LAWRENCE — Kansas guard Brady Morningstar won't acknowledge what the eye can plainly see: The Jayhawks needed him to come back from his first-semester suspension in order to take the next step as a team.
"I don't know," Morningstar said. "I think they were doing fine without me."
Sure, No. 1 KU was doing fine. It was piling up easy victories as Morningstar sat on the bench and mulled over his October arrest on suspicion of drunken driving. But the Jayhawks were far from dominant. Something was missing, and that something appears to be Morningstar, whose return Dec. 19 against Michigan has coincided with the Jayhawks' best stretch of the young season.
Last weekend against then-No. 18 Temple in Philadelphia, the Jayhawks blew out the Owls 84-52 — the largest margin of victory for KU in a true road game during the Bill Self era. In 16 minutes off the bench, Morningstar had 5 assists, no turnovers and swished his only shot, a transition three-pointer.
"I'm just making the game easier for a lot of guys and helping them out," Morningstar said, "because I've been here for four years now. I know how Coach wants us to play and how he wants us to execute things. It's coming easier than it has been."
The Jayhawks, who bring a 13-0 record into tonight's game against Cornell, have noticed the difference with Morningstar in the lineup. KU forward Marcus Morris came away from the California game crediting Morningstar — he had 7 assists and no turnovers — for Kansas' ability to pull away for a 84-69 victory.
"I feel like he makes all the right plays," Morris said. "I know no one is perfect, but I feel like Brady makes all the right plays. I feel like Brady is making our team a whole lot better."
Morris said the key for Morningstar is his willingness to find windows to pass the ball inside. While other guards may hesitate for fear of having the ball stolen, Morningstar is able to position himself in the right place to make the post-entry pass.
"I know how frustrating it can be if the bigs are open and (the guards) can't get the ball to them," Morningstar said.
Morningstar, a redshirt junior, leads KU in assists per game with 4.3 in only 19 minutes per game. Last season, in 30 minutes per game, he averaged 2.6. Thus far, Morningstar appears to be benefiting from having more talent around him and playing less minutes.
"Coming off the bench, you can see the first couple of minutes of the game," Morningstar said, "see how it's going to be played, see who does what. It's easy to come in there and make plays happen. The game comes a little slower."
Self said Morningstar has shown himself to still be KU's best perimeter defender, and Self is hoping that a more well-rested Morningstar will benefit his defense as well.
"Anybody that plays less minutes probably has an opportunity to be better defensively," Self said. "They should be juiced. He knows he's probably not gonna play extended minutes like he did last year. There's no reason he should even think about resting defensively."
Defense and looking out for his teammates on the offensive end have been Morningstar's focus. A reliable three-point shooter, he has taken only six threes, making three.
"He's not going to shoot the ball a lot, but he's an opportunistic shooter," Self said. "He just makes our team better. I think our guys really enjoy playing with him."
As the Jayhawks make their way into Big 12 play next week, they will be counting on Morningstar to continue filling what has become a much-needed role.
"I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing," Morningstar said, "just going out there and playing ball, making my teammates better. It's about learning the game, just knowing how to play."