- Associated Press - Friday, March 30, 2012

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.

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