LAWRENCE (AP) — A couple of bruising brothers named Marcus and Markieff are not all that sets Kansas apart.
When it comes to bench strength, the Jayhawks wield an embarrassment of riches.
It’s a part of the program that has become familiar to fans and foes in the Big 12. Only now are NCAA tournament followers beginning to appreciate how coach Bill Self can hurl waves of players at Jayhawk opponents.
It’s not as though Kansas is the only team in the round of 16 with standout talent on the bench. Ohio State, North Carolina and Duke all have deep pools of talent. Connecticut, too, especially in the front court with Jamal Coombs-McDaniels, Niels Giffey and Charles Okwandu.
But how many teams are holding in reserve the national junior college player of the year? And the No. 1 overall recruit of 2010? And a talented 6-9 sophomore who brings double-double potential all by himself?
Kansas is. And just about every night, they watch from the bench, waiting for their time to come in.
Making sure everybody gets along and goes along is Self, the 48-year-old head coach who’s won seven straight Big 12 regular-season titles by orchestrating all this young talent and stoking all these young egos.
So far this year, it’s worked for 34 wins, tied for fourth all-time in school history, and NCAA tournament victories over Boston University and Illinois. On Friday night, it will be up to No. 12 seed Richmond to deal with the top-seeded Jayhawks and their array of talented operatives.
“I think we’re one of the deepest teams in the country,” said Marcus Morris, the 6-9 junior who had 17 points and 12 rebounds in Sunday’s 73-59 victory over Illinois. “That makes it hard for other people to beat us.”
Mario Little, a 6-6 swing man, has been just about automatic off the bench. The national juco player of the year at Chipola (Fla.) Community College in 2008, he was expected to be a starting forward but was unable to dislodge the Morris twins. And now sophomore Thomas Robinson has become the first big man off the bench.
Little nonetheless exploded for 17 points and five rebounds while playing only 16 minutes against Missouri late in the season. And he hit the game-winning free throw with seven-tenths of a second left in a 77-76 victory over UCLA.
The 6-9 Robinson, who turned 20 last week, has shown maturity far beyond his years. He lost his grandmother, grandfather and mother in a matter of weeks, leaving Jayla, his 7-year-old sister, as pretty much his entire family.
The way he’s handled the pain is to fill his thoughts as much as possible with basketball, and he continues to show more and more promise. In a victory over Texas in the Big 12 tournament finale, he was only one rebound shy of a double-double, more than holding his own with Tristan Thompson, Texas’ big freshman.
“Thomas is doing great,” Self said. “I’m so proud of him. He amazes me. He’s just about our most improved player this season.”
Also coming off the bench is Josh Selby, the 6-3 guard from Baltimore who was the most highly sought prep star Self ever signed, rated No. 1 in the country by Rivals.com.
His college career has been slow to take flight. First, he had to sit out a nine-game suspension from the NCAA for amateurism issues and then he had to rest an ankle injury for a few more games. But it was Selby who hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in the final seconds of a victory over USC and he continues to provide a spark off the bench.
Self turned to sophomore Elijah Johnson when junior point guard Tyshawn Taylor got suspended late in the season for violating unspecified team rules. All he did was play well enough to actually challenge the experienced Taylor for the starting job.
Suddenly motivated, Taylor has shot 61 percent in his last five games and scored 13 points against Illinois for his fourth straight double-figure outing.
Not many coaches have a reserve sophomore skilled enough to come in and give the experienced starting point guard a scare — and keep the team from missing a beat.
“I don’t think there’s many teams that have the depth that we have,” Self said.