AUSTIN, Texas – Long before the final horn sounded in Monday's 80-68 victory over Texas, the top-ranked Kansas Jayhawks sat on the Frank Erwin Center bench and breathed a sigh of relief.
Star forward Marcus Morris had just returned to the floor from the training room, and he had some good news about his dislocated middle finger: Yes, he had torn some ligaments. But, no, the injury wouldn't keep him off the court.
"I can't really feel it," said Morris, who was wearing a splint after the game. "It's not going to stop me from playing."
Losing its top player would be a massive blow to the country's No. 1 team. And make no mistake: That's exactly what Morris has become for Kansas. Point guard Sherron Collins is the vocal leader who takes the big shots, and center Cole Aldrich is the future NBA lottery pick. But no Jayhawk is performing as well as Morris, who had 18 points and eight rebounds against the Longhorns.
"Marcus Morris isn't just one of the best players in the league," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "He's one of the best players in the country."
Morris probably won't contend for All-American honors. Heck, with high-profile names such as Collins and Aldrich in the mix, he may not even make All-Big 12. But anyone who follows Kansas basketball realizes the Jayhawks wouldn't be 23-1 overall and 9-0 in the conference standings without the 6-foot-9 Morris and his twin brother, Markieff.
"They finally woke up," Collins said of the sophomores. "Coach called them out, and they responded well."
Especially Marcus, a starter who's averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds over nine conference games. No Kansas player has scored as many points in the Big 12 as Morris, and only Aldrich is averaging more rebounds (9.8).
Suddenly a Kansas squad that entered the season figuring it would rely heavily on Aldrich and Collins has morphed into one of the most balanced teams in the country. Collins and Aldrich went a combined 5-of-23 from the field against Texas on Monday – and the Jayhawks still won by 12.
At one point they were up by as many as 19.
"I'd have never thought we could've come to Texas and win and have our two best players go 5-for-23," Self said. "When you take Sherron and Cole away, someone always steps up. We played eight guys tonight and all of them performed well."
But no one impacted the game quite like Marcus Morris.
Whether it's a turnaround jumper from 10 feet, a slash to the basket for an easy layup or a putback off an offensive rebound, Morris' skill set is as versatile as it gets. He made 7-of-10 field goal attempts and also dished out four assists. On one pass, he drove into the lane before finding Brady Morningstar in the corner. Morningstar hit a 3-pointer that ignited a 22-0 Kansas run.
Self isn't ready to say this team is as good as the one that captured the national championship in 2008, but the Jayhawks could be headed down that path. Kansas is the only school from a Big Six conference with a spotless league record. If Self's squad wins its final regular-season games it will become the first major conference team since Roy Williams' 2001-02 Kansas squad to go undefeated in league play.
"People say we haven't played great," Self said. "But if you're undefeated with five road wins in a hard, hard league, you haven't played poorly.
"We don't look as pretty … as the team in 2008 did. It's not quite as fluid. But the results have been comparable. That was an NCAA tournament, muddy-type-of-game that we pieced together and won."
Monday's showdown with Texas certainly didn't live up to its preseason billing. The Jayhawks and Longhorns entered the season ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively. But Texas has floundered as of late, having lost five of its last seven.
Still, Kansas knew the Longhorns would be revved up in Austin, where the Jayhawks hadn't won since 2002. Nice as it would've been to look "pretty" and "fluid," the Jayhawks realized the main thing they needed to be was tough.
That's where Morris came in.
Other than maybe Collins, no other Jayhawks exude the same kind of reckless abandon as Morris and his brother. The twins play with a mean streak, a fearlessness that has helped shape the mentality of the entire team.
Whether it's diving for loose balls, outhustling someone for position in the paint or even talking a little smack to intimidate an opponent, the Morris twins fight until the ball is either in their hands or in the basket. In last week's victory over Colorado, Marcus Morris missed three straight shots, got his own rebound each time and then finally scored on the fourth attempt.
Collins said that kind of effort can be infectious.
"That's our whole personality," Collins said. "I think earlier in the season we were playing not to be beat as No. 1, instead of not caring about the rankings and trying to win.
"Now we're just playing to win. No one is playing selfish. Nobody is trying to be that person that says, 'I'm going to do this or do that.' We're all in it together. We've still got a long way to go."
The ride will be much more enjoyable if Marcus Morris continues to perform at such a high level. That may be difficult. Although NBA scouts and analysts are just now finding out about his abilities – he's not listed in any mocks drafts – Morris has developed quite the reputation around the league.
Just as they gear their game plans around stopping Aldrich and Collins, Big 12 opponents now realize that it's just as important to limit Morris, who is hardly getting a big head about himself or No. 1-ranked Kansas.
"I don't think we're a dominant team," he said. "We still have a lot of faults."
Maybe the Jayhawks do.
But these days it's hard to find many with Morris.