LAWRENCE — Early on during Kansas' victory over Arizona last weekend, one of the Wildcats' coaches had a message for KU forward Thomas Robinson. The coach yelled at Robinson, telling him that he can't shoot.
Robinson proceeded to knock down two mid-range jumpers on the way to a 14-point night off the bench.
"I changed his mind real quick," Robinson said after the game. "They got last year's scouting report, that's all."
Robinson let out a mischievous grin. His mild braggadocio after nailing a couple perimeter shots was not surprising. Most college big men with eyes on the NBA want to prove that they can take their game outside, and he'd finally done it after months of working on his shooting stroke in the offseason.
But he shouldn't get too carried away. On Monday, just a day after the Jayhawks returned from Las Vegas, KU coach Bill Self acknowledged Robinson making those shots but didn't seem sure if he actually thought they were good ones.
"He takes too many of them," Self said. "Our whole team does. Why settle? (Arizona's) Derrick Williams didn't settle. He drove it every chance he got. And Thomas is so good at that, why settle and not put the other team's post guys in foul-prone situations?"
This was classic Self, finding a teaching moment in an impressive victory for his fourth-ranked Jayhawks. In the moments after, Self went as far as to say that the 6-foot-8 Williams, who had 27 points and eight rebounds, was the best player on the floor. And don't think KU's own 6-foot-8 star, Marcus Morris, didn't hear it, too.
Morris may have been named the invitational's MVP, but Williams had taken him and his twin brother, Markieff, off the floor with foul trouble for significant stretches because of his aggressive play.
"What he did," Self said, "which was so good — and Marcus and Markieff should be great at this — he faced them off the block. And when he faced them, he didn't bail them out, by shooting a 15-foot jumper. He either shot a three uncontested or he got to the paint. And he did a great job of driving and forcing our big guys, forcing contact."
Six games into this season, it is obvious that Kansas has the goods inside. The Morris twins and Robinson are the focal point of the Jayhawks' attack and should be. They're averaging a combined 42 points per game by making 63 percent of their shots. Still, Self can't help but demand more when the ceiling looks so high.
"I don't want to make the point that I'm being negative," Self said, "because I'm not being negative. I just think we should play to our strengths. But when the team is shooting 58 percent, that means you're probably taking good shots."
The shots are mostly good, but Self wants better ones. He wants more free throws for his big men and more time on the bench for the opposition's post players. Tonight, against talented UCLA forwards Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt, the Jayhawks will have an immediate chance to show that they're listening.
"It's like when you go play one on one," Self said. "If you practice one on one, and you want to get better defensively, why would the offensive player bail him out by shooting a jumper? Make ’em guard something. That's one of our big things all along. I'm OK with them shooting the ball. But they're going to be a lot more open when (their defenders) respect the drive."
“Why settle” is the question Self keeps asking, and the simple answer is that it's easy.
"I feel like sometimes the player that's guarding me might back up a tad bit," Morris said, "so I'll just settle for a jumpshot. But I feel like I can make it the majority of the time. So that's why I shoot it."
For a budding big man like Robinson, who has spent most of his life in the paint, it's a powerful feeling to see the ball leave his hands from 18 feet away and splash through the net. Expect him to keep pursuing that sensation. This week wasn't the first time Self has stressed this with his forwards, and it won't be the last.
"He never wants us to settle," Robinson said. "Of course, if we attack the basket, get little easy baskets, then he'll allow us to step out and shoot."