Kansas’ glue guys
LAWRENCE, Kan. – When Kansas coach Bill Self showed up at a New Hampshire prep school five years ago to recruit Brady Morningstar, the guard asked him not to come back.
“Don’t waste any more of your time or money,” Morningstar told Self. “If you want me to come to Kansas and you think I can make an impact there, I want to come. I want to be a Jayhawk.”
Self also didn’t have to exude much energy to woo guard Tyrel Reed, a local standout so Kansas-obsessed that he showed up for an unofficial visit to rival Kansas State wearing the jersey of then-Chicago Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich, a former Jayhawk.
Reed had offers from North Carolina, Stanford, Oklahoma, Missouri and others, but when Self called him on the eve of the fall signing period four years ago and offered him a scholarship, Reed couldn’t accept fast enough.
“Growing up,” Reed said, “my dream was to be a Jayhawk. When I hung up the phone, I just felt blessed that I was going to have that opportunity.”
Years later, Self is feeling pretty thankful, too.
For the fourth time in the last five seasons, the Jayhawks have advanced to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament. They’ll take the court for Friday’s game against Richmond touting a 34-2 record, a No. 2 national ranking and a pair of potential NBA first-round draft picks in Marcus and Markieff Morris.
The twins average a combined 31.1 points and 15.7 rebounds. Still, ask either of them to identify the underlying reason for the Jayhawks’ success, and they’ll point toward Morningstar and Reed, the native Kansans who are trying to ensure that their final season in Lawrence is their best.
Morningstar – whose father, Roger, was on the Jayhawks’ 1974 Final Four squad – was raised in Lawrence. Reed grew up 75 miles away in Burlington, where he was coached in high school by his father, Stacy.
“I said it at the beginning of the year and I’ll say it now: Those guys are the anchors of this team,” Marcus Morris said Tuesday. “People give me and ‘Kieff a lot of credit, but they don’t see what goes on behind the scenes.
“Brady and Tyrel are the guys that keep this team together.”
Accurate as it may be, Morris’ statement is one that few people outside of Kansas’ locker room agree with – or are at least willing to accept. Reed could score 12 points and notch three steals in a 14-point win, and radio talk show hosts would complain that he played too many minutes. Morningstar could shut down an opponents’ top player while dishing our four assists, but Kansas message board posts remain the same.
“I’ve seen some of it,” Morningstar said. “People are like ‘Why is this kid shooting so much? Why is he handling the ball? Why is he even playing?’ It’s always a bunch of ‘Whys.’”
Reed and Morningstar have learned to chuckle about the situation. Even though they won’t say it publicly, the players know they’ve been stereotyped because of their skin color. As white guards, they’re assumed to be slower, weaker and not as athletic as most of their counterparts.
“I don’t think they pass the eye test in some people’s thinking,” Self said. “They’re both very athletic in their own way, and their IQ is off the charts. They’re just so solid and dependable.”
What makes Kansas’ team special is that each player knows his role – and relishes it. The Jayhawks rarely hoist ill-advised shots, they take pride in playing defense and sharing the ball and they realize the importance of movement and spacing on offense.
Self deserves most of the credit for Kansas’ on-court chemistry, but even he realizes the cohesion wouldn’t have been possible without Morningstar and Reed.
At 25, Morningstar is one of the oldest players in Division I basketball. Instead of signing with a four-year college after graduating from Free State High School in Lawrence, Morningstar enrolled at the New Hampton School in New Hampshire, where he spent one season before signing with the Jayhawks.
Morningstar said his father was influential in the decision. Roger Morningstar played junior college ball for two years prior to becoming a starter at Kansas.
“I was a late-bloomer,” Brady Morningstar said. “I didn’t want to waste a year of eligibility at a four-year school until I was ready. On the East Coast, prep schools are just like junior colleges except you don’t lose a year of eligibility. Those teams are just as good as juco teams.”
Morningstar played sparingly during his first season at Kansas in 2006-07 before redshirting during the Jayhawks’ national championship season a year later. Morningstar, though, has been a mainstay on the court for Kansas the last three seasons. It’s not uncommon for him to serve as Kansas’ primary ballhandler, and he’s developed a reputation as Kansas’ top defensive player on the perimeter.
Not bad for a guy who isn’t supposed to be all that athletic.
“When people say Tyrel and I aren’t very athletic, they’re comparing us to someone like Brandon Rush, a freakish kind of athlete,” Morningstar said. “Look at Russell Robinson, who played here. I think we’re every bit as athletic as he is, and I don’t think people grouped him in the non-athletic club.
“Jumping high and running fast is a big key to playing ball. But you can cancel it out if you’re smart and have a quick first step and you understand the game.”
Reed agrees. He said that he doesn’t feel as if he and Morningstar are “a step behind at all” when it comes to athleticism.
With his college career nearing its end, Reed – an Academic All-American – has blossomed into one of the most improved players on Kansas’ roster for the second straight season. He ranks third on the team in scoring with 9.8 points per game and leads the Jayhawks in steals with 1.5.
It’s the kind of senior season he envisioned when he signed with Kansas in the fall of 2006. Reed grew up idolizing players such as Hinrich and Paul Pierce, and he was a regular at the Jayhawks’ summer basketball camps, where his father served as a counselor.
“The mark of a good team,” Reed said, “is when guys understand their role and don’t try to do too much, and when they get excited for other guys who are doing well. I don’t think that anybody on our team has any animosity toward the twins or Brady or Tyshawn [Taylor] or myself when things are going well for us. We want that for each other.”
That selflessness has rubbed off on the rest of the Jayhawks, who are beginning to resemble the team that won the 2008 national title. Not one member of that squad was named first team All-Big 12 by the Associated Press – and they didn’t seem to care.
“Certain teams around the country have freshmen and sophomores that were highly recruited,” Morningstar said. “There’s jealousy over who gets the most publicity and who scores the most points. Scoring points is a big deal to some kids. On this team, no one really cares who scores points.
“I don’t think there’s any jealousy on this team. We just want to win and be successful. When you’re successful as a team, everyone in the program gets credit for it. Everyone gets a piece of the pie.”
Surely some of the biggest slices will be reserved for Morningstar and Reed, a pair of underrated players who now have the chance to show the world just how greatly they can affect a game and a team. Taylor may be faster with the ball in his hands, Elijah Johnson is an incredible leaper and freshman Josh Selby may have a higher ceiling.
But no two players do the little things quite like Morningstar and Reed, who average a collective 16.8 points, 5.1 assists and 2.9 steals.
“You look at teams that have won national championships or have had great teams,” Self said, “and there’s usually one starter that may be a low-scoring guy that ends up playing the second-most minutes, because they make everyone around them better. That’s what they both do for us.”
Still, as the Sweet 16 approaches, there will be basketball fans and analysts saying all week that one of Kansas’ weaknesses is a backcourt that includes Morningstar and Reed.
“Weakness?” Texas coach Rick Barnes said last week. “Are you kidding me? Those two guys are their strength. I don’t know where Kansas would be without them.”
Marcus Morris thinks he has an answer.
“At home,” he said.