Unranked for the first time in more than a decade, the Kansas men’s basketball team played like it for a half and then used a strong second half to snag a much-needed 78-66 victory over No. 23 Oklahoma State on Tuesday night at Allen Fieldhouse.
The poster child for that turnaround was junior forward David McCormack.
After a 1-for-7 first half that featured more missed bunnies than McCormack would care to remember, the 6-10 center scored 19 points in the second half on 6-of-9 shooting to lead the Jayhawks to a greasy, grind-it-out victory.
“Starting out the second half, I think Coach drew something up for me to get a touch and just kind of get my groove and get in the flow,” McCormack said. “So I think that’s what really started it all off.”
McCormack, who said the Jayhawks called Monday’s game “non-negotiable,” finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds, which included 9-of-12 shooting at the free throw line.
He was one of three Jayhawks to post a double-double in Monday’s victory.
It might’ve been tough to talk anyone into watching McCormack closely in the second half after what he showed in the first half.
View a gallery of images from Monday night's game between the Jayhawks and Cowboys at Allen Fieldhouse.
But those who were willing to do it saw a player who emphasized finding his feet and gaining his balance before going to the rim in the second half. His intent was easy to spot. And the result was nine quick points on 4-of-4 shooting and a sweet dish to a darting Ochai Agbaji (10 points in 39 minutes), all in the first six minutes of the second half.
That spurt gave Kansas a nine-point lead (41-32) and proved to be the cushion KU needed to get home.
Earlier this season, Self, who has mentioned McCormack’s balance problems on more than one occasion, was asked what went into addressing the it.
“We spent a ton of time on that time,” Self said. “A ton. As soon as the season was over last year, we identified exactly (what) we need to do to try to help with that through our strength and conditioning program, and Ramsey (Nijem has) done a good job with him.”
Self said some of McCormack’s issues stem from the pressure he puts on himself. Self said the junior forward wants to do so well that when things go wrong, it has a tendency to knock him off track a bit.
Self said the path to playing through that includes blocking out the negative things.
“That’s easier said than done, too,” he conceded.
McCormack did a fair amount of that on Monday night, appearing to get stronger and more confident as the game progressed. And it showed in areas beyond his balance.
McCormack was quicker and more purposeful with his post moves after the catch. And he played with much more fire and emotion in the second half.
“I think some of Dave's things that appear to be balanced are maybe balanced, but they're also excitement,” Self said. “I don't think it's all physical. I think some of it is he just gets excited.”
Self’s message to McCormack after the game: “Way to bounce back, way to have the right mentality to fix what I needed to do in the second half,” McCormack said.
It wasn’t all McCormack in the second half. Sophomore guard Christian Braun (15 points, 10 rebounds and 3-of-5 shooting from 3-point range) buried a trio of timely 3-pointers, the third coming as the shot clock went off and the ball caught the iron, bounced high into the air and then softly fell through, delighting the fans in attendance.
That third one was the knockout blow. It gave Kansas its biggest lead of the game to that point (71-58) and left OSU with just two minutes remaining to do anything about it.
Perhaps feeling the weight of their recent rough stretch lifted after that shot fell through, the Jayhawks relentlessly attacked the rim twice on the very next possession after yet another OSU turnover.
First, it was Jalen Wilson (11 points, 11 rebounds) soaring in for a thanks-for-coming-see-ya-later slam. That one was blocked by OSU freshman Cade Cunningham.
Ochai Agbaji grabbed the rebound and, seemingly without even thinking, lunged toward the rim to try to get the dunk his teammate couldn’t. Cunningham was there again waiting to thwart the try. But this time the OSU freshman who finished with 26 points and nine rebounds — but also seven turnovers and chants of “over-rated” from the Fieldhouse crowd —, fouled Agbaji in mid-air.
Agbaji hit both free throws and KU led 73-58 with 1:48 remaining.
Monday’s victory, like so many of KU’s recent games — win or lose — featured another rough start. Unlike the others, however, this one did not spell doom for the Jayhawks.
Kansas (13-7 overall, 7-5 Big 12) missed 13 of its first 16 shots and turned it over four times in the game’s first six minutes.
Three of those misses came from McCormack in the paint, and KU made just one of its first five 3-point attempts.
The offensive woes were only part of the problem. On a pair of early OSU possessions, Kalib Boone — new to the starting lineup since the last time these two played — was left all alone by the rim for two-handed jams, one off of two feet and the other on a lob.
Luckily for the Jayhawks, Oklahoma State (12-6, 5-6) — four turnovers in five minutes (of 18 for the game) — was equally as bad at taking care of the ball in the early going or the Jayhawks, once again, could have been staring at a double-digit deficit to open a game.
Instead, the Jayhawks trailed by just three (10-7) at the 11:45 mark of the first half, fortunate to be in it, but with next to nothing to show for it in the way of rhythm and flow on either end.
Both teams continued to struggle with ball security throughout the first half, which kept both teams from taking control of the game.
Midway through the half, KU senior Marcus Garrett found some success attacking the basket and finished the first half with 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting.
Offense was so hard to come by in this one that even a 5-0 run by the Jayhawks (a deuce by Garrett and a 3-pointer from Agbaji) seemed like a big run.
Late in the half, KU had three cracks to extend its 26-23 in the final 90 seconds of the first half, but on back-to-back possessions McCormack and Tristan Enaruna missed point-blank bunnies and Enaruna coughed up the Jayhawks’ 10th turnover of the half.
That allowed OSU to close the gap to one and KU led 28-25 at halftime.
The win was KU’s third in its last eight games and just the team’s third since Jan. 10.
KU now has the opportunity to build a little momentum, with three consecutive games against Big 12 bottomfeeders Iowa State and Kansas State.
KU will host Iowa State on Thursday night — game time was moved from 7 p.m. to 6 p.m. — and then travel to Ames, Iowa, two days later. The back-to-back games against the same opponent was the result of some COVID-19 rescheduling.
After that, KU will travel to Manhattan next Tuesday for its second game with Kansas State.
KU will then finish the regular season with a stretch of three games against top-13 opponents — No. 7 Texas Tech, No. 13 Texas and No. 2 Baylor.