Three years ago, when Thomas Robinson was a freshman at Kansas, he was audacious enough to make one demand. Back then, no fewer than three future lottery picks were ahead of the 6'10" Robinson on the depth chart: 6'11" Cole Aldrich (drafted No. 11 overall in 2010) and the 6'9" Morris twins, Markieff (No. 13 in '11) and Marcus (No. 14). Yet any time the Jayhawks' roster had to be split in two—even for just a summer pickup game—Robinson's husky baritone would immediately boom, "Gimme Jeff! Gimme Jeff!"
Granted, a frontcourt of Robinson and Jeff Withey—KU's fifth-string big man in 2009—would routinely get mashed by Aldrich and the Morrii. This was to be expected; the 7-foot Withey, a former volleyball player, had arrived on campus a passive 209-pound weakling. But Robinson was trying to mold his fellow bench warmer in his own dynamic image. "We all knew that Cole wasn't going to be here one day and that the twins weren't going to be here one day," Robinson says. "I just tried to get Jeff to be more aggressive."
Mission accomplished. For all the NBA talent that has passed through Lawrence in recent years, it is this squad, powered by Robinson and Withey, that has delivered coach Bill Self to his first Final Four since the Jayhawks won it all four years ago. "You can say that last year's team was better, and you can say that the year before's was better," Self told SI on Sunday after an 80--67 win over North Carolina in St. Louis. "But I'm really not sure."
It is not surprising Robinson, a contender for national player of the year, had a combined 36 points and 24 rebounds in wins over N.C. State and the Tar Heels last weekend. But consider: In the 60--57 win over the Wolfpack last Friday, the 225-pound Withey finished with eight points and five boards, and reduced the paint to a no-fly zone with 10 blocks. Then, against Carolina's All-ACC big men Tyler Zeller (7 feet) and John Henson (6' 11"), the Jayhawks' center went 5 of 5 from the field, scoring 15 points, grabbing eight boards and blocking three shots. "Everybody talks about Thomas, which they should," Self says, "but people in our program know that Jeff is our anchor."
Withey credits his complete transformation to Robinson and the two years they spent buried on the depth chart together. Their teammates say Robinson was an unrelenting motivator, always yelling at Withey to go hard and remain on the offensive. On Sunday, as the two juniors laughed together inside the Edward Jones Dome, Robinson was asked how he felt about his teammate. "Like a proud daddy," he said. And then he slung his arm around Withey's shoulders, keeping him firmly by his side.