Once a nonfactor, David McCormack emerging right on time for KU
A path through March that could either redeem a Kansas basketball team dissatisfied with the way the past couple of months turned out or further expose the Jayhawks’ flaws begins at the Big 12 tournament.
Awaiting them at Sprint Center for Thursday’s last quarterfinal will be a Texas team that, though imperfect in its own right, handled KU the last time the two clashed, in Austin, Texas, six weeks ago.
In the fifth of KU’s eight road losses this season, the Longhorns’ front line of Jaxson Hayes (6-foot-11, 220 pounds), Dylan Osetkowski (6-9, 250) and Jericho Sims (6-9, 240) generally made life miserable for the Jayhawks’ go-to big, Dedric Lawson.
But the first-team all-Big 12 forward feels like he has some reinforcement on his side this time. In the midst earlier this week of praising UT’s front court players, Lawson brought up how during KU’s double-digit loss at Frank Erwin Center the Jayhawks were still using a four-guard lineup, and Marcus Garrett had to defend one of UT’s bigs.
Lawson’s eyes lit up when that train of thought led him to referencing how different KU’s lineup looks now, with 6-10, 265-pound David McCormack staring next to him.
“With the way Dave is playing, I’m excited to see that matchup,” Lawson said. “And I’m looking for a very fun game.”
An ankle injury suffered by Garrett a few days after the loss at Texas forced Bill Self to adjust his rotation. He would have to tinker yet again just a week later, when Lagerald Vick left the team. And that’s when Self landed on starting two bigs instead of one, and chose McCormack over Mitch Lightfoot for that role.
The Jayhawks are 6-2 since McCormack became a starter, and, as these things so often go, the more comfortable he gets on the court, the more impactful he’s become. The industrious first-year big man said this past week he feels like he set himself up for more minutes and a larger role.
“I think I’ve just been working and listening to coach and proving myself to gain more opportunities,” McCormack said.
At first, even after joining the starting five, McCormack wasn’t playing a ton. And he looked a lot more like a bit performer than someone who could be counted on to deliver in a pressure situation. As recently as the penultimate week of the regular season, McCormack logged only 7 minutes against Kansas State and 11 at Oklahoma State.
However, in the two games that followed, McCormack produced 18 points in a loss at Oklahoma and 12 points in a home win over Baylor, shooting 14-for-20 combined.
The No. 3 seed in the Big 12 tournament this year, KU (23-8) needs an effective McCormack to counteract a Texas front line that, according to Self, includes “arguably the best” NBA prospect in the conference, Hayes (averaging 10.3 points per game and 5.3 rebounds in league games).
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At Texas on Jan. 29, McCormack played all of 9 minutes off the bench. He wasn’t close to the same player then what he is now. And Self expects the freshman big man to prove himself to be a much greater factor on Thursday night.
"I watched the second game where we played Texas, and we were awful offensively. Awful,” Self said. “But we also tried to play four guards the vast majority of the time and we weren't getting really great production in what we were trying to do.”
Self thinks KU has played better since it began sticking with two bigs — some combination of Lawson, McCormack and Lightfoot. And he said those three will have to make their counterparts in UT’s front court respect them defensively.
“I don't think we did that at all the second time we played them,” Self added. “I think they had free traps — we didn't make them pay for trapping — a lot of things that allowed them to be rim protectors when we didn't get them away from the goal. There's a lot of things we didn't do very well, which hopefully we'll be able to combat and do quite a bit better this time."
KU — and Lawson in particular — could look completely overmatched inside earlier this season, with just one big man on the floor and not much help for Lawson off the bench.
As the Jayhawks enter the postseason, though, they’re better equipped to handle teams with long, strong and athletic front court players, because Lawson won’t be going it alone. Many have wondered all season when — or if — McCormack would reach a point where Self trusted him enough to make him a part of the rotation. Necessity forced the coach’s hand, and it took some time for McCormack to acclimate. But he has arrived.
And for the Jayhawks, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
David McCormack stats - February vs. March
February: 3.7 points per game, 3.0 rebounds, 0.7 blocks, 8-for-13 FGs, 6-for-10 FTs, 14.0 minutes a game, in 6 games (DNP at K-State)
March: 11.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 0.7 blocks, 15-for-24 FGS, 5-for-7 FTS, 16.7 minutes a game, in 3 games