CHICAGO — The chant began right after the announcement. Kansas fans occupying most of the United Center stood to salute the most outstanding player of the Midwest Region, who had helped their team reach its first Final Four since 2018.
Remy! Remy! Remy!
Jayhawks guard Remy Martin had connected with the crowd all weekend, gesturing to them following big shots, slick passes and defensive stops.
“I didn’t really know that I won [the award],” Martin said. “When they said my name, I didn’t know that’s what it was for. But I have the greatest teammates around me, the greatest coaches. What more can I ask for?”
The scene Sunday afternoon, when Martin’s name echoed throughout one of basketball’s most famous arenas, was predictable, if not expected, back in the fall when Martin was named Big 12 preseason player of the year. However, it was impossible to envision only weeks ago.
— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) March 27, 2022
He was arguably the top transfer addition in the country, joining Kansas after leading the Pac-12 in scoring the year before at Arizona State. Martin, who averaged 19.1 points per game in each of his final two seasons at ASU, was pegged to provide instant offense for a KU team that scored just 51 points in a second-round NCAA tournament loss to USC in 2021.
But a choppy start to Martin’s Kansas transition, plus a knee injury in late December, rendered him unproductive or sidelined throughout January, February and the beginning of March. As time dwindled on his only season at KU, Martin showed sparks late in the Big 12 tournament. He has surged during the NCAA tournament, averaging 16.8 points on 54.5% shooting (24-of-44), while producing in other areas (5.25 rebounds per game, 3.25 assists per game) off the bench.
Martin has not only played a significant role in getting Kansas to New Orleans this week, but also instilled confidence the Jayhawks can cut down the nets there next Monday night.
“Remy, in his core, always knew what he was capable of doing to help us, but we hadn’t really seen it yet because his health hadn’t allowed it,” coach Bill Self said. “Our guys have more of a swagger now, knowing what Remy can do to make us better. That gives us a little bit of extra confidence moving forward.”
Kansas expected a jolt of both confidence and offense from Martin, who arrived on campus in late July. He had withdrawn from the NBA draft earlier in the month, after not getting invitations to either the NBA combine or the G League combine. His goals were clear: to keep building on prolific scoring totals — Martin led the Pac-12 in 30-point games (4) and 20-point games (12) in 2020-21 — while improving his overall skill set in a championship-level program under a Hall of Fame coach.
Things began more or less as expected. Martin started the opener and scored 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting in a win against Michigan State. He averaged 12.2 points in Kansas’ first five games, and reached double figures in eight of the first 10 contests, starting all of them.
But there were troubling signs, such as scoreless efforts against Stony Brook and UTEP. Mistakes weren’t tolerated on either end of the court, and often resulted in Martin being subbed out.
“It’s an adjustment, coming from ASU and going to Kansas and learning Coach Self’s system,” Martin’s father, Sam, told ESPN. “Just the defensive responsibilities, [Self] runs a different system, he expects you to do different things, and you have to learn that. You don’t just come in and know it.”
In a Dec. 29 win over Nevada, Martin suffered a right knee injury. As diagnoses go, it didn’t sound terrible — bone bruise, day-to-day — but Martin missed a game, returned for two and then missed two more. He scored 22 points in 109 minutes during the month of January, leading Self to say before a Feb. 1 game that the guard would miss an extended period after “playing on a leg and a half.” Martin didn’t play in a Feb. 7 loss at Texas, but had his knee bumped by a fan storming the court following Kansas’ 79-76 loss to the Longhorns.
“I’ve never really been injured,” said Martin, who missed only four games in his Arizona State career. “Just being able to go through that, and mentally, go through ups and downs and remain positive and try to thrive, now that I’m here, I weathered the storm a little bit.”
As the winter wore on, though, questions lingered about whether Martin would get healthy and break through with KU. In mid-January, Self dismissed rumors about the severity of Martin’s injury and possible tension within the program, saying after a win over West Virginia, “On this particular situation, I actually know a hell of a f—ing lot more than some other people out there.”
Martin missed seven February games before returning for the final game of the month, a Kansas loss at defending national champion Baylor. He remained largely ineffective as a reserve, scoring 13 points and attempting only 13 shots in five games. The senior logged fewer than four minutes in a scoreless effort against TCU, and fewer than seven minutes against Texas in the regular-season finale.
