Few expected the national player of the year race to unfold like this when Kentucky beat Kansas, 75-65, at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15. Much of the preseason attention centered on the returning standouts who decided against turning pro, including Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes and Baylor’s Perry Jones III.
But the 6-foot-10, 220-pound Davis, who could be the top pick in June’s NBA draft, has led a star-studded and top-ranked Kentucky team to a near-perfect record — the lone loss coming on a buzzer-beater at Indiana on Dec. 10. The freshman ranks first nationally in blocked shots (4.8 per game) and is tied for eighth in field goal percentage (65.8 percent).
And Robinson, a Washington native, has collected 20 double-doubles during his junior season, leading a team with lukewarm preseason expectations to its eighth consecutive Big 12 title. The 6-10, 237-pound Robinson ranks second nationally in rebounds per game (11.9).
ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb said on his radio show that the race boils down to “splitting hairs” between the better potential NBA player (Davis) and the player who is most valuable to his team (Robinson).
“My argument of why Thomas Robinson would be player of the year at this point is if you take him off of Kansas’s team, I’m not sure they make the NCAA tournament,” Gottlieb said. “If you take Davis off Kentucky, it’s still a good team, still a top-25 team, and now they have a chance to win the championship.”
In what will likely be his only season of college basketball, Davis has a chance to win national freshman of the year, defensive player of the year and player of the year awards. He broke Kentucky’s single-season blocks record in just 19 games. He alone averages more blocks per game than all but 33 Division I teams.
In Kentucky’s 83-74 victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday, Davis scored a career-high 28 points, making 10 of 11 shots from the floor. The 91 percent single-game shooting percentage was the highest for a Kentucky player with at least 10 attempts since the 1994-95 season. Davis also added 11 rebounds and five blocks.
“He did whatever he wanted to do,” Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli said.
“He was spectacular,” Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said. “He’s special. He is a different kind of player.”
Kentucky’s national title hopes have been bolstered by Davis’s continued evolution as an offensive player. In his past 11 games, Davis has made 66 of 97 (68 percent) shots from the floor. Teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said Davis has come “a long way” offensively and is now a “monster” when he gets the ball.
But his calling card remains his ability to alter the offensive mind-set of opponents, sometimes even when he does not block a shot. Earlier this season, Coach John Calipari compared him to Marcus Camby, a standout for Calipari at Massachusetts in the 1990s.
“He just changes the way you try to attack him and when you tell your guys to attack, it changes the way in which they do attack because they know he is lurking,” Mississippi Coach Andy Kennedy said. “His length is incredible and he just makes a difference defensively.”
As unlikely as it was to eclipse Davis’s performance, Robinson came close later Saturday when he helped rally the Jayhawks to an 87-86 overtime victory against Missouri in one of the season’s most thrilling games. With 28 points and 12 rebounds, Robinson earned Big 12 player of the week honors for the fourth time this season.
Kansas stormed back from a 19-point deficit with the help of Robinson’s three-point play late in regulation that tied the game. Robinson then sent the game into overtime after blocking guard Phil Pressey’s shot, just one of the indelible images during a breakout and somewhat improbable season for Robinson.
Robinson’s heart-wrenching personal journey has been well chronicled: He lost his grandmother and grandfather during a three-week span last season. Then, five days after his grandfather died, Robinson’s mother, Lisa, unexpectedly died, leaving Robinson in charge of his 9-year-old sister, Jayla.
Eyeing a lucrative NBA career, Robinson spent most of the summer honing his skills and all of this season defying expectations. He evolved from a good player on a talent-laden team to a guaranteed all-American looking to carry his team deep into the NCAA tournament.
One person who is not surprised by his team’s success is Robinson, who said after the Jayhawks beat Oklahoma State on Monday: “We knew what we had before we hit the floor [this season], before the whole world saw us. . . . Going out and proving ourselves against people was definitely a motivation for us. I think that had everything to do with it.”
The perception of this year’s Kansas team and, more specifically, of Robinson has changed. After Monday’s game, Cowboys Coach Travis Ford said what the rest of the country has learned: “They have the best junior in the country.”
The only question now is whether they have the best player in the country.