On to the Sweet 16!

TULSA, Okla. – Kansas shook off a tough Illinois squad Sunday night, punching its ticket to the Sweet 16 - and a date with the Richmond Spiders - with a 73-59 victory.

Eight years is a long time.

That was the response of Kansas head coach Bill Self during the past 48 hours, whenever the subject of his time at the University of Illinois would arise.

And arise it did. Frequently.

A past master at dealing with the media and the bright spotlight that comes with sitting in the head chair at the table on Mount Oread, Self would just shrug it off. To hear him tell it, the chance to beat his old school was no motivation whatsoever.

But his players knew better. They knew of the mock funeral his replacement in Champaign, Ill. - current Illini head coach Bruce Weber - held for him in 2003, as a way to combat constant comparisons to Self. They knew that, in the words of senior Tyrel Reed, things at Illinois ended on something of a sour note.

So before Friday's third-round NCAA match-up at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., the players got together and decided they were going to win this one for him.

"He was going to downplay it as much as he could," said Reed, smiling. "But deep down at the core, we know what kind of a guy Coach Self is. And it meant a lot to him."

Led by the play of Marcus and Markieff Morris in the post and Tyshawn Taylor on the perimeter, the Jayhawks dispatched a persistent Illini squad 73-59, to improve their record to 34-2 on the season and advance to next week's San Antonio regional.

"Loose" has been something of a buzzword around the Kansas basketball team this week, used to describe the mindset of the players and coaches heading into tournament play. But in Friday's win over 16-seed Boston University the Jayhawks looked anything but, before turning a tight game at half into a second-half blowout, 72-53.

Sunday night was a different story, however, and it was evident from the opening tip. The defense was suffocating, the offense clicking and the lobs for alley-oop dunks? Well, they were plentiful.

Most encouraging for Kansas fans should be that Illinois refused to go quietly for most of the game. Every time the Jayhawks made a run and seemed on the verge of blowing the doors open, someone in Orange and Blue would hit a big shot. Senior forward Mike Davis was outstanding, scoring 17 points and pulling down 17 rebounds, and reserve shooting guard D.J. Richardson wasn't far behind - tacking on 15 points of his own including a trio of big three pointers.

At half-time the Jayhawks held a 33-29 advantage - ironically the same score at intermission of Friday's game - but the entire atmosphere felt different. There was no tightness, no forcing of bad shots.

The referees swallowed their whistles for much of the game, calling 29 total fouls, and Kansas relished the opportunity to simply go out and play.

"Coach Self did a good job of staying in our minds," Reed explained. "'Hey, we've gotta be the aggressor, the team taking it at them.' By doing that you don't play tight and you keep playing loose, and I think that was the key to this game."

The Twins in particular seemed to thrive without the weight of foul trouble around their necks. Marcus - who was not called for a single foul on the night - scored 17 points and grabbed 12 boards. But it was Markieff who managed to steal the show Sunday night, scoring a game high 24 points (on 10-of-13 shooting) and pulling down 12 rebounds of his own.

"To me, Kieff is the best thing that we have on the team," his brother said. "A lot of people look to me as a leader, but I look to Kieff as a leader. The things he does on the court definitely changes games and it opens it up for a lot of people."

Just as important, however, was Taylor. With the Illini guards unable to stay in front of him on the offensive end, his ability to put pressure on the defense opened up numerous opportunities - both for himself and his teammates.

When Taylor committed his second foul with 10:03, Self made the decision to sit him for the rest of the half - and the offense went stagnant as a result, allowing the Illini to make a run and close the gap to within four points, when the Jayhawks had been up by as many as 11.

"Our whole deal was drive it, drive it, drive it," Self said. "Which forced help and allowed (the Twins) to get touches. So I think the guards deserve as much credit as those two playing through them, because they're the ones that forced the help."

Taylor, who scored 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting and dished out four assists, in addition to his work on the defensive end, has said frequently in the past that he plays best when he plays confidently.

What's his confidence like right now?

"Sky high," he said. "I'm out there having fun. I'm just playing. Coach wants me to be aggressive, he wants me to push the tempo and that's the kind of game that I ike to play, so that's exactly what I'm doing. And it's working for us as a team."

Still, Illinois refused to go away. Every time Kansas pushed the lead higher, they responded - but the Jayhawks responded, too. With just under four minutes to go in the game, the Illini finally cracked.

A thunderous dunk by Markieff Morris pushed the lead to double digits, 62-51, and that was, as the cliche goes, all she wrote.

Next up for Kansas? A date with a surprising Richmond team on Friday night in San Antonio. The 12-seed Spiders dispatched Vanderbilt and Morehead State to earn a trip to the Sweet 16, and a showdown with the Southwest region's top-seeded team.

Though the specter of Northern Iowa has been banished, the Jayhawks aren't quick to forget the lessons that disappointing loss taught them.

"Richmond is good," Taylor said. "We know that. We've seen them play twice already, and they've beaten two good teams, so we've got to come out ready to play. We can't look past anybody and take anybody lightly, because that's how we got sent home early last year."


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