Martin said he was never concerned about time running out on his return. He knew he could contribute, even if the knee didn’t return to full strength.
“It wasn’t so much getting to 100 percent,” Sam Martin said. “It was just getting to a percent where you can just contribute. Because he’s still not 100 percent — he’s as close as he’s going to get.”
Remy credited his family and his Kansas support system with helping him through the difficult stretch. He lives with senior guard Ochai Agbaji, the All-American and Wooden Award candidate, whom Martin calls “my brother, a good person, just a legend to be around.” Martin said Kansas’ athletic trainers worked closely with him to build strength and overcome several setbacks.
“It changed my big-time perspective, because you never know what can happen,” he said. “I came in as a Big 12 preseason player of the year, and I knew that my injury would [cause me to] take a step back. But I was very comfortable because my guys were tough, I knew they were going to do well without me. It was just the fact I wasn’t expecting to get injured. It was tough mentally, but I just stuck with my training.
“Now that I’m here, I’m going to try and make everything the best.”
Martin says he finally felt right in practice before the Big 12 tournament. Teammate Christian Braun saw improved quickness and moves. Agbaji saw Martin’s energy pick up, always his trademark at ASU. After a quiet but efficient performance in the tournament quarterfinal, Martin scored in double figures for the first time since Dec. 18 in the semifinal against TCU, then followed with 12 points and a season-high three steals in the championship-game victory over Texas Tech.
Martin has carried over his performance to the NCAA tournament. He scored 16 points in 14 minutes in the first half of a second-round game against Creighton, helping Kansas to a 39-38 lead. He then scored 13 first-half points in Friday’s Sweet 16 game against Providence, matching the total from the rest of his team combined.
“When Remy is doing that, it takes us to a whole new level,” Braun said. “He’s going to keep us in games just with his shot-making, and that ability is something we haven’t had in the past.”
Not everything looks as it once did for Martin, who started 82 games at Arizona State, including all 54 contests during his final two seasons. He now begins games on the bench, usually replacing Dajuan Harris Jr. after the first media timeout.
Despite a late run from Providence, No. 1 seed Kansas hangs on for a 66-61 win to advance to the Elite Eight.
Against Providence, he entered the game with 14:45 left in the first half and the score tied at 4-4. Martin needed only 16 seconds to score his first basket. Thirty-four seconds later, he swished a 3-pointer. After a Providence turnover, he hit a jumper to cap a personal 7-0 run. Late in the half, Martin had outscored Providence 11-7.
“We love him playing like that, we need him playing like that,” forward Jalen Wilson said. “He’s been able to save us out of situations when we need a shot late in the clock. He’s able to create his own shot. That’s something not a lot of guys can do, especially at his speed.”
Martin admitted coming off the bench “wasn’t my goal,” but like so much else during this season at Kansas, he has adjusted to new realities. What does feel normal are his crowd interactions. Calm and even a bit reserved off the court, Martin transforms into a 6-foot, 180-pound ball of expression and energy during games. After hitting a jumper late in the first half against Providence, Martin implored fans to get loud. They obliged.
“It would be awkward if they didn’t,” he joked.
“That’s who I’ve been throughout my whole career,” Martin added. “I like playing with passion. I love the game, I think that’s where it stems from, being able to absorb and live up to the crowd. I have a good feel of the moment.”
His best moments could be still to come on college basketball’s biggest stage. Before this season, Martin’s NCAA tournament experience was limited to a First Four loss in 2018 and a First Four win followed by a first-round loss in 2019. Arizona State entered the 2020-21 season ranked 18th but stumbled to an 11-14 finish .
“It means everything for him because that’s the script that he anticipated last year with ASU,” Sam Martin said of Kansas’ NCAA tournament run. “Very few times you get a second bite at the apple, and he has.”
A season that hasn’t followed the script could end with the ending Remy Martin wants: a Kansas championship, and perhaps his name being chanted throughout the Caesars Superdome this weekend.
“Just being able to contribute a little bit more has been amazing,” he said. “I’m having a great time. This is probably the best time of my life.”