Almost one year ago, Thomas Robinson endured a month of tragedy and loss that is almost unimaginable.
As a sophomore at Kansas, in January of 2011, he saw his grandfather, grandmother, and mother buried in the same month.
After such adversity, the man whose character showed in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds has emerged as the biggest piece of Kansas’ run toward an eighth-straight Big 12 title.
On Tuesday night in Lawrence, Robinson’s career-high 26 points and 11 rebounds helped No. 13 Kansas over scrappy Long Beach State, 88-80.
Without point guard Tyshawn Taylor in the starting lineup, Robinson and back-up guard Connor Teahan, who had a career-high 14 points himself, lifted the Jayhawks to an early 34-15 lead.
The 6-9, 240-pound Robinson came out of the gate in a groove and showed off his versatility, hitting five jumpers in the opening ten minutes, ending the half a perfect 7 of 7 from the field.
After a sluggish start to the second half, two free throws at the 10-minute mark sparked an eight-point period that helped to fend off a late Long Beach State run.
“I get to the point where I felt like, the deeper we get into the season, the more comfortable I get, that’s when I need to get my season to come into one,” said Robinson after the game.
He continued, with a laugh, “I’m going to be honest with myself, don’t expect me to come out 7-for-7 every night.”
Kansas improves to 6-2, with losses to two national powerhouses, No.1 Kentucky and No. 5 Duke.
Because Markieff and Marcus Morris left for the NBA, Robinson has been forced to take on a more prominent role on the block for the Jayhawks.
And he has responded.
Compared to last season, he is playing more than double the minutes and has more than doubled his production. In 31 minutes per game, he has averaged 17.4 points per game and 12 rebounds.
Perry Jones III’s return to Baylor and Missouri’s emergence, along with a Texas A&M team that awaits the return of Khris Middleton, the Big 12 isn’t the Jayhawks’ for the taking, as it has been in the past.
But Robinson needs to balance aggressiveness with the reality that Kansas lacks depth on the front line. After highly-rated freshman Jamari Traylor was ruled ineligible for the 2011-2012, that left Robinson as the only legitimate scoring option at the power forward position.
“We’re a thin team that’s pretty talented, but certainly less margin for error,” head coach Bill Self said at Big 12 media day.
On Tuesday night, he got help from seven-footer Jeff Withey, who came one block away from a triple-double, with 13 points, 13 rebounds, and nine blocks.
This will be a different Big 12 race for the Jayhawks. There will be no domination, this season.
There are at least four teams that could win the title and, with so much parity, it could come down to the finals weeks of the season.
But maybe Kansas aims to win by deflecting recognition and trying out the role of underdog, for once.
“I don’t know how anybody could pick us after [two freshman were ruled ineligible],” Self said at media day of being chosen to win the Big 12. “I don’t know. In this particular case it may be out of respect.”
Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_