Beyond the Boxscore
SAN ANTONIO — A little girl runs down the Rivercenter Mall's moving escalator, three steps at a time, threatening to leave her trailing mom in another zip code. "Gabriella wait!" the mom wails.
But there's no holding this sprint back. Gabriella is determined to get a good spot on the bridge below to watch the Kansas band and cheerleaders float by and perform on a couple of the ubiquitous River Walk tour boats.
On the River Walk, Kansas is immensely popular in this Southwest Regional. The No. 1-seeded Jayhawks have by far the largest horde of supporters in this tourist-loving town. There's still good feelings from the 2008 Final Four when thousands of Kansas fans poured money into San Antonio as Bill Self's team won the national title.
"Kansas, they're good people," a valet parker tells me.
The Jayhawks cheerleaders and dance team members are near celebrities in this town (they seem to be required to wear their uniforms 24 hours a day too).
Kansas' basketball players, on the other hand, have emerged as the chief villains of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, bullies with brawn. At least that's the view of the teams playing the Jayhawks.
Want a quick Final Four rundown? Butler and UConn are in by their chinny chin chin, a blue blood is sure to follow (the winner of North Carolina-Kentucky in the East Regional) and Kansas wears the black hat. This has little to do with the fact that the 35-2 Jayhawks are playing 11th seed and First Four team Virginia Commonwealth University, the last true Cinderella in the tournament, Sunday afternoon to get to Houston.
It has everything to do with the fact Kansas intimidates with attitude.
Self hates the thought — and does everything he can to rail against it — but he's coaching the Bad Boys of college basketball. Or at least as close to those toughly entertaining Detroit Pistons teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s as anyone can get in today's ultra-paranoid, media-conscious, buttoned-down sports world.
No, this Kansas team isn't throwing anyone to the floor or committing borderline dirty fouls. Instead, it's a smarter — and in some ways, more effective — form of bullying.
It's a a well-placed barb thrown at the other team while you pass in the hallway (ask Cinderella Richmond or Big 12 power rival Texas both, the Jayhawks don't discriminate when it comes to intimidating). It's Brady Morningstar getting under an opposing guard's skin like a modern day Danny Ainge, talking loudest of all.
It's another comment or 10 out on the court, nothing near obscene, in fact usually barely even PG-13. But noticed, and felt, nonetheless.
"I don't trash talk," Kansas forward Marcus Morris, the brilliant ringleader, says. "I don't know why people say I trash talk. I just say words. You have to go YouTube guys like Kevin Garnett. That's trash talking.
"What (Garnett) does and what Kobe (Bryant) does and what Carmelo (Anthony) does and those guys do is trash talking. We just say some things that are all just in the emotion of the game. It's definitely not trash talking."
Call it what you want, it's intimidating. And it's freaking out Kansas' opponents.
"They're going to try and intimidate us," VCU forward Jamie Skeen says. "But we're not going to be intimidated. We don't fall for those little games where they try and talk trash and all that."
Kansas' bully rep has become as much a part of the scouting report as the Morris twins' uncanny versatility. Things like Marcus Morris hitting Richmond and Texas with "You boys better be ready" digs the day before games are being discussed in opposing team meetings. Or Morningstar baiting an opposing player into a technical.
"They sort of bullied Richmond and pushed them around," VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez says. "We can't let that happen to us."
In reality, Richmond became so focused on sticking up for itself against the big bad monster that the Spiders seemed to take themselves out of their game. The pregame tunnel tussle between the two teams Friday night was as much Richmond's doing as Kansas'.
The Jayhawks have to be not-so-secretly delighted that VCU is so eagerly taking the same bait.
"For them to say they won't let us do that means that they already have us in their minds," Markieff Morris says. "That doesn't mean anything to us. We don't want to bully anyone, but that's good that they think that's what we're going to do."
Spoken like a true intimidator. The Morris twins aren't just two of the best players in college basketball. It's clear they're two of the smartest. Their gamesmanship should be celebrated. It's beautiful to watch them scare another team hapless.
But the Jayhawks are starting to worry about their image just as the Final Four beckons.
"It's not about being disrespectful," Marcus Morris says. "We don't do things that show no sportsmanship. Watch the NBA. Those guys talk trash. Those guys curse. We don't curse when we're playing."
Marcus Morris admits that Self told him to tone it down after his comments to the Richmond players became a storyline — one that Self typically blamed the "media" for blowing out of proportion.
"I'm not doing it anymore," Marcus Morris says of talking to the other team. "It's not worth it anymore. It's not being taken for what it is. You boys better be ready is a sign of respect. I'm letting them know that we respect them enough to bring our best, so they better bring their best."
Bill Clinton couldn't have said it better.
Self better be careful though. He's playing with fire by threatening to take away his players' fire. One of the reason this Kansas has steam rolled all the double-digit seeds put in front it — showing the type of stomp-out attitude that many more talented Jayhawk teams have lacked over the years — is because of the intimidating tone set by the twins from Philadelphia.
Kansas has had such an incredibly easy road this NCAA Tournament that the coach may be the one growing overconfident. Self should worry about winning rather than controlling the message.
The Jayhawks are at their best when the Morris twins are planting themselves inside the other team's heads.
This isn't a elementary school cafeteria. It's high-stakes, high-level showdown between grown men (sorry in college, you're grown). Bullying is allowed.
"Markieff and I were a little wild coming in as freshmen and Coach was right to tone us down," Marcus Morris says. "There's something about Philadelphia that you've got to play that way. You look at some of the guys who've come out of Philadelphia.
"I mean, Rasheed Wallace (the NBA's all-time leader in technical fouls). That's a Philly player. I'm not saying he's right, but that's the attitude that you get. You can't back down. But Coach rightly calmed us down."
There's a fine line between toned down and neutered though. The Bad Boys of college basketball need to be free to mess with minds — altering games in the process.
Even if the most intimidating player in college basketball wants to feign nice.
"I don't know," Marcus Morris says when asked why he thinks he's seen as an intimidator. "Maybe it's my tattoos or the look on my face. Some people tell me I'm stone faced. But I'm not going to go out on the court all smiley and happy.
"I'm out there to win. That's all I'm there to do."
Make way for the smartest player in college basketball. Little girls won't be the only ones running the other way.