Fort Worth, Texas
In the middle of a half he had long assumed control, Remy Martin turned toward the Kansas bench, pointed his index finger toward the floor and repeated a phrase to no one in particular.
“It’s March!” he yelled, “It’s March!”
In case you forgot.
But how could he?
A frustrating January. A lost February. All the preface for a resurrection in the month college basketball legacies are determined.
Kansas blew past Texas Southern 83-56 in the first round of the men’s NCAA Tournament late Thursday at Dickies Arena, a game made comfortable only after Martin replaced the starters’ nerves with some life off the bench.
Ultimately, a 1 seed cruised past a 16, as we expected, and history shows that doesn’t really matter much. It’s not about whether you cruise or just barely get by, just that you do get by.
I didn’t plan on putting much stock into how Kansas played, in other words — at least not as some indicator for how they will play.
But I’ll put stock into how he played.
The Big 12 Tournament was no mirage but rather an introduction to the Remy Martin the Jayhawks expected to meet much earlier. Sure, he’s healthy after a knee injury deprived him of much of the conference schedule in his lone Lawrence season, but we’ve moved behind analyzing his burst.
There were jitters Thursday, the typical kind of nerves of one of the tournament favorites playing in a late hour after other tournament favorites endured an abrupt and unlikely end to their seasons.
And then Remy happened.
It’s been happening for the better part of a week now. In his previous outing, in Kansas City, he transformed into the leader of a tournament championship win against Texas Tech. He played as fast as we’ve seen him in months. Maybe as fast as we’ve seen him in a KU uniform.
All of that was present for the encore in Fort Worth, but more noticeable was the effect it provided his teammates.
With energy, he brought a calm. With some aggression, he provided the game a deep breath.
He flicked a bounce pass to big man David McCormack in transition. A sequence later, he cut into a passing lane with help defense, started a one-man fast break that he finished with a two-handed dunk. In an 11-minute first-half spell, he recorded nine points, four assists and two steals.
Again, the numbers were impressive. But it was the manner in which he recorded them — delivering a message to a group of nervous teammates.
Let’s just play basketball.
“You can tell his confidence is coming back more and more,” wing Christian Braun said. “When he plays like that, we’re tough to beat.”
His coach would later joke he didn’t know Martin could dunk. But Bill Self long knew Martin could supply this sort of spark.
Eight days ago in Kansas City, Self had planned to expand Martin’s role as he looked healthier in practice. He said he planned to use the Big 12 Tournament as an opportunity to gauge what might be reasonable to expect from Martin in this NCAA Tournament. Martin, though, wound up spending the majority of the conference tournament opener on the bench. Self later remarked that Martin appeared less engaged. And you wondered if, after a season in which Martin just hadn’t really put it all together, the match both sides anticipated would not be a match ever realized.
But, man, if they could just get something from him. KU was a conference champion basically without him. A top seed, too. Any contribution would just be a bonus.
A week later, Martin isn’t just finding his place in the game — the game is absorbing his place within it.
It makes for a different KU team. A better KU team.
A team that would be capable of taking advantage of a Midwest bracket that looks quite enticing for the No. 1 seed.