"He needs to be an All-American for us," Self said. "I don't know about first-team or whatnot, but he needs to be a guy that's one of the best 10 to 15 players in the country, to be real candid with you."
That's asking a lot of a guy who didn't even average 15 minutes per game as a sophomore. Then again, Self hardly is alone in expecting big things from Robinson.
Just about every forecast of potential breakthrough players for the 2011-12 season has Robinson's name at or near the top of the list. Although he has made just three career starts, Robinson is projected as the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA draft by draftexpress.com.
NBA scouts aren't particularly concerned with his relative lack of playing time through his first two seasons at Kansas. They're more interested in what he has done with that time. Robinson averaged 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game last season despite playing just 14.6 minutes per game as the first big man off the bench. Now that the Morris twins have moved on to the NBA - Markieff with the Phoenix Suns, Marcus with the Houston Rockets - the Jayhawks need Robinson to pick up the slack.
He's far and away the most talented player on a team that lists senior point guard Tyshawn Taylor as its only returning starter.
Robinson doesn't mind the pressure. Nobody's going to expect more from Robinson than he expects from himself.
"I want to be the best player in the country," he said. "If [Self] wants me to be top 15, I'm going for the top spot."
Robinson doesn't have the type of personality that allows expectations to burden him. He already encountered the kind of adversity last season that makes the pressure of replacing two star performers seem trivial.
First, he lost each of his maternal grandparents. Then Robinson's mother, Lisa Robinson, died of an apparent heart attack on Jan. 21. He learned of his mother's death through a phone call from his sister, Jayla, who is only 8 years old.
Kansas is hoping junior forward Thomas Robinson delivers the kind of breakthrough performance that Cole Aldrich provided in the 2008-09 season. Here's a look at Aldrich's progress from his 2007-08 campaign to the 2008-09 season, along with Robinson's year-to-year progress so far.
Robinson somehow found the strength to return to the court the day after losing his mother. After sitting out a Jan. 25 victory over Colorado to attend his mother's funeral, Robinson averaged 12.8 points and 7.8 rebounds over his next four games while shooting 17-of-25 from the floor.
He has continued playing with a renewed sense of purpose. Sure, he wants to help Kansas earn a third consecutive No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and end the Jayhawks' recent history of postseason frustration.
But that doesn't drive him as much as his family concerns.
"From a basketball standpoint, he's still immature because he hasn't played that much and hasn't had a situation where everything's designed to slow him down," Self said. "But from a personal standpoint, he's way beyond his years. He was forced to go from being a young man to a man in a span of 30 days. I wouldn't ever wish that on anybody, let alone someone you care about.
"One reason he'll play better, basketball-wise, is because he's playing for more than himself. I think there are a lot of kids out there who have great intentions: 'I want to do this and I want to do that.' He wakes up every day thinking he has to do that."
As he deals with his new circumstances, Robinson never resorts to self-pity. Nor does he remind himself that he has much more at stake than merely leading Kansas to an eighth consecutive Big 12 regular-season title. There's no need.
He already understands how much this season means to himself and his family. He can't afford to feel sorry for himself because that kind of attitude won't help him provide for his sister's future.
"It's more something I know I have to do," Robinson said. "There's not an 'if, and, or but' about it. I wake up in the morning and know that I have to get better, just because I have no choice. I have to do this for my family. It's something that's instilled in me. I don't have to repeat it to myself. I know how it is."
Those responsibilities made Robinson consider leaving school after his sophomore season. Who could have blamed him? Robinson was considered a possible first-round pick, and he could have started providing financial support for his sister without fearing the risk of injury.
Robinson returned in part because he was getting mixed messages from NBA officials. There was no clear consensus on his draft stock.
"I heard all types of stuff," he said. "I heard second round. I heard lottery. I heard first round. That's not good, to not know."
Robinson decided he'd better off if he returned for at least one more season, refined his skills and made sure he'd go in the lottery whenever he entered the draft.
Kansas needs a breakthrough season from Robinson because it heads into the 2011-12 season with a severe lack of proven performers. Here's a rundown of everyone on the 2010-11 Kansas roster who averaged at least five minutes per game. Returning players are in bold.
He didn't want to be a guy who relied solely on his extraordinary athleticism. Robinson knew that part of his game could only take him so far, particularly now that he was preparing to become the main focus of opposing teams' scouting reports.
The difference already is obvious to teammates. It soon will become apparent to the rest of the nation.
"His work ethic is unbelievable," Taylor said. "He's been in the gym so much working on every aspect of his game. ... He's not just an athlete. He's not just a run-around, high-energy guy. He's a player now. He's got skills, back-to-the-basket moves, things like that.
"I'm excited for him. I think he's going to have a great year. He's got to be that All-America type of player for us to win games."
This wouldn't be the first time a Kansas frontcourt player has made that kind of leap from one season to the next. Cole Aldrich played just 8.3 minutes per game during the Jayhawks' 2008 national championship season before averaging a double-double and earning All-Big 12 honors in 2009 for a Kansas team that was just as inexperienced as this one. Self has made Aldrich references while explaining what he needs to see from Robinson this season.
"We're counting on him to play at a high level among the nation's elite," Self said. "That's what the best players do at good programs. Certainly, Thomas is one of our best players."
Improving his game has meant expanding his game. Not only has Robinson worked on his post moves, he also has tried developing an outside shot. That's a radical move for someone who didn't attempt a single 3-pointer in his first two seasons at Kansas. In his first exhibition Tuesday, Robinson had 22 points and 12 rebounds but was 0-of-2 from 3-point range in 28 minutes as the Jayhawks breezed to a 101-52 victory over Fort Hays (Kan.) State.
"Don't get me wrong," Robinson said. "I'm not trying to turn into a perimeter player. ... I know my bread and butter is in the paint. That's where I'm going to be. But don't be surprised if you catch me [on the perimeter]."
A look at Kansas' roster underscores how Robinson's importance to the team.
Kansas doesn't return anyone who had a scoring average in double figures last season. Taylor's the only player who made as many as six starts. The departed Morris twins averaged a combined 30.8 points and 15.9 rebounds last season. Robinson is the only frontcourt player on the roster who averaged more than 6.2 minutes per game last season.
Yet even with all that inexperience, Kansas was picked as a co-favorite with Texas A&M in the Big 12's preseason media poll of the conference's head coaches.
This team is reminiscent of the 2009 group that went 27-8 and reached the Sweet Sixteen despite losing virtually all its key players from the 2008 national championship squad. That team overachieved largely because of big seasons from Sherron Collins and Aldrich. This team won't win the Big 12 unless Robinson delivers an Aldrich-type breakthrough performance.
"He's been a great bonus," Self said. "He's been the icing, so to speak, the dessert. Now he's got to be the main course."
So it's a good thing Robinson is hungrier than ever.