Ever since being shocked by the Panthers last March in the round of 32 as the overall No. 1 seed, Kansas has carried the burden of that underachievement. The Jayhawks had been reminded of it by fans, media and even their own coaching staff, which put copies of the Sports Illustrated cover celebrating Northern Iowa’s upset in every player’s locker last week.
Now, after this victory over stubborn Illinois on Sunday night, this group of players has broken through. The Northern Iowa loss is 6 feet under at last.
“It definitely takes a lot of pressure off our shoulders [to] know we’ve gotten past the first weekend now,” said Marcus Morris, whose 17 points and 12 rebounds made him only the second-most-productive Morris on the night.
“I just feel like now that we’ve gotten past this weekend, we got over the hump,” said twin brother Markieff Morris, who went off for 24 points and 12 rebounds. “We’re ready for next weekend.”
Next weekend, the No. 1 seed Jayhawks walk into a shattered bracket in San Antonio. Their Friday Sweet 16 opponent will be No. 12 seed Richmond. If they win that, their Sunday opponent will be either No. 10 seed Florida State or No. 11 seed VCU.
By seeding, Kansas is set up to play zero teams in the top half of the tournament until it reaches Houston and the Final Four. That is what’s called a free pass.
Then again, you can find plenty of grandparents and bracketologists ready to caution that there’s really no such thing as a free pass.
“Any seed this time of year, they’ve got to be playing good to advance this far in the tournament,” said guard Tyrel Reed. “You can’t take anyone lightly and have to respect your opponent every time out.”
That, actually, is one lasting lesson Kansas can take with it from the Northern Iowa loss. But at least now the Jayhawks don’t have to hear about it constantly. That’s dead and buried.