As his Kansas basketball team geared up this week for an inherently pressure-packed situation, playing in the win-or-your-season’s-over NCAA Tournament, head coach Bill Self pondered the importance of the moment — not just for his program, but the entire athletic department. From Self’s point of view, the current state of affairs aren’t accompanied by any additional stress.
KU is currently without an athletic director, as the aftermath of a buried sexual harassment scandal at LSU led to the departures of both KU football coach Les Miles and the man who hired him, Jeff Long.
More bad news hit Jayhawk land over the past couple of weeks, as positive COVID-19 tests on the basketball team led to the department’s flagship program withdrawing from the Big 12 tournament. It turned out only three players caught the virus, so KU was able to head to Indianapolis, just not at full strength.
All the while, players have been holed up in hotel rooms, first in Kansas City, Mo., and now in Indianapolis, isolating much of the time, when they’re not practicing, getting tested for the virus or having a socially distanced team meal or meeting.
And though this didn’t come up with Self during his video conference call with reporters, the Jayhawks still don’t know what the ultimate ramifications of the looming NCAA’s infractions case against the program will be. Will KU even be eligible for March Madness a year from now?
Self, in his 18th season at KU, will no doubt compartmentalize all the factors that don’t immediately impact his team this weekend and leave them in the background to focus on the task at hand.
After all, the last thing his Jayhawks need right now is more pressure.
When asked about the importance of this tournament, given some of the news in the athletic department, Self said his team’s March Madness run “does mean more in that context.” He just doesn’t view that as an extra burden.
“I look at it as it’s an opportunity to gain,” Self said. “Not a situation where you can lose.”
Self’s been a fountain of positivity throughout this challenging season, and he isn’t changing his tone at this stage. The good vibes (and some defensive buy-in) helped the Jayhawks (20-8) survive a five-loss January and come out on the other side of it not as a defeated team, but an improved one. It was back then, Self said, that the Jayhawks had pressure on them.
Not only did they pull through a genuine longterm mental test to stake their claim as one of the best teams in the Big 12, the Jayhawks head into Saturday’s matchup with underdog Eastern Washington (16-7) having gone 8-1 down the stretch, undoubtedly contributing to Self’s upbeat outlook.
“This team has far exceeded what a lot of people thought,” he said. “We weren’t very good at all for a good period of time. And these guys have flipped it and really committed.”
Self and KU haven’t lost in the opening round of the tournament in 15 years, dating back to when in back to back postseasons No. 14 seed Bucknell busted KU’s bracket in 2005 and No. 13 seed Bradley did the same in 2006.
But the current state of KU’s roster will make this weekend uniquely challenging for even Self, who has been to the NCAA Tournament as a head coach every March (except for 2020, of course — RIP to one of KU’s best chances to win it all again) since he took Tulsa dancing in 1999.
The Jayhawks are without their best rebounder, starting forward Jalen Wilson, and even though David McCormack, after being cleared to rejoin the team, is expected to play, the big man’s minutes might be minimal.
They call it March Madness for a reason — see: No. 2 seed Ohio State falling to Oral Roberts (where Self began his career as a head coach) in the first round on Friday. Crazy outcomes are a staple of the format. The consensus best team in the country often fails to cut down the nets. Teams with brand recognition like KU go home at the hands of Who’s That U underdogs every March.
And now Self will try to stave off an upset with a shorthanded rotation and what is likely to be a lot of small ball lineups.
“We can’t control what our roster looks like and everything. We expect to play well. We expect to advance,” Self said. “But I don’t feel the weight of the world on my shoulders that we’re carrying around more of a burden than what we would’ve carried if wasn’t such a strange year.”
If KU can get through EWU, the roster might start looking closer to normal in the days ahead.
That’s one of Self’s hopes at least. He also aims to lead the players on a run, extending their stay in Indianapolis.
“I want it for them. And I also want some good things to happen for our school and our athletic department,” Self said. “I know this would be a way to do that. But it’s not an extra weight. It’s not anything that I feel a pressure that we have to do something.”
At a program with the college basketball pedigree of Kansas, one of the time honored traditions of Selection Sunday for coaches, players, fans and media alike is inspecting the rest of whatever region the Jayhawks ended up in and gauging just how difficult their road to the Final Four will be.
