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LAWRENCE, KS - There's no question who the best player on the Kansas basketball team is.
He also happens to be the guy that most pundits will tell you is the best player in the country.
That's Thomas Robinson. At 6'9", 240 lb of muscle, Robinson has come into his own as a monster this season, the latest in a line of terrific front court players that Bill Self has churned out in his time in Lawrence. At this point, Robinson's story is no longer a secret. He lost his mother only a couple of weeks after both of his maternal grandparents passed away. Since then, he's entire life has focused on a singular goal: make it to the NBA so that he can provide for his eight year old sister, Jayla.
The hard work has paid off. Robinson, a relentless force on the glass, is averaging 17.7 ppg and 12.1 rpg as the focal point for a team that has overcome mediocre expectations to become the favorite to win the Big 12 and a legitimate top five team in the country.
I'm not the only one to notice it.
"Every team is going to try and take me out of the game," Robinson said after a 64-54 win over Texas A&M on Monday night. "I am more used to it now, but I realize the deeper we get into conference play the harder the teams are going to defend me."
That is why Robinson is not the most important player on this Kansas roster. Tyshawn Taylor is.
Part of the reason that the Jayhawks had such limited expectations coming into the season is that the supporting cast around Robinson is limited talent-wise. With the exception of Taylor, the rest of the Jayhawk starting lineup is filled with guys that were career back-ups prior to this season -- Elijah Johnson, Jeff Withey and Travis Releford.
Throw in the fact that three members of Self's touted four-man recruiting class were deemed ineligible by the NCAA, and its no wonder that the Jayhawk's depth has been depleted. Conner Teahan, a fifth-year senior, spent three seasons as a walk-on before redshirting last year. Kevin Young averaged 10.7 ppg and 5.3 rpg at Loyola Marymount before transferring into KU. Justin Wesley averaged 9.9 mpg at Lamar as a freshman before he enrolled at Kansas. Naadir Tharpe is a freshman point guard that is still learning what it takes to play at this level.
Again, this isn't a secret. Every coach in the country knows that Kansas is, more or less, a two-man show. And while Robinson is a modicum of consistency, the only thing that Tyshawn Taylor has proven during his career in Lawrence is that he is consistently inconsistent. One night, he looks like the all-american that he has the potential to be. The next night, he's committing 11 turnovers, as he did in a loss to Duke earlier this year. And all this has happened while Taylor has been forced to miss time due to three separate suspensions during his career.
But over the past four games, Taylor has been playing some of the best basketball of his life. He went for a career-high 28 points, six assists and four steals in a win over Iowa State and followed that up with another 28 point performance, while adding six assists and five rebounds, in a blowout win over then-undefeated Baylor. Taylor also hit a couple of big shots down the stretch in a comeback win at Texas, finishing with 22 points and four assists (and no turnovers), before scoring 17 points against Texas A&M.
"I'm trying not to think about it. I just want to play. That's it," Taylor said when asked why he has been playing so well of late. "I feel like if I think about it, I'll start messing up. I'm just playing. My teammates are putting me in positions to be effective. My coaches are, too. I think we're just playing good basketball and I'm making shots. That helps. I'm taking good shots -- not that many -- and I'm making them."
Taylor's importance to this team was as evident as it will ever be on Monday night.
Kansas jumped out to an 11-0 lead against Texas A&M, with seven of the points -- five off of his own field goals, two off of an assist leading to a bucket by Robinson -- we produced by Taylor. He'd go on to hit two more jumpers in the first 12 minutes, scoring 10 of the first 18 Jayhawk points, but he picked up his second foul with 8:45 left in the half. Self sat him for the rest of the half, and without a secondary scoring option on the floor, the Aggies were able to double- and triple-team Robinson every time he touched the ball.
Without Taylor on the floor, Kansas didn't have that second scorer. They didn't have that second option, the guy that makes defenses pay for centering their focus on the big man in the middle. Throw in the fact that Robinson played poorly -- Self said of Robinson after the game "that was the worst game he has played in a while" -- and its not hard to figure out why the Jayhawk offense ground to a halt at the end of the first half.
Robinson is the best player on this team, but he is also a workhorse, a guy that can still get 18 points and 10 boards in "the worst game he has played in a while".
That's why Taylor is the most important player on this team.
He's the x-factor.
When he's right, the majority of the time Kansas is going to have the best player on the floor at the two most important spots in basketball -- at the point and in the paint. When he's right, this team is every bit the Final Four contender we expect Kansas to be on an annual basis.