David McCormack's struggles underlie Jayhawks' problems in loss at Baylor
As good as he was for a three-game stretch leading up to the Jayhawks’ marquee Big Monday showdown at Baylor, no one really expected Kansas big man David McCormack to keep putting up 20 points a game.
But given the way he had been playing, McCormack taking an erratic turn in the opposite direction — and quickly — left the Jayhawks scrambling to rally throughout a 77-69 loss to the second-ranked Bears.
After KU effectively played through its junior big for three straight games, McCormack had a travel and two poor fouls before the top 10-ranked teams had played three whole minutes Monday night in Waco, Texas. Kansas already trailed undefeated and No. 2-ranked BU, 8-2, when playing the five spot became senior Mitch Lightfoot’s job and McCormack headed to the bench for the first time.
Even though the Jayhawks would never dog their teammate for an off night, it has to be difficult to see a veteran post player struggling to that extent when KU was going to need some breaks and solid play from everyone to beat one of the two truly elite teams in college basketball this season.
“It’s not like every night you’re going to get a perfect performance from everybody,” KU sophomore Christian Braun replied, when asked how the rest of the Jayhawks needed to respond when it wasn’t McCormack’s night.
“We’ve got guys like Mitch – Mitch played well tonight,” Braun added of Lightfoot, who chipped in eight points and four rebounds in close to 17 minutes off the bench. “He came in, got some dunks, gave us some energy. But I just think the team as a whole,” Braun went on, “we’ve got to have a better start. And that would’ve solved a lot of our problems. Not playing from behind.”
Braun was making a different point when mentioning the hole KU fell into, but the Jayhawks (10-4 overall, 4-3 Big 12) needed a better start from McCormack.
After nearly five game minutes on the bench, McCormack checked back in with the Bears leading 18-7. His next stint again started poorly, with a turnover. But an offensive rebound and a blocked shot would follow, and he wasn’t hurting KU by playing too amped up. The problem was he never could turn it up and make a larger impact after settling in.
Between foul trouble (he picked up his fourth with more than 13 minutes left) and the Bears just making his night a grind, McCormack finished with a season-low six points (3-for-6 shooting) in 20 minutes, to go with two rebounds, one assist, one steal and four turnovers.
“Everybody’s going to have ups and downs,” Lightfoot said. “As you’ve seen, Dave’s been terrific these last three games. He gives us a dimension I think I give us a little bit of, but he’s such an interior presence, gets buckets around the basket.”
The 6-foot-10, 250-pound McCormack was far from making an optical impact at BU, though.
“We need him to be playing his best ball,” Lightfoot said, “and I’m going to do everything I can as a teammate to help him and get him back to where he was these last couple of games.”
Given McCormack’s issues at Baylor, the biggest surprise of the night was that the Jayhawks stuck with playing a traditional big man up until the game’s final minutes. There was 3:44 showing on the second half clock when KU head coach Bill Self sent five guards — and neither McCormack nor Lightfoot — onto the court for the first time.
A Jalen Wilson dunk in that lineup cut Baylor’s lead to five with 3:18 left, but the answer 3-pointer from Jared Butler at the 2:56 mark seemed as demoralizing a moment as the Jayhawks experienced, and the Bears wrapped it up from there.
Theoretically, KU could have still won this game with McCormack playing poorly for much of the night. But it would’ve taken the Jayhawks executing a level of defense they’ve yet to show this season, as well as several members of their core rotation stepping up their production.
Faults aside, it’s also important to keep in mind that even on a night when McCormack wasn’t even close to being at his best, KU was only outscored 34-32 when he was in, while the Bears had a 43-37 advantage when he was out.
Even when it’s not pretty, there’s something about having the big guy out there that is beneficial, and that, no doubt, is why Self continues to stick with McCormack and a more traditional lineup. At least for now.
The Jayhawks need a much better version of McCormack — and some more experimenting with five-guard lineups — in the weeks ahead if they’re going to reach their ceiling.
Lightfoot isn’t worried about what’s ahead for McCormack.
“If you know David, his confidence won’t dip,” Lightfoot said. “He understands that we need him to be a good team and he’ll respond.”