That flies most years, particularly when KU is a top seed with a legitimate chance of making a run at the national championship. But right now, mere days removed from withdrawing from the Big 12 tournament, KU has far too much else to worry about to dive headfirst into that exercise.
Forget about Gonzaga, Iowa, Virginia and the rest of the teams in the West region. The Jayhawks don’t even know with absolute certainty at this point how their shorthanded rotation will play in their NCAA Tournament debut Saturday against Eastern Washington.
Head coach Bill Self never has entered The Big Dance with KU facing so many moving pieces and question marks. Self and the Jayhawks expect (read: are hopeful) that starting big man David McCormack and reserve wing Tristan Enaruna will be able to clear COVID-19 protocols and practice with the rest of the team in Indianapolis later this week.
But as we all have learned during this pandemic, there are no guarantees. By the time No. 3 seed KU (20-8) faces No. 14 EWU (16-7), McCormack will have gone 16 days without playing in a game.
Enaruna had basically fallen out of KU’s rotation late in the season. He didn’t play at all in the regular season finale versus UTEP and last played more than two minutes in a game at Kansas State on Feb. 17.
However, the Jayhawks actually need Enaruna again. The identity of the KU player who tested positive for COVID, leading to the team’s abrupt exit from the conference tournament, is being kept private. But let’s just assume it is a rotation player who won’t be available for at least the tournament’s opening weekend due to COVID. It’s a safe assumption, because Self said Sunday evening Tyon Grant-Foster, who hasn’t played a minute in a game since Feb. 17, will get an opportunity to make an impact. Enaruna is a more trusted contributor than Grant-Foster. How will Enaruna, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, handle being thrust back into a key role?
Then there’s the matter of who will be missing when KU takes the floor on Saturday. Veterans Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji spoke with the media Sunday after the brackets came out. They’re not in quarantine. Neither are Mitch Lightfoot, Christian Braun, Bryce Thompson or Dajuan Harris, all of whom could be spotted in social media posts from KU’s official account, following the selection show.
So what if the Jayhawks have to play without Jalen Wilson, their best rebounder and ideal small-ball five? It’s possible KU will have to try to get to the second round and the Sweet 16 without him.
How the Jayhawks will handle all of this shuffling amid the pressure of playing in the NCAA Tournament remains to be seen. There are a lot of unknowns to navigate in a typical March, in pre-COVID times. What KU has on its plate is something else entirely.
It would be a blast to see the Jayhawks take on Luka Garza and Iowa in the Sweet 16. And a rematch with Gonzaga in the Elite Eight would be fascinating. But if ever there was a time to pump the brakes on such thought exercises when it comes to KU’s run it is now.
Nothing is promised during March, even when a team heads to “The Madness” with its roster completely intact.
Self’s been at this too long to ever get caught looking ahead. He said Sunday night he used to fill out a bracket, but probably hasn’t bothered in about 15 years.
He’ll have the prefect approach for this challenging week ahead.
“I care about one bracket. And to be honest I care about Eastern Washington, Drake, Wichita State and USC,” Self said, naming KU’s first round opponent and the three possible teams the Jayhawks could face if they advance.
Don’t get caught looking ahead in this loaded West region. The Jayhawks have too much going on right in front of them for that.
When the Kansas basketball program announced last week it was adding Thursday’s nonconference game against UTEP to the schedule to bridge the gap between a much anticipated rematch with Baylor and next week’s Big 12 tournament, the news might as well have come attached with a Star Wars GIF of Admiral Ackbar warning, “It’s a trap!”
The Jayhawks crashed beaks first into it, though, coming off their best win of the year and seemingly approaching the regular season finale at Allen Fieldhouse as an afterthought of a pitstop on the way to the postseason.
The ultimate trap game nearly did them in, too. The Jayhawks were great five days earlier against previously unbeaten Baylor, one of the best teams in America. But a contrasting performance for much of the night against unheralded UTEP meant KU made its March debut in unspectacular fashion, escaping with a 67-62 win after trailing by as many as 15.
It was human nature for the Jayhawks to overlook a Conference USA opponent that came to Lawrence just two games above .500 on the season and 8-8 in its league. However, their inconsistencies throughout this albeit strange year should’ve had the Jayhawks prepared to play with an edge. Eventually they did. It just took too long for them to get there.
