Jayhawks find their swagger in March

SAN ANTONIO, Texas – If they're feeling polite, opposing fans might call it arrogance. The Kansas faithful probably see it as confidence, or maybe even cockiness. The Jayhawks themselves know it as swagger. However one defines it, the new attitude infusing the Kansas team is working - and at exactly the right time.

As a lifelong devotee to the fine art of the comic book, I couldn't help but be reminded of one of Stan Lee's finest in the wake of Kansas' resounding 77-57 Friday night victory over Richmond in the Sweet 16.

"Hulk Smash."

I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like the transformation that has overcome Head Coach Bill Self's squad since a Mar. 12 revenge victory over Texas in the Big 12 Tournament championship game.

Kansas has been one of the most talented teams in the country - maybe the most talented - all season long. That much gets taken for granted. But it's like something in them snapped prior to that pasting of the Longhorns in Kansas City, and they suddenly realized how good they could be if they simply...let go.

Suddenly, the Jayhawks were packing 10 pounds of attitude in a five pound bag - and backing it up. They began to carry themselves as if they believed to the core of their being they are the best team in the country. They're aggressive, they're arrogant. And when they're dialed in like this, they're a whirlwind of destruction.

If that sounds overly dramatic (and it probably is - I'm feeling a little whimsical tonight) - consider this:

Marcus and Markieff Morris played well below their usual level against the Spiders, the 12-seed in the Southwest region. Markieff played just 17 minutes, grabbed six rebounds and had almost as many fouls (3) as points (5). Marcus was a little better, scoring 13 points and hauling in 7 boards, but still below his season average.

And when Markieff picked up his second foul of the first half with 15:02 left on the clock, Kansas chose that moment to blow the game wide open.

Just think about that for a second. Brady Morningstar exploded for 18 points, while Thomas Robinson turned in a double-double with 12 points and 14 boards. Josh Selby added nine points of his own with a trio of big three-pointers. With one of their best players on the bench and the other playing pedestrian basketball by his standards, other components of the machine stepped up and the Jayhawks actually got better.

Heading into this game, I admit, I considered it to be something of a class trap; an Admiral Ackbar special. I wondered what the motivation would be. Where would it come from?

Against the Longhorns, one of two teams to defeat Kansas this season, revenge was the clear motive. Not much in the way of motivation was needed to defeat 16-seed Boston University in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but the Jayhawks played a fired-up second half to ensure a blowout win anyway. Two days later, they won one for Self against Illinois - the team he left to claim his place at the head of the Kansas table.

But this was Richmond. Sure, the Spiders beat Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse back in 2003, but not even Brady Morningstar was a part of that team. They run the Princeton offense, with all its backdoor cuts and screens. They pass well. They shoot the three extraordinarily well.

All it takes is one game in March, and I thought the Jayhawks might be in danger of listening to the media and believing their road to Houston to be gilded and strewn with rose petals.

I was wrong, and here's why: This particular iteration of Kansas basketball has found a way to manufacture its own motivation in the absence of any external influence.

While heading to a Thursday media session at the Alamodome, Marcus Morris passed a couple of Richmond players in the hallway, and told them they'd "better be ready." Then, with emotions and adrenaline obviously running hot, a pre-game scuffle ensued in the tunnel leading to the court.

They didn't know it at the time, because it's unlikely they believed themselves to be as physically outclassed as they were, but that dust-up was a huge tactical error on behalf of the Spiders. Because a talented team is bad, and a motivated team is often worse. Combine the two within this Kansas team, and one gets...well...the Incredible Hulk of the hardwood.

Though the Morris Brothers may have tossed the first salvo, that truth gets lost in the shuffle of what follows. Trash talking is as much a part of basketball as Missouri's perpetual youth and Jim Boeheim complaining about the unfair nature of the Big Dance, but the Twins don't just shrug it off like they tried for so long to do.

Now, they revel in it. They feed off it, and with each back-and-forth the furnace grows hotter for Kansas, as the other players are in turn fed by the emotions of the Twins.

Where no obvious motivation may have existed before, suddenly the Jayhawks resemble nothing so much as a ravening horde out for blood. They are no longer content to simply beat you. They want to dominate you and then tell you all about it for 40 minutes.

Is there danger that it could boil over at a critical moment? Certainly. Morningstar's technical was probably the easiest call that particular official has made all season long. Mere moments after he and Richmond guard Kevin Smith were taken aside and warned that things were getting too hot, Morningstar splashed a deep three in Smith's grill and immediately let the verbal abuse fly – right in front of the Kansas bench, Self and the official, who took all of about half a second to nail him with a technical foul.

Afterward, Kansas players shied away from any real concern that their new aggressive approach would ever get seriously out of hand. They say they act as checks on each other and, failing that, Self has them all under control.

If that's true - and I have no reason to doubt its veracity - then it's hard not to imagine this team as the prohibitive favorite to cut down the nets a week from Monday at Reliant Stadium.

First thing is first, however. Now only the 11-seed VCU Rams, winners in an overtime thriller over Florida State on Friday night, bar the way to Self's second Final Four in four seasons.

And maybe Shaka Smart's boys find a way to win. It seems unlikely, but everything about VCU is unlikely right now. To this point, they've been brushed by fate, much like Davidson was in 2008. They may not have a Stephen Curry, but they play a fast tempo and are a strong shooting team.

One thing I won't wonder about come Sunday afternoon, however, is whether or not Kansas will be motivated. I know better by now.


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