In anticipation of the Final Four, we're highlighting four players whose very presence on the court is a reason to watch. Not that you need any convincing, probably. Part one, Ryan O'Hanlon's tribute to Louisville guard and college kid extraordinaire Russ Smith, is here.
College basketball people get upset about the routine annual exodus of the best freshmen in college hoops. They do this for lots of reasons, any of which you should feel free to speculate about as darkly as you wish, but from the perspective of college basketball as a product—a type of basketball all its own—the sad-face types have a point. All those rising sophomores continuing to float up into the NBA ranks have left the college game lacking a certain amount of star power. Or, maybe more to the point, it saddles the sport with the need to create superstar narratives anew each season—and quickly, since most of the very best players are just passing through.
This talent drain has also lowered the level in the talent pool across college hoops. Where once there might have been three or four future pros at each position around the Big 12, for example, there are now probably no more than one or two in a given year; and often, new ones each season. But without this kind of turnover, there's a decent chance that Thomas Robinson might have gone unnoticed, instead of being the only player in college hoops with a shot at stealing National Player of the Year honors from the otherworldly Anthony Davis.
It’s inarguable that NCAA basketball as a product would be better served by having the most talented players competing for three or even four years—Jrue Holiday would have been a senior this season, for instance, and John Wall and Demarcus Cousins would be juniors. But an ancillary benefit of their premature departures is that players that otherwise might have been lesser known get an opportunity to shine that they otherwise might not get. Would Robinson be a National Player of the Year candidate if Cousins and others currently paid to play by NBA teams were in the mix for the award, or if Robinson still had to fight Marcus and Markieff Morris for minutes? Maybe. Or maybe not.
A good, but not elite, recruit coming out of high school in Washington, D.C., Robinson was stuck on the depth chart during his first two seasons in Lawrence. He showed flashes, but simply didn’t get the run necessary to take the next step, while also dealing with some terribly tragic events in his personal life. As a preseason All-American heading into this season, his ability was clear. But what has been remarkable about Robinson's rise this season isn't his talent—which he has developed during his Kansas career, but which was never a secret—so much as it is the infectious energy with which he plays the game. He plays with the passion of someone who had to wait his turn, and who is intent on doing as much as he can with that long-in-coming opportunity.
In most ways, Robinson’s game is that of a classic college ‘tweener. More athletic than the collegiate big men he’s matched up against, T-Rob is a beast with numbers to match—he averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds per, and didn’t really have a bad game all season. It’s become commonplace to see him redeem a teammate's miss with a one-hand follow slam or rip a rebound away from two or three opponents. He looks like a man toying with teenagers, and to the extent that he’s often a year or two older than some of the guys he’s matched up against, he actually sort of is.
At the next level, Robinson won’t be able to out-jump and out-muscle everyone. But at this level, he is capable of taking a game over at any moment, and seems forever on a hungry search for that moment; when he dunks, he does so with a righteous fury. When he drives from the top of the key, he does so with an intent and purpose that few players have. When he seizes another rebound, it’s as if he wants to clear out the lane with his will (and maybe his elbows).
I don’t know that Robinson is a great draft pick, and I don’t know that he isn’t. That's a discussion for another day, anyway. What matters is that on Saturday, and possibly again on Monday night, a guy who in a different era might have been little more than a high-energy backup at a school like Kansas will spend his every Final Four moment in overdrive, and that it will be both furious and joyful, and that it will be great fun to watch. We can thank the NBA for that opportunity.