New-look Kansas is brash and bold

SAN ANTONIO – One win away from the Final Four, Kansas coach Bill Self is worried about his team’s reputation. Or at least that’s how it sounded after the Jayhawks humiliated Richmond 77-57 Friday at the Alamodome.

Bill Self has remade his team into a bruising powerhouse that is rolling through the NCAA tournament.
(Eric Gay/AP)

Self is steamed about a newspaper article that detailed some pregame trash talk that occurred between Marcus Morris and a Richmond player in an arena corridor the day before the game. Marcus’ twin brother, Markieff, instigated a similar encounter with Texas players during the Big 12 tournament.

“Our media made a big deal out of nothing,” said Self, who must not have seen Marcus Morris’ quotes about his intent to “play little mind games” with Kansas’ opponents.

Self also tried to downplay the shoving match that broke out in the Alamodome tunnel Friday as the Jayhawks squeezed past a huddle of Richmond’s players who were blocking their path toward the court.

“There wasn’t [an altercation],” said Self, who must not have been aware that the skirmish was shown on national TV. It also was the reason Self instructed his team to remain on the floor until Richmond’s entire team had exited the court.

“It wasn’t anything,” the coach said.

Self is making all the right remarks. He can’t publicly condone some of the shenanigans that have taken place before recent games. And any coach would get defensive amid an attack on his players’ character.

Still, whether it was intended or not, the Jayhawks have sculpted a new and somewhat daring image: They’re brash and bold, intimidators and instigators – the bad boys of the NCAA tournament.

It couldn’t be working any better.

Just ask the Spiders, who looked shell-shocked in a game the Jayhawks led by as many as 25 points.

“We had to show them that they’re Richmond and we’re Kansas,” guard Elijah Johnson said, and as cocky as that statement may sound, the swagger is refreshing.

With as many as five future NBA draft picks in its rotation, Kansas is one of the most talented teams remaining in the NCAA tournament. The Jayhawks’ mental frame, though, may put them over the top. It’s a type of confidence that has been missing from Kansas teams of the past.

The Jayhawks (35-2) won the NCAA title in 2008. But before that, they’d endured first-round losses to Bucknell and Bradley in 2005 and ’06, respectively. And who could forget last season’s second-round setback against Northern Iowa?

More times than not, a spectacular season under Self has ended prematurely because Kansas tightened up against an inferior opponent in the NCAA tournament.

Not this season.

The tone was set early Friday. Shortly before tipoff, instead of waiting for Richmond’s players to break their huddle in Alamodome’s narrow tunnel, the Jayhawks tried to squeeze by the Spiders. Shoving and shouting ensued as Kansas’ players bumped into some of their opponents.

“They were taking a little too long,” point guard Tyshawn Taylor said, “so we pushed our way through.”

Markieff Morris: “We were trying to get out to warm up and they wouldn’t let us out. We exchanged a few words and kept moving. If they let that get into their heads, then that’s [their fault].”

That certainly appeared to be the case.

So incensed was Richmond that the Spiders declined to meet Kansas’ players at midcourt for the customary, pregame handshakes. Once the game started, Chris Mooney’s squad appeared rattled from the opening tip. Normally one of the nation’s top 3-point shooting teams, Richmond went just 4-of-26 from beyond the arc.

Both verbally and physically, Kansas had bullied Richmond. The Spiders may not have been scared, but they sure looked like it.

“I didn’t think it was anything crazy,” Kansas guard Tyrel Reed said. “It was just guys exchanging words. There was some shoving and whatnot. I just tried to grab the guys and say, ‘Let’s go. Let’s get through this.’

“I like that our guys are confident. I enjoy that they really want to win. But we shouldn’t be talking and doing those kinds of things. We should let our play do the talking.”

It certainly did, as Kansas went on a 21-2 run midway through the first half and never looked back. Brady Morningstar scored eight consecutive points during the march and Josh Selby came off the bench to swish back-to-back 3-pointers.

The biggest star of the night was reserve forward Thomas Robinson, who had 12 points and 14 rebounds in just 16 minutes. It was a complete annihilation from start to finish, and Morningstar let the Spiders know it when he taunted them after a 3-pointer early in the second half.

Morningstar, who finished with 18 points, was whistled for a technical foul, and Self responded with the obligatory scowl from the sideline. Deep down, though, it was hard not to wonder how deep the coach’s anger truly ran. Morningstar – and the Jayhawks – seem to be at their best when they play with that kind of braggadocio.

Asked if the pregame altercation ignited the Jayhawks, Morningstar said, “That’s sports for you. Teams get excited to play in the big game. It’s high energy. It translates on the court.”

He paused.

“It’s probably not something you should do every game, though,” he said.

Whether the Jayhawks carry the same type of swagger into Sunday’s Elite Eight showdown against Virginia Commonwealth remains to be seen. As if the Final Four wasn’t a big enough motivator, Self’s players are looking for any type of extra edge they can get.

That includes derogatory signs they may see in the stands and any negative comment they may read in the newspaper – or hear on TV. Several of the Jayhawks were watching Friday when Rick Pitino, who is serving as a guest TV analyst during the tournament, predicted that Kansas would lose to Richmond.

Pitino - whose Louisville squad lost in the first round of the tournament to Morehead State - also insinuated that the Morris twins lacked “killer instinct.”

“We have killer instinct,” Markieff Morris said after the game. “We definitely want to try to beat everybody like we did today. We got them down early and we kept them down. I don’t care about getting 30 points and 20 rebounds. I’m going to play with my team, and we’re definitely going to try to play hard and win every game.”

Then came this dagger.

“Not to be disrespectful to Coach Pitino or anything, but we’re still playing,” Morris said.

Yes, even a future Hall-of-Fame coach with an NCAA title on his resume isn’t off-limits to a verbal jab from a Kansas player. It’s a new look for the Jayhawks.

And it suits them well.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Mar 26, 2011