LAS VEGAS | During five easy victories against no-name programs to begin the season, the Kansas Jayhawks established that they were going to follow Marcus Morris.
So when Morris picked up his fourth foul with 16 minutes left and the Arizona Wildcats took their first lead minutes later, it became clear that many of the early questions about this team would find their early answers on Saturday night at Orleans Arena.
Could Tyshawn Taylor run the show when it mattered? Could the Jayhawks get enough stops against a team led by an NBA talent like Arizona forward Derrick Williams? Where would the scoring come from?
KU coach Bill Self, seeing his team challenged for the first time, liked what he saw. The Jayhawks escaped the iBN Sports Las Vegas Invitational with an 87-79 victory over the Wildcats with six players scoring in double figures.
“I think they showed real courage to get in there and compete with those guys,” Morris said. “Every huddle I just pulled them together and said, ‘Finish the game out.’ There’s gonna be other games when I get in foul trouble. It’s gonna have to happen other times.”
KU led 51-46 when Morris exited the game and had maintained a 63-60 lead when he returned, showing that the Jayhawks are far from a one-man show. In fact, it could be argued after Saturday that KU’s bench players could outplay its starters on any given night.
Sophomore Thomas Robinson had 14 points, including six in a row during a crucial stretch when the Jayhawks built their lead to seven. Mario Little scored five points to calm Arizona’s second-half surge. And, in the first half, when it seemed like KU was clearly the better team, Travis Releford paced the Jayhawks with 10.
“It’s a different deal than it was last year,” Self said. “I thought they stepped up and made some plays. We played our experience down the stretch. Certainly, those guys bailed us out.”
The starters did their part, too, in bringing the Jayhawks back to Lawrence 6-0. Morris, named the invitational’s MVP, led KU with 16 points and nine rebounds. Brother Markieff, who was also was saddled with foul trouble, scored six points in the final seven minutes and finished with 15. Tyrel Reed had 13, and Taylor overcame a sluggish start with 10 points and seven assists.
“I thought he was bad the first 25 minutes,” Self said, “and thought he was great down the stretch.”
Taylor authored the game’s signature moment – a lob in transition that Robinson flushed down with one hand to give the Jayhawks a 71-65 lead and send thousands of KU fans into hysterics.
“I don’t know how he caught that one,” Self said. “That wasn’t a great pass, but that was a big-time play.”
Kansas proved that it is more than Marcus Morris, and it will likely end up in the top five because of it. Arizona had a great effort from Williams – 27 points and eight rebounds – but didn’t have the supporting cast. Williams picked up his fifth foul with 2:27 left.
“He’s a pro,” Self said. “One of the big keys to the game was their big guy fouled out and ours didn’t. He’s terrific. I don’t think anybody would argue the point he was the best player on the floor.”
The Jayhawks had plenty of motivation for this one. You have to remember that, back when Self was first beginning to form this incarnation of the Jayhawks, a veteran Arizona team showed the core of this Kansas team a thing or two. In Dec. 2008, Taylor, the Morris twins, Reed and Brady Morningstar fell to the Wildcats 84-67 in Tucson. Based on that, KU was looking at this as a payback game.
Something must have been driving the Jayhawks, because they played like a team with a chip on its shoulder during the first 10 minutes. The Morris twins got hot early, putting in a low-post clinic on the way to a combined 16 points in the first half. Kansas led 31-15 with more than 10 minutes on the clock and looked as if it could hit 60 by halftime.
Of course, Miller’s young Arizona team has more mettle than that, and it also has one of the top big men in the country in Williams, who had 13 first-half points with his strong inside-out game. Arizona point guard Kyle Fogg, normally a starter, came off the bench and delivered with three 3-pointers. The Wildcats made six of 11 threes as a team and clawed their way back to within 44-39 at halftime.
“We were so good early,” Self said. “But when you make shots, the tendency is to relax defensively, and we did that very well. It was good for us to get behind in the second half and see what we’re made of.”
Kansas may have struggled at times Saturday, but it is worth noting that freshman guard Josh Selby, the nation’s No. 1 recruit according to Rivals.com, did not make the trip to Sin City as he serves his nine-game suspension for accepting impermissible benefits. The Jayhawks will get even deeper as a team when Selby returns for Southern California on Dec. 18.