Buckeyes center Jared Sullinger.
Robinson must make life difficult for 6-foot-7, 225-pound sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas, an inside-outside scoring threat averaging 21.8 points per game in the four NCAA Tournament games.
KU made it this far by coach Bill Self’s figuring out a way to mask Robinson’s defensive limitations, whether it was sending Withey to the bench or throwing in a junk defense at just the right time.
But Kansas can’t extend the season to Monday without Robinson, the team’s best offensive force and the nation’s best rebounder, extending the range of his defense the way he has his jump shot.
It might sound a little crass, a little greedy to ask more of a first-team All-American, but the Final Four is all about great athletes playing at their best. Robinson has come so far in three years at KU, but the one thing he hasn’t shown yet is that he can defend a power forward who has three-point accuracy in his arsenal.
Robinson’s inability to chase Missouri’s Kim English, coupled with Withey’s not taking advantage of his superior length at the offensive end, led Self to bench Withey and go with a small lineup.
Robinson opened the Purdue game on Robbie Hummel. Three blinks later, the Boilermakers were up 8-0, and Self shuffled the deck.
“When you’ve got a guy who’s averaging 22 a game for your team, going into the season you would think that’s for sure Jared Sullinger, and it’s not. It’s the guy who opens things up for Jared Sullinger,” Self said of Thomas. “And that’s what makes me, you know, as worried as anything, is how do you give one guy all the attention where another guy’s getting 22 a game?”
At times during the season when Self put his preferred man-to-man defense on hold to throw a triangle-and-two at the opponent, it was designed to make the non-scorers take the shots. There aren’t any of those in Ohio State’s starting lineup.
“We’re going to have to defend all five spots,” Self said. “That’s one of the biggest challenges, especially when they have a four-man who’s red-hot right now and can stretch it.”
Is Kansas facing another Hummel?
“No, no,” Robinson said. “You can’t compare those two players. Deshaun Thomas can stretch the floor also. You just gotta guard. That’s pretty much it. You have to pay him some attention. You can’t forget he’s on the floor.”
When Ohio State visited Allen Fieldhouse in December, Thomas led the Buckeyes with 19 points and hit three-pointers on consecutive possessions against Robinson.
“We wanted to take him away from the basket because their bigs like to sit in the middle a lot, and coach wanted me to spread ’em out,” Thomas recalled. “I got off a couple big threes, and next thing you know, they switched No. 40 (Kevin Young) on me to contain me more, not (let me) beat ’em off the dribble and get out there on the catch.”
Thomas said he expects Robinson to guard him again.
“Probably for a little bit, a little bit in the first half,” Thomas said. “I think they’re going to switch to No. 40 to hold me, be quicker and longer, probably contain me more.”
Not so fast. That’s what the Jayhawks did when Sullinger watched the game while nursing a bad back. Sullinger’s back, and he’s better than ever. Withey needs to stay on the floor, except when resting.
At the other end, Robinson will be on the right side of a mismatch. He’s much stronger than Thomas.
“He’s physical, and he’s a great player,” Thomas said of Robinson, who scored 21 points against the Buckeyes. “One thing for me, you gotta beat a guy like that to the spot. He’s going to get some break-away dunks, but I’m trying to make it hard for him, beat him to the spot, make him take tough twos.”
Even if Robinson isn’t effective at chasing Thomas to the perimeter, there’s always the chance the dome effect that kills so many three-point shots can do the work for KU’s first-team All-American.
Thomas said he didn’t know the game would be played in a dome until he walked onto the floor for Thursday’s practice, looked up and asked teammates if it doubled as a football field. They told him the New Orleans Saints played home games there.
“I shot it pretty well,” Thomas said. “Coach was happy I was shooting. They usually say all that space in the background can mess up a shooter, but I was knocking ’em down. I don’t think anything has changed. I was looking at the rim, and everything was falling.”
Much of the talk Thursday centered on a match-up of All-Americans, Robinson and Sullinger, but the two post match-ups that add to the intrigue of national semifinal pit Withey against Sullinger, Robinson against Thomas. Both All-Americans will face tough challenges, and just one will advance.