Stillwater, Okla. — It wasn’t easy the past few days for the Kansas basketball team to get by without suspended big man David McCormack, even against the only winless team in Big 12 play.
But when McCormack comes back, it should be in a slightly different role, as a backup.
The Jayhawks got lucky that their two opponents following the rivalry game fracas that cost McCormack his spot in the lineup were Tennessee and Oklahoma State, instead of upper echelon programs from the SEC and Big 12.
With the 6-foot-10 McCormack unavailable, KU lineups without center Udoka Azubuike proved disastrous versus the Volunteers. Two days later, on Big Monday against the Cowboys, it appeared it would be a little more manageable to play freshman wing Tristan Enaruna as the pseudo center because OSU played a half-court zone defensively.
Sure enough, the five-guard lineup found some success, particularly from 3-point range, increasing KU’s lead from 7 to 14 points in the first half during the first stretch Azubuike spent on the bench. However, the Jayhawks were just benefiting from their circumstances, because that lineup doesn’t stand the test of time in most games and against most teams.
It didn’t even hold up versus Oklahoma State, when Azubuike’s second foul of the first half meant he spent the 3:37 leading up to halftime watching. The Cowboys remembered how much easier it is to get to the paint when KU didn’t have a big man on the floor and within a couple of minutes trimmed the Jayhawks’ lead to a point.
More than anything, anytime Azubuike left the court in a 65-50 road win, KU missed the 7-footer’s defensive presence and the work he puts in on the glass. McCormack isn’t the defender or scoring force that his senior teammate is, but the sophomore’s energy and size in the paint would have been a welcome addition in both the games KU played without him.
The Jayhawks could easily stick with freshman Christian Braun (McCormack’s replacement in the starting five at OSU) or go back to senior Isaiah Moss (who started against Tennessee) and thrive throughout the rest of the season with a four-guard starting five.
And KU coach Bill Self said after the win that’s what he sees them doing.
“That’s who we are as of today,” Self said of starting four guards. “I don’t see that changing.”
And McCormack should be an essential part of the overall winning formula as the one and only big man on the floor when Azubuike takes a seat on the bench.
He may be listed as a forward on KU’s roster, but in reality McCormack is a perfect backup center for KU’s most dominant player, Azubuike.
McCormack’s time in KU’s starting lineup might have been coming to an end anyway. The last time he played, Self subbed him out less than two minutes into the Sunflower Showdown, with the two-big starting lineup off to a clunky start. McCormack only played four first-half minutes as the Jayhawks recovered nicely without him.
Remember: McCormack’s night went poorly enough against K-State — even before the fight — that he was playing out the final minutes of a blowout on the floor alongside the walk-ons and Silvio De Sousa, leading up to the melee.
Now that the Jayhawks have played twice without their sophomore big man, they’ll be happy to have him back in the rotation. But that doesn’t mean Self needs to go back to starting McCormack.
Before his suspension, McCormack was a starter in name only. Entering the trip to OSU, he ranked seventh on KU’s roster in minutes played (13.8 a game) in Big 12 contests. In the Jayhawks’ first six conference games, he provided 5.0 points per game and 4.2 rebounds.
“I think David will still play the same amount of minutes, or close to the same,” Self said of McCormack becoming a reserve. “But I see our best lineup being probably with him and Dok playing the five, and those guys splitting time on the perimeter.”
The Jayhawks don’t need McCormack to start. They need for him to, for minutes at a time, do the best Azubuike impression he can.
KU has looked far better most of this season with Azubuike as the only big on the floor and four guards playing around him. Surrounding McCormack with four perimeter players won’t be as overwhelming.
But the Jayhawks should become even more difficult to beat with McCormack as a second-string center who can bring size, energy and, most important of all, some lineup continuity.