“It definitely started out as a trap game, just not having the right mentality,” KU junior forward David McCormack said afterward, adding the Jayhawks needed to be more aggressive early in the contest, when UTEP was in control. “But we were smart enough to realize that and flip the switch and make sure not to have the result of a trap game. We still walked out of here with a win and that was the main point.”
Ochai Agbaji (19 points, six rebounds, two steals) often made the types of plays that indicated he wanted to finish the regular season with a win. Similar instances of energy from other Jayhawks were much harder to find during the first 30 minutes of the game, though, before they collectively generated some momentum by making defensive stops and cutting UTEP’s margin to single digits.
McCormack, who scored 16 of his 18 points after halftime, became the go-to post scorer down the stretch that he should’ve been in the first half, keying KU’s rally as all the Jayhawks finally started playing with some purpose and fire.
“The first half,” KU coach Bill Self said during his postgame video press conference, “I didn’t think our energy was very good. I don’t think we respected them like we probably should’ve, even (though) after watching tape you could see how athletic they were.”
Self thinks UTEP’s two best players, Souley Boum (16 points) and Bryson Williams (23 points and 13 rebounds), are good enough to play for any team in the Big 12. There will be similar under the radar players awaiting KU in the weeks ahead.
If the Jayhawks are fortunate enough to totally regroup from the UTEP scare, impress at the Big 12 tournament and land a No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, approaching a March Madness game in similar fashion, like winning is a given and operating on autopilot will get it done, they’ll make an immediate first-round exit.
There will be much more tension in that first-round game for KU in Indiana, too, regardless of the Jayhawks’ seed. Every player and coach in the field would love to say he was involved with knocking out Kansas, and any team the Jayhawks run into in the tourney will be much more capable than UTEP.
“It’s a good lesson to learn that we are so average — at best — when we don’t play a certain way,” Self said. “And when we play a certain way we can get pretty good. But our energy level defensively and rebounding the ball was very poor the first half and certainly very good there late.”
Perhaps the odd regular season finale, which at least prevented the Jayhawks from getting rusty, also will end up helping them in another way, serving as a wakeup call that saves them an embarrassing exit from Indy when the whole country — not just diehards with an ESPN+ subscription — will be watching.
KU isn’t good enough this year to rely on flipping a switch with the season on the line. Figuring that out now might keep the Jayhawks from falling into a more perilous trap when the real March Madness arrives.
If everything had gone according to plan, it would be hard to talk yourself into the idea that this Kansas team could beat this year’s Baylor team anywhere, including at Allen Fieldhouse.
As it turns out, though, the Jayhawks just might be catching BU at an opportune time for an upset.
Few scenarios are foolproof in these pandemic times. It turns out even playing basketball games can be a challenge. The Bears looked to be on par with Gonzaga throughout December and January, making them one of two obvious favorites to win the 2021 national championship. Then came February and a slew of postponements, some of which have since become cancellations, for Baylor.
The No. 2-ranked Bears, still undefeated heading into Saturday’s marquee battle with the No. 17 Jayhawks, went a full three weeks without playing a game as they dealt with COVID-19 protocols within the program. Prior to the pause, it was business as usual, with BU winning 83-69 at Texas. But when the Bears finally returned to action this week in Waco, Texas, they had to fight their way back from a 17-point hole in the first half to defeat lowly Iowa State (2-17 overall, 0-14 Big 12).
Surely the Bears will regain most, if not all, of their offensive and defensive powers before long, despite the layoff. But have they yet?
KU’s second shot at acquiring its most impressive victory of the season could come easier this time around, with the Bears rounding their way back into form. Still, easier is a relative term. Even if the Bears remain without high energy reserve big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, who missed the ISU game due to COVID protocols, and they’re some watered down version of their former selves, they still were so clearly superior to KU before their pause that nothing about this game will be trouble-free for the Jayhawks.
There’s too much to like about how Baylor (18-0 overall, 10-0 Big 12) has performed all season to think this game will be anything other than a grind. KU coach Bill Self identified a few of the things the Bears do best, all of which should have the Jayhawks wary about the task at hand.
“We’ve got to be able to run offense without turning the ball over, because they do force a ton of turnovers. And we certainly don’t need live ball turnovers, because they’re so good in transition,” Self said Friday during his video press conference.
Per KenPom.com, the Bears rank third in the nation in opponent turnover percentage (25.9%), as well as third in steal percentage (13.6%).
