TULSA, Okla. — Across the country, from the East to West coasts, one surname is causing college basketball players in this month’s NCAA tournament to pause: Morris.
Morris, as in the Kansas twins Markieff and Marcus, a pair of big men who give new meaning to the cliche “double trouble.”
The two KU juniors — who can play outside, inside or on the perimeter — make up the dominant frontcourt pair that has No. 1-seed Kansas a favorite to win the 2011 national championship.
“I think we know what to do when we are out there, and we just make the best out of it,” Markieff said.
A solid low-post option is usually considered a must-have for teams with title aspirations. In Marcus and Markieff, the Jayhawks have two of the best players in the country. The 6-foot-9 Marcus averages 17.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game; his brother, who stands one inch taller, 13.9 and 8.3, respectively.
The twins were important players for the 2009-10 Big 12 champion Jayhawks — Marcus as the squad’s third-leading scorer and Markieff off the bench — but have stepped up as the centerpieces of this year’s team.
Kansas head coach Bill Self didn’t make any major changes to his high-low triangle offense but switched the emphasis from backcourt play to the team’s deep frontcourt. When guards Tyshawn Taylor, Tyrel Reed or Brady Morningstar receive the ball on the outside, the brothers screen and cut their way to get open. If there’s nothing there, Marcus or Markieff will kick the ball back out and try again on the other side.
But what makes this year’s Kansas offense more dangerous, and perhaps even better, is that both can operate from the perimeter, either exploiting mismatched posts who follow them out that far or drive through smaller guards if there’s a defensive switch.
“Maybe last year you could sag off a little bit and help inside on each one of those guys,” said Illinois head coach Bruce Weber. “They’re shooting from the perimeter now, too, compared to last year. Now they spread you out.”
Against Illinois in the third round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday, the Morris brothers had the best postseason games of their careers in a 73-59 Kansas win. Each recorded a double-double as they combined for 41 points and 24 rebounds, scoring off layups, dunks, elbow jumpers and a single trey from Marcus.
“They’re so versatile. They can shoot threes, dribble, pass, shoot,” said forward Mike Davis of Illinois. “They’re probably two of the best big guys in the country. They made their team go, those two twins.”
It was another example of the Morris brothers’ deep repertoires and combined power.
“Certainly, we have an advantage over a lot of teams because they’re so versatile,” Self said.
To them, the funniest part is that Marcus is considered the better of the two — he was the Big 12’s player of the year and is on no fewer than three major all-American lists. Yet at times this season, Markieff looked just as if not more, dominant, scoring 26 points against Colorado and grabbing nine rebounds to go with 20 points versus Kansas State. He’s also the more dangerous low-post player and has hit 41.8 percent of his 3-pointers.
“To me, Kieff is the best thing that we have on the team,” Marcus said. “A lot of people look to me as a leader, but I look to Kieff as a leader. The things he does on the court definitely change games and it opens it up for a lot of people.”
To that end, there’s no real sibling rivalry between the two, only a real disdain for the other top post players in the country.
“Me being out there with him and him being out there with me, I feel like we’re encouraging each other,” Markieff said last Saturday, his entire frame sprawled out on a tiny chair in the Jayhawks’ locker room in Tulsa, Okla. before proclaiming he and his brother were the best one-two combo — correction, 1A-1B combo — in college basketball.
“We’ve very competitive guys,” Marcus said. “We’re from South Philadelphia. Who from Philadelphia isn’t competitive?”
The Morris brothers are no secret in college basketball — they have been big names since the season started and constitute a large portion of opponent’s scouting reports — but that doesn’t undermine their importance to the Jayhawks. And with Kansas advancing to this week’s Round of 16 for the first time since 2008’s national championship season, they may just be the most crucial components of a team two games shy of the Final Four.