KU fans watch the Jayhawks take on the Cowboys at Power & Light District in Kansas City
With the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City, Jayhawk fans crowded into the Power & Light district for its Fan Fest. The game was broadcast on multiple TVs and many of the nearby bars opened early.
Kansas City, Mo. Shortly before opening tip of Thursday’s Big 12 quarterfinal against Oklahoma State, Kansas University junior forward Marcus Morris received his Big 12 Player of the Year hardware and an ovation from the Sprint Center crowd. It didn’t take him long to show the many reasons nobody else came close to deserving it.
First KU possession, Morris executed his half of a pick-and-roll perfectly and found himself alone for an easy bucket, but Tyrel Reed never looked his way and sent a pass in the opposite direction.
Next time down, Brady Morningstar fed Morris for a dunk. Instead of thumping his chest, barking at the opposition, or otherwise acting as if he hadn’t been there before, he hustled to get back on defense and quickly got a deflection.
Then he picked up a long rebound on a Tyrel Reed miss, took a couple of dribbles and nailed a mid-range jumper.
Next possession, Morris took a couple of dribbles toward the left block, baiting his defender into retreat mode and then executed his signature turn-around jumper. The game was not yet six minutes old and Morris had six points, staking KU to an early three-point lead.
He came ready to play. As the rest of the team showed, this had all the elements for a perfect storm of flat play out of the chute. The No. 1 seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament already had been locked up. Just two-and-a-half weeks earlier, Kansas had destroyed the Cowboys by 27 points. Early tipoff times sometimes can throw college basketball players’ clocks out of whack.
Not that Morris played mistake-free basketball during the opening stretch — keeping too close an eye on the rest of the floor to see where help might be needed resulted in him losing his man on a cut to the hoop, plus he put up a long shot too early in the clock — but he did stand out by not looking as if he left his energy in the locker room.
Mario Little’s key plays at crunch time enabled Kansas to avert an embarrassing loss with a 63-62 victory, but if not for Morris having his head in the game in the first half when most of his teammates looked atypically lost, Little might never have had a chance to win it.
KU’s 41-35 halftime deficit could have been so much bigger if not for Morris scoring 12 of his 16 points before intermission. Keeping Kansas close, Morris took his man outside and beat him off the dribble for bucket and got another one with a weak-side offensive board off a Thomas Robinson miss.
In a second half that wasn’t much better for Kansas, Oklahoma State stayed in the game until the end. With KU up 55-54, Morris took the charge and the Oscar, flying to the floor to get the whistle against Matt Pilgrim, the wide-body who doesn’t have nearly as much subtlety to his game as Morris.
Later, at the other end, with the shot clock ready to expire, Morris made himself available for a pass and went up for a three-pointer that gave him his only second-half field goal and a 58-55 lead.
By day’s end, the Big 12 Player of the Year had himself 11 rebounds, nine off the offensive glass.
Trapping the post, Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford dared KU’s guards to beat the Cowboys. Despite all the wide-open looks, the normally reliable tandem of Reed and Brady Morningstar couldn’t get shots to drop, combining to going a combined 2-for-14 from long distance on a day Kansas made just five of 25 three-pointers.
It’s such a nice luxury to have on a college basketball team, a power forward who consistently can be counted on to score and do so much more. Morris, as easy to take for granted as 30-victory seasons for Kansas, has scored in double figures in 21 consecutive games, dating all the way back to the first game after his ejection in Berkeley.
Morris had his shot blocked by Markel Brown, who reacted as if he had just won a professional wrestling match, standing over the fallen Morris to bark down at him. Technical foul. As has so often been the case of late, Morris kept his cool and his man lost his.
“One got a technical talking trash,” Morris said. “He was filling the shoes when I get my technical fouls.”
Morris joked about it, which shows he now knows getting the last word is beneath a player with such a mature game.
“That could be a game-changer at any time,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t respond.”
It was far from Morris’ best game of the year, but it wasn’t one of his worst, either. As a team, KU couldn’t have played much worse and still won, which is to Colorado’s disadvantage today. Kansas will play with a sharper edge.
Morris likely again will show why he earned Player of the Year honors.
“I was excited,” Morris said of being presented the award, “but I’d rather hold up a championship trophy than a Player of the Year trophy. I dedicate that to my teammates, and they’ve been with me all year.”