Veteran KU guard Marcus Garrett, who is about to play his eighth career game against Baylor, brought up the Bears’ defense (10th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom) when describing what impresses him about the Bears this season.
“They defend as a unit. They talk,” Garrett said, adding the Bears are “connected” on that end of the floor, which makes them particularly difficult to score against.
“It seems like their switches are so together,” the KU senior said. “They talk on defense and you can just tell they’ve been together for a while.”
Garrett, no doubt, will spend much of Saturday night doing all he can to keep BU junior guard Jared Butler in check, after the 6-foot-3 Butler lit up the Jayhawks for 30 points on 7-for-9 3-point shooting in the first meeting this season.
Self said KU will have to defend the arc to be successful, and called Baylor (42.1% on 3-pointers in Big 12 play, 43.2% on the season) “the best 3-point shooting team, maybe in America.”
The Bears were only 8-fo-25 from 3-point range against ISU in their return. And they barely won the battle of the boards, 36-35, out of character for a team that is averaging a +4.1 rebound margin in Big 12 play.
Just because the Bears have unpaused or rebooted and returned to actually playing games again doesn’t necessarily mean they’re back to performing at the same level. Maybe the tuneup versus ISU will be all they needed. But if multiple players had COVID, that also potentially complicates the team’s re-acclimation. Some professional athletes who have contracted the virus, including the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and the Washington Wizards’ Russell Westbrook, have said publicly that they still dealt with the effects of COVID after recovering and returning to play. It’s awful that such a thing would happen to any athlete or team at any point, let alone during a season, but the virus’ impact on the Bears might still be lingering.
The point is a Bears victory over KU is no longer inevitable. There is some mystery to Baylor right now. BU is still the favorite, a rare feat for a visiting team entering Allen Fieldhouse. But KU has a clear advantage in the continuity department. The Jayhawks have been playing basketball without a pause all season — a key to their recent resurgence, especially in how they’ve progressed defensively.
No one could see it coming back in January, but a lot has changed for both teams since then, and the Jayhawks now have a realistic shot at toppling one of the two best teams in the country.
As pivotal a role as David McCormack has played in Kansas turning its season around, the time has come for the Jayhawks’ veteran big to make one last step in his progression and put his inconsistencies behind him.
Lapses in judgement and execution from McCormack cost KU in what could’ve been a signature road win, but ended up as a 75-72 overtime loss at Texas on Tuesday night.
Plagued at times this season by fluctuations in his effectiveness, the broad range of the McCormack experience was on display in Austin, Texas. The good. The bad. The “What was that?”
Offense rarely has been as problematic for McCormack late in the season as it was earlier in his junior year. The Jayhawks took an early lead in OT when he wisely passed out of the post to hit Christian Braun for an open corner 3-pointer. A few minutes later, after McCormack poked away the ball on defense for a steal, he had one of his most impressive one-on-one post moves in Big 12 play, going at Jericho Sims, a superior athlete, and scoring over Sims’ near perfect defense with a jump hook.
KU led 72-70 with 1:37 left in overtime. But the Jayahwks wouldn’t score again. In part because McCormack, who draws a ton of attention from the defense even when he’s not the one taking the shot, fouled out 10 seconds later.
Matt Coleman III and Sims were poised to run a ball screen together out on the left wing, when Coleman opted instead to attack off the dribble toward the baseline. Coleman clearly had an angle on KU’s big man and McCormack lost control while trying to make up ground (even though he had help defenders behind him) and he bumped the speedy UT guard, fouling out in the process.
“David’s foul was not smart at all,” KU coach Bill Self said afterward. “I don’t know what he was thinking about, running up to guard Coleman like that. All he’s got to do is just channel him off and keep him on the side and let him turn the corner.”
McCormack only played 24 minutes in a game KU’s other four starters all logged 38 or more because he got himself in foul trouble immediately at Texas, getting called for his second foul 3 minutes and 12 seconds into the action.
Those early whistles sent him to the bench, and he wouldn’t return until the start of the second half. A few minutes after getting back in, an inconceivable missed dunk by McCormack at the 17:16 mark, which would’ve made KU’s lead 10 points at the time, seemed to be a turning point. Whether the shock of seeing the 6-foot-10 veteran brick an uncontested two-handed jam off a pick and roll sent the Jayhawks into a stupor or invigorated the Longhorns, KU only made one field goal in the six-plus minutes that followed and Texas tied the game before a Marcus Garret layup ended a 1-for-10 shooting stretch that was accompanied by four turnovers.
