By DAVE SKRETTA, Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Jeff Withey has had plenty of bloody noses. The big guy from Kansas has been whacked by flying elbows too many times to count. He's had bruises the size and color plums.
That's just what he's gotten courtesy of teammate Thomas Robinson.
The Jayhawks' inside tandem has pushed each other to get better all season, and all those rough-and-tumble practices are finally paying off. Robinson and Withey have Kansas in the Final Four, ready for Jared Sullinger and Ohio State on Saturday night.
"It's going to be a fun matchup. Throughout the year we've played against some really good big men," Robinson said Thursday. "It's definitely going to be a challenge."
Hardly bigger than the one they give each other in practice, though.
"At the beginning of the year, it was tough for me to get into the zone," Withey said, "but as we have been playing more I've been able to get more aggressive."
The rise of Robinson, and to some extent Withey, mimics the rise of Kansas this season.
Neither played significant minutes last year — Robinson had trouble cracking the lineup, Withey was an afterthought. Neither showed up on major early season watch lists, and neither had the kind of imposing post presence they've established over the past five months.
Meanwhile, Kansas was picked as co-favorite in the Big 12 almost by default, though whispers had grown louder that perhaps this would be the year the Jayhawks finally slipped. They had lost a bevy of talent to the NBA. When a trio of recruits failed to qualify academically, it left a team that was supposedly short on talent even shorter of depth.
Bill Self even recalled a visit by former NBA coaches Jeff Van Gundy and Larry Brown — who, incidentally, won a title for the Jayhawks — early in the year. Brown watched the team practice without Robinson and thought Kansas would be fortunate to win 15 games this season.
"I think he's amazed at how far this team has come," Self said.
The 6-foot-8 Robinson and 7-foot Withey are the biggest reasons why.
Robinson has evolved into the dominating post presence that Self hoped for when he chose the Jayhawks over overtures from Memphis a few years ago. In fact, Robinson has in many ways eclipsed the expectations of a coach who is rarely content shy of perfection.
"He only played 14 minutes a game (last season), but we still thought he could be an all-league-type guy," Self said. "He had to realize what he wanted. He saw basketball as a safe haven and an avenue to help his family more than anything else he could do."
Robinson's back story has become part of his very fabric: He lost both of his grandparents along with his mother during a devastating stretch late last season, leaving his younger sister as the only significant family member still in his life.
"Regardless of whether he plays well or not, I don't think anyone in our program ever questions how much admiration and respect we had for him," Self said. "If it was me, I would stay in bed and pull the covers over my head and hope time passed, and he's totally different.
"He had to attack life."
He's certainly attacked it on the court.
The first unanimous first-team All-American since Blake Griffin in 2009, Robinson already has set the single-season school record with 26 double-doubles. He's averaging nearly 18 points and 12 rebounds per game, and always seems to be at his best when the opponent demands it.
"I'm lucky I get to go against T-Rob every day in practice," said Withey, who has used every elbow he's taken from his bruising teammate to toughen up his own game.
It's not as though Withey was overlooked coming out of high school. The kid from California at one point committed to Rick Pitino and Louisville, which plays Kentucky in the other national semifinal Saturday night, before switching his allegiance to Arizona to be closer to home.
Wildcats coach Lute Olson soon retired, and Withey went looking yet again.
He settled on Kansas, even though he knew he'd be stuck behind a bunch of big men. He was willing to bide his time while Cole Aldrich and the Morris twins headed to the NBA, and has become one of the Jayhawks' most important pieces after rarely playing a season ago.