There was a guy in the front row of Kansas’ student section that made for an unlikely barometer of the Jayhawks’ performance in Wednesday night’s 67-49 win over Kansas State.
This guy was your typical college kid/basketball fan: wore sport goggles as a fashion statement, threw on a headband, relentlessly celebrating with his over-the-top antics, all while holding an oversized cardboard cutout of forward Thomas Robinson’s head. TV cameras loved him, going to him after every up-and-down moment the Jayhawks had.
Made sense. Robinson dominated the Wildcats in the first half, nearly tallying a double-double and giving the Jayhawks a 15-point halftime lead.
This pleased the above-mentioned “Cardboard Cutout Guy,” and he was waving that head around as the full-sized, 6-9 Robinson had his teammates hyped and the momentum on their side.
Then Kansas State stormed back in the second half.
Jordan Henriquez limited Robinson on the offensive end and Wildcat senior Jamar Samuels exploded for 11 points in the first seven minutes of the half, including a three-pointer that pulled the Wildcats to within three, that while Robinson sat on the bench with three fouls.
Robinson was visibly deflated and Cardboard-Cutout Guy was, too.
But then came the versatility and resourcefulness, characteristics that may be what helps them to stay at the top of the Big 12 race with Baylor and Missouri, down the stretch.
Robinson was out of it. Tyshawn Taylor was turning the ball over in bunches (he had eight for the game). So, hey, why not turn over the reins to a former walk-on?
Conner Teahan set Allen Fieldhouse ablaze with two straight three-pointers, reigniting the Jayhawks.
That led to a Jeff Withey dunk, a Travis Releford three-pointer, a Tyshawn Taylor dunk, and Thomas Robinson getting back in on the action with two throwdowns of his own, suddenly ballooning the Jayhawk lead to 15.
Cardboard Cutout Guy was on his feet, waving that head around. Emphatically approved.
Thomas Robinson is the heart of this 2011-12 Kansas team, but it will be the supporting cast that collectively supports the Jayhawks, when Robinson cannot, like during the middle of the second half Wednesday night.
Teahan from distance, Withey anchoring the block on defense, and Releford to fill in the gaps all contribute to the completeness Kansas needs to compete with the athleticism of Baylor and the Phil Pressey-led Missouri Tigers in the Big 12.
They lack depth, only having a solid rotation of seven guys against Kansas State, so every piece is made more important.
For further evidence, look at their biggest win of the season, a win over Ohio State.
Robinson’s 21 points and seven rebounds led the way, but Taylor had 13 assists, Elijah Johnson was 5-of-7 from distance, and Kevin Young had 14 points off the bench.
Think of it as a patchwork.
Robinson, plus three contributors, means the Jayhawks are in line for a victory. Less than that, or the absence of Robinson, is a loss.
Or, for a less imprecise indication, keep an eye on the guy in the front row of the KU student section.
Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_