Even with his snags, McCormack would score six of his 12 points in the final seven minutes of regulation, and he made overtime possible with a putback on the offensive glass in the final seconds of the half.
The glitches in McCormack’s game against Texas weren’t the only problems that led to the KU loss, of course, as Self brought up during his postgame video press conference when the blown dunk came up.
“David’s been great for us. He’s been great for us for a while now. And obviously you don’t put anything on one player or one situation,” Self said. “We had numerous chances to make free throws. We had numerous chances to take better care of the ball. We had numerous open shots that we could’ve knocked down. Those things happen.”
The coach said all of that just to bring up a larger point about how McCormack actually is capable of better than what he showed at Texas.
“But we’ve got to get our bigs playing big. I mean that’s the bottom line. David’s done a pretty good job with that offensively, but we’re still not rebounding the ball,” Self said.
McCormack finished with four rebounds for the second time in KU’s past three games and fouled out for the second time in the previous four. Neither is a good sign with the postseason just ahead.
“Jalen Wilson can not be our best rebounder each and every game,” Self went on, referencing the redshirt freshman consistently doing better on the glass (seven consecutive games leading KU in rebounds). “We’ve got to have some big guys getting some of them.”
Wilson is KU’s best rebounder. So that’s not going to change. What Self really was saying is that he wants more out of McCormack. Self knows KU can’t afford any glaring inconsistencies from its most effective big during the postseason, or the Jayhawks’ stay in Indiana for the bubble-esque NCAA Tournament will be a short one.
Now that McCormack has proven he can play at an All-Big 12 level when he’s at his best, Self is holding him to that high standard. That’s totally fair. KU’s loss at Texas, though far from a doomsday result, served as another reminder that the Jayhawks (17-8 overall, 11-6 Big 12) will only go as far this March as McCormack can take them. When he has an off night, the chances of them piecing enough together to defeat an NCAA Tournament level team diminishes.
McCormack doesn’t have to be flawless — and he won’t be. But he does have to be on the court, because the Jayhawks are better overall when he’s out there in most scenarios. KU did put together an impressive run in the first half with five guards when McCormack sat. Overall, though, Texas outscored Kansas, 39-35, during the 21:25 that he was off the floor. KU’s starting five — McCormack, Garrett, Braun, Wilson and Ochai Agbaji — played together for 22:09 at Texas and held a 37-34 advantage.
KU isn’t going to win any shootouts in the NCAA Tournament. If the Jayhawks want to make some noise, they’ll need to win games on defense by making opponents uncomfortable. KU can only do that if McCormack is playing major minutes, occupying the paint and taking a smart approach to contesting and altering shots.
McCormack has shown over the course of the season he can provide KU with a bit of everything. The final piece of the puzzle is doing it all with a steady regularity. More balance. No erratic dropoffs. Avoiding foul trouble and long stretches on the bench will make that all the more achievable, too.
Better for KU and McCormack for him to learn that lesson now, than during some heated March Madness game in a few weeks.
The Jayhawks have looked far from flawless, but the least complicated part of their February calendar is complete. Welcome to the make or break portion of the Kansas basketball schedule.
Now that KU has another aesthetically challenged win over one of the Big 12’s lower-tier teams out of the way, it’s time to find out if the Jayhawks truly are trending in the right direction leading up to March.
Yes, they’re on a four-game winning streak for the first time since December, when they rattled off eight straight following their season-opening loss to national title favorite Gonzaga. But this current string of enhanced play — mostly on the defensive end of the floor — from the Jayhawks hasn’t included a lot of wow factor. And the offense qualified as ugly at best much of the time in their two most recent victories.
With its 59-41 road win against rival Kansas State on Wednesday night in Manhattan, KU (16-7 overall) improved to 10-5 in the Big 12. A solid record in a strong league.
Here’s the thing: seven of the Jayhawks’ league wins to date have come against the bottom four teams in the conference: Oklahoma State (which entered Wednesday’s slate of games ranked No. 45 in the country at KenPom.com and No. 39 in the NCAA’s NET Rankings), TCU (110 KenPom, 101 NET), Iowa State (148 KenPom, 232 NET) and K-State (190 KenPom, 226 NET).
