Morris ready for spot in the limelight

Last season, Marcus Morris emerged as one of the most talented big men not only in the Big 12 Conference, but in the entire country. With the start of the season just weeks away, the versatile power forward is set to help fill the void created by the departure of Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins – in both production and leadership.

The night is pleasantly cool in the late hours of March 27, 2009, as Andrea Hudy climbs onto the bus waiting outside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Hudy is the strength and conditioning coach for the University of Kansas men's basketball team and she – like the thousands of fans packed into the arena and millions of viewers across the country – had just watched her team surrender a 13-point first half lead to the Michigan State Spartans in a highly-touted Sweet 16 tilt.

When the clock hit zero with the Spartans up 67-62, the door officially closed on the Jayhawks' 2008-2009 season. Most would consider an appearance in the Sweet 16 the final chapter of a successful year, but this is Kansas, and nowhere are expectations higher.

As she settles into her seat and glances at her cell phone, Hudy notices she has two text messages waiting to be read. They are from Marcus and Markieff Morris, highly-touted twin freshmen power forwards, both of whom were major contributors throughout the season.

The Twins knew what they had to do to get themselves to the next level, she explained, and the key was dedication. They wanted to dedicate themselves to improving on the court and becoming leaders – to commit to both the weight room and the classroom.

They knew what they had to do, and they wanted Hudy to help get them there.

"I think they grew up a lot," she said. "That was a terrible loss. I think they grew up in all aspects of college life or young adulthood."

In a lot of ways, that text message was the first indication that Marcus Morris was up to something big.

•••

By the time the Jayhawks rolled into Austin, Texas on February 8, most Kansas fans knew what they had in Morris.

The 6-foot-8 sophomore had transformed himself as a basketball player in the off-season. He packed on 15 pounds of muscle in the weight room, and he refined his skills on the court.

A thunderous dunk on a fast break during the second exhibition contest of the season had fans sitting up a little straighter in their seats when Morris touched the ball. He looked bigger, faster, more athletic and, perhaps most importantly, more confident.

But it wasn't until the Jayhawks faced-off against Michigan on December 19 that those flashes of brilliance coalesced into something consistent. He poured in 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against the Wolverines. Three nights later against California, he scored 14 points and snagged seven rebounds, while playing 31 minutes.

There were ups and downs, but by the time conference play began in January it was clear to anyone with a pulse that Morris was a different player. He tabbed 19 points and seven rebounds against Nebraska in the conference opener, and outplayed Iowa State star Craig Brackins head-to-head in Ames on January 23.

In arguably the most highly-publicized game of the season, the annual tilt versus Kansas State at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, he posted a double-double in helping the Jayhawks to a thrilling overtime victory.

What was the difference? Where had this dangerous and versatile talent come from, seemingly overnight?

Ask Morris himself, and he'll say the answer is simple. To him, it's all about maturity.

"I was far along mentally my freshman year," he said. "I knew what to do, and I knew what I had to do. It's just about doing it and doing it the right way. I felt that getting stronger and getting in better shape, putting the time in, would just do it for me."

The off-season workouts were unlike anything he had ever experienced. Together, he and Markieff awoke early, day after day, for for lifting sessions or extra running.

It wasn't easy, but as fitness guru Tony Horton would put it, they found the dedication "just keep showing up" – because improvement doesn't come without a price.

"Coming in and lifting weights and running every day was a big change, a big jump," Morris said. "It's basically about sacrifice. The maturity level goes up the longer you're in college."

Hudy saw them transforming into leaders, a role with which they have only grown more comfortable this off-season.

"I think that loss against Michigan State really was a statement in terms of how much growth they could actually have," she added. "I think it was a turning point for them."

But all the long hours and sacrifice paid off in a big way. Fifteen pounds heavier and now more able to bang down low with the big boys of the Big 12, Morris was still more agile and sure-handed with the basketball. His confidence in his abilities and in his teammates overflowed, and it showed with his play on the court.

The way Morris figures it, it wasn't until the Texas game that people outside of Lawrence really started paying attention to what he was doing. In leading the Jayhawks to a primetime victory over the Longhorns on ESPN's Big Monday, Morris had gone blow-for-blow with one of the best players in the entire country in Damion James.

Though talking heads in the media began to paint him as one of the most improved and talented big men in the country, Morris shrugged it off. They still had work to do.

***

Everyone knows how the 2009-2010 season ended at this point. A Number One seed in the NCAA tournament and national championship aspirations fell in the second round to the Northern Iowa Panthers and an onslaught of improbably three-pointers. Jayhawk fans will likely rue the name of senior point guard Ali Farokhmanesh until another national championship trophy adorns the Booth Family Hall of Athletics.

For Marcus and Markieff Morris, Tyshawn Taylor, Tyrel Reed, Brady Morningstar and the rest of the team, this off-season has been more of the same. Countless hours spent in the weight room and on the basketball court trying to sweat away the memory of their 69-67 season-ending defeat.

Gone are Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich and Xavier Henry, and with them much of the Jayhawks' name recognition nationally. The perception among many is that Kansas basketball simply won't be as talented this season as in years past.

However, Morris' sophomore campaign was impressive enough to earn him an invite to a number of prestigious summer camps – the LeBron James Nike Skills Academy and Adidas Nations, for example. And he racked up the frequent flyer miles with the goal of proving that perception is not always reality; that the Collins and Aldrich may be gone, but the Jayhawks are still a force to be reckoned with.

Well, consider the mission a success.

Joined by Taylor, Thomas Robinson and Josh Selby in August, the Twins put on a show at the culminating event of Adidas Nations in Chicago. Against some of the top college basketball players in the country, the brothers – particularly Marcus – drew rave reviews for their versatility and athleticism.

Posting live to his Twitter account from the event, Jonathan Givony of Draft Express, a well-respected NBA Draft and talent scouting Web publication, had this to say about Marcus' play:

"Marcus Morris is going to have a great season for Kansas. He's so polished and has improved his basketball IQ significantly. Does everything."

Still, Morris shrugs off the praise. Last season, defenses were forced to focus on Aldrich inside, which allowed him the freedom to frequently operate in one-on-one situations.

He knows this, but also relishes the opportunity to prove himself – and not for the reasons one might expect. With him, it's not about scoring more points or improving his NBA Draft stock.

It's about finding a way to help the team win. Unlike Aldrich, Morris plays as much away from the basket as he does on the block, which means if he's being double teamed "somebody has gotta be open."

"And I'm not a selfish player," he explained. "All I do is worry about wanting to win, no matter how many points I score, who scores what. As long as we're winning and we keep getting better as a team, that's what really matters."

It's going to be an interesting season for Kansas fans, as they adjust to life without Aldrich and without Collins – a force of nature on the court, unquestioned leader in the locker room and the face of the Kansas program for the past two seasons.

But Morris isn't worried. He knows what he and his teammates are capable of.

They're bigger. Through work and dedication in the weight room, virtually every member of the team has packed on quality weight and muscle. Marcus is up to 235 pounds. Markieff tips the scales at 245, and sophomore center Jeff Withey – once a rail thin, 210-pound seven-footer – is up to 235 as well.

They're more athletic. In testing vertical leap recently, five Jayhawks measured an "approach" vertical – a test similar to that administered at the NBA combine – of more than 40-inches. According to Hudy, a handful of team members are capable of hang-cleaning more than 300 pounds, a remarkable testament to their explosion and strength.

And the expectations?

"A national championship," Morris said. "Nothing less. That's my expectation."


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