TULSA, Okla. -- One year ago, Kansas' players covered their heads in towels, drooping in the locker room after an upset loss that seemed unfathomable.
Now, they're jumping for joy.
In a bracket filled with upsets, the Jayhawks are the last favorite standing after a 73-59 win Sunday night against Illinois ensured they wouldn't make an opening-weekend exit from the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.
"Those guys have been reminded of Northern Iowa every day for the last 365 days," coach Bill Self said. "It was good to get that monkey off our back, so to speak, but there's bigger fish to fry.
"Now it's time to go play."
Twin brothers Marcus and Markieff Morris combined for 41 points and 24 rebounds, powering the Jayhawks ahead in the second half against an opponent that was no mid-major upstart. Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis both put their names into the NBA draft before returning for one last season with the senior-laden Fighting Illini (20-14), who were once ranked as high as No. 12.
The Morris twins scored 24 of Kansas' first 29 points in the second half, punctuated by consecutive two-handed slams by Markieff that made it 62-51 with 3:51 to play. After an Illinois turnover at the other end, the twins each followed Tyshawn Taylor in making leaping spins into teammates to start a timeout.
In the final minute, Self pulled his veterans, and they were able to give fist bumps to teammates all down the bench, and even the mascot.
"It feels good. It feels like we've got a lot of pressure off our shoulders," said Markieff Morris, who had 24 points and 12 rebounds. "It feels good to go to San Antonio. ... Now that we got past this weekend, we got over the hump and we're ready for next weekend."
Kansas will play 12th-seeded Richmond on Friday in the Southwest regional semifinals, which will feature No. 11 seed VCU against 10th-seeded Florida State on the other side.
"There's a reason they're in the Sweet 16," Kansas guard Tyrel Reed said. "They're good teams. It doesn't matter what the number next to them said in the beginning, they're here now."
The Jayhawks (34-2) avoided revisiting their loss to another No. 9 seed, Northern Iowa, exactly a year earlier and also on Oklahoma soil.
"I think there was a little bit of extra pressure today. I think in large part, we had the same exact record as last year, you go in as a No. 1 seed and last year's team didn't get it done," Self said. "This year's team had an opportunity to do something that last year's team didn't do."
Davis led the Fighting Illini (20-14) with 17 points, D.J. Richardson scored 15 and Mike Tisdale chipped in 13 points and 11 rebounds for Illinois. McCamey was hardly a factor, finishing with just six points and seven assists. The Illini had been 15-0 when he had at least seven assists this season.
"I think he got frustrated, he got down on himself," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "We just kept saying, 'Hang in there, hang in there, you're going to make a play.'"
McCamey didn't make his first basket of the second half until there was 2:15 left, after Markieff Morris followed his earlier throwdowns with another two-handed alley-oop slam that he had to reach down and retrieve before dunking to make it 66-51.
That completed a 10-0 surge that finally put away the Fighting Illini.
"Down the stretch, they just kind of took over. Too many dunks, too many easy shots," said Weber, who lost the first meeting between the schools since he replaced Self as Illinois' coach in 2003.
Weber had held a mock funeral in his first season with the Illini to encourage everyone in Champaign to move on after Self did exactly that.
Kansas' players noticed all the hubbub, and Marcus Morris broke the pregame huddle by telling the Jayhawks to win this one for Self. After all, Self had told the Jayhawks to win for the Morris twins when they played against Temple this season in their hometown of Philadelphia.
"I felt like we just needed to return the favor," said Marcus Morris, who had 17 points and 12 boards.
The Jayhawks raged out to an 18-6 advantage in the first 6½ minutes and didn't trail again. Markieff Morris nailed a 3-pointer from the top of the key, giving a confident nod of his head after it went through, and Reed followed with his own 3. After a timeout, Elijah Johnson skied for a two-handed throwdown of Marcus Morris' alley-oop pass and the Jayhawks were up by a dozen with 13:39 still left before halftime.
The Illini, retreating toward midcourt with the shot clock running out, got a lift when Brandon Paul's 25-footer from the top of the key dropped in for 3 and eventually pulled back within 28-25 when Richardson finished off a 10-2 comeback with a 3-pointer from the right wing.
The Illini were within two after Tisdale's jumper to open the second half, and again after Davis' hook shot a few moments later, but never could find out if the Jayhawks would get nervous if they got behind.
The Jayhawks had been down this road before and never liked it much. Before Northern Iowa, they had another bad experience in Oklahoma City back in 1998, heading home early after a loss to eighth-seeded Rhode Island. Back in 1992, Kansas lost to No. 9 seed UTEP in Dayton, Ohio. All time, the Jayhawks were just 3-2 against No. 9 seeds in their second tournament game.
Stanford is the only other team that's failed even twice to make it to the round of 16 as a top seed.
There's nothing more to add to that dubious history now.
- Joe DeRosa
- Brian Dorsey
- Bert Smith