Standing in front of the Mario Chalmers arms-raised-in-triumph photo on the Kansas history basketball mural, Thomas Robinson smiled, turned his head, smiled some more, then in a barely audible voice responded to the question about Detroit’s Eli Holman.
Holman, after the NCAA Tournament pairings showed his 15th-seeded Titans would take on second-seeded Kansas in Omaha, Neb., spoke confidently when asked about Robinson.
“Robinson?” Holman said. “I can handle Robinson. He has to handle me. These are moments you want as a college player. You want to play against a player like Robinson.”
Tuesday was Robinson’s opportunity to respond, with a smile.
“He’s confident, that’s good,” Robinson said. “We’ll leave it right there.”
Confidence swells on each side.
The coaches did their mutual respect thing: Detroit coach Ray McCallum called sixth-ranked Kansas one of the nation’s best teams, and KU’s Bill Self was effusive in his praise of the Titans on Tuesday.
“I’m serious, you can make a highlight tape of Detroit, and it’s as good as Baylor’s,” Self said. “They are athletic.”
Holman, a 6-9 senior transfer from Indiana, was named the Horizon League’s sixth-man of the year and averages 10.9 points. Another senior, 6-10 LaMarcus Lowe, gives Detroit size to match Kansas, and in the coach’s son Ray McCallum, the Titans have a point guard as important to his team as Tyshawn Taylor is to the Jayhawks.
Detroit qualified for the tournament by winning the Horizon tournament on the home floor of top-seeded Valparaiso by 20 points.
“There’s an element of excellent in that league,” Self said. “For them to win at Valparaiso like they did is pretty impressive. Certainly we didn’t get any favors.”
The Jayhawks are coming off an 81-72 loss to Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament semifinal, and defense was an issue. Kansas couldn’t get stops at critical junctures as the Bears pulled away down the stretch.
Self said throughout the Jayhawks’ run to their eighth Big 12 regular-season championship that one of Kansas’ strengths was an ability to bring the worst out of opponents through some stout defense.
But that hasn’t been the case lately. Before the league tournament, Texas guard J’Covan Brown lit up KU for 33 points, including 29 in the second half.
“For the most part, if you’re capable of being sound consistently then you’re capable of being sound all the time,” Self said. “And sometimes you can’t force teams into bad plays, but you can make sure they don’t’ have good plays. That’s what we have to be much more consistent in trying to do.”
Statistically, Kansas’ defense ranks among the best. In Big 12 play, the Jayhawks were first in blocked shots (5.8), steals (7.3), scoring defense (62.2 points) and field-goal percentage defense (38.8 percent).
So it was surprising when Baylor went for 81, the most against KU in regulation this season. The Missouri game in Lawrence was 75-75 before Kansas won in overtime, 87-86.
It’s why when Self talks about keys to beating Detroit, he starts with defense, especially on the interior with Robinson and Jeff Withey, along with Travis Releford on the wing.
“(Robinson) has to guard, and he and Jeff are both going to have to play above the rim,” Self said. “Travis is going to have to play to his athletic ability.”
Robinson, his smile subsided, believes that will happen.
“I’m confident,” he said. “That loss last week put us back on track to focus.”