In fact, those four teams account for seven of the Jayhawks’ eight victories in 2021 — the other came, 63-59, against Oklahoma, in Lawrence on Jan. 9. And, let’s be honest, that win over OU occurred before the Sooners took off. Oklahoma was unranked at the time. Senior Brady Manek didn’t play. It was the first game that Elijah Harkless started. The Sooners are 7-1 since, including a 75-68 win over KU in the rematch.
Dating back to that KU win over an OU team that has since emerged as a possible top three seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks failed each of their four chances to prove they can go toe to toe with that caliber of opponent. They lost at Baylor (No. 2 KenPom, No. 2 NET), at Oklahoma (No. 22 KenPom, No. 18 NET), at Tennessee (No. 15 KenPom, No. 13 NET) and at West Virginia (No. 16 KenPom, No. 17 NET). Would many teams go 4-0 against that road slate? No. But there’s a long list of college basketball teams that would go 0-4, and the Jayhawks are guilty by association.
Now comes the Jayhawks’ chance to clear their names on the court. Three games left to play, each one of them against the type of quality team they haven’t beaten in weeks. This recent slate of games against Iowa State and K-State were such a foregone conclusion you surely know what lies ahead: Saturday versus Texas Tech (No. 19 KenPom, No. 14 NET), Tuesday at Texas (No. 18 KenPom, No. 22 NET) and Feb. 27 versus Baylor (No. 2 in both).
During their road wins at K-State and ISU in the past few days, The Jayhawks seldom looked like a team capable of handling those upper echelon Big 12 opponents that are to come.
And they certainly know the Wildcats aren’t living in the same college basketball stratosphere this season as the Red Raiders, Longhorns or Bears.
“We’re going to have to play a lot better,” KU redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson said of the upcoming stretch. “The things that we get away with in some of these games is not going to work for other games.”
In particular, Wilson referenced K-State’s poor 3-point shooting — 3-for-24, a mere 13% — against Kansas. The Jayhawks’ defense only had somewhat to do with those results.
“I doubt that the teams we’re playing next will miss as many 3’s,” Wilson predicted.
While head coach Bill Self said he likes the direction in which his team is headed after KU’s fourth win in a row, and thinks the Jayhawks’ “best ball” is yet to come, he also mentioned on more than one occasion during his postgame video press conference that KU “labored to score” at K-State. That description applied to a 64-50 win at ISU four days earlier, too.
A lot of times, this team just isn’t that fun to watch for most people when its 3-pointers aren’t dropping — the Jayhawks went 4-for-16 at K-State.
Self’s not in this business to entertain those of us in search of artistic offense, though. So that’s part of why he’s feeling upbeat about his team headed into these next three games.
“It will be challenging. When you play the best teams it’s always challenging. But we won at Texas Tech and scored 57 or whatever it was, or 58 (it was a 58-57 road win on Dec. 17). So it’s OK whatever it is. The situation is, we know if the score is in the 80’s, it probably doesn’t benefit us when you’re playing really good competition,” Self admitted. “Because it would be really hard for us to get 80 against really good competition, especially teams that guard.”
He’s been preaching defense and making the opponent play ugly for weeks. Now the Jayhawks will have to make that happen against players far more skilled and effective than the ones they’ve beat up on recently.
“I think our guys are bought in,” Self said of his team’s defensive improvements, especially with how the Jayhawks defend ball screens and help. “And that’s something we’ve been trying to get them to do for a long time. So I’m in no way, shape or form going to diminish what we’ve done, because they’re actually doing exactly what I want them to do, which is learn how to win ugly. And they’re getting confidence playing that way.”
As long as the Jayhawks are more convinced than observers that they can once again beat the types of teams they did earlier in the season, that’s got to be worth something for the stretch run.
Marcus Garrett predicted the Jayhawks are about to show “how tough” they are, and the “fight” that they have.
“I feel like we’ve got the best coach,” Garrett added, when asked about what’s to come, “so we’ll definitely be prepared for those three games. And I think that we’re ready for them.”
This year’s Kansas basketball team might do something that hasn’t happened since Bill Self took over the program in 2003. Not that it would be advisable.
The Jayhawks certainly aren’t chasing the distinction of becoming the first KU team coached by Self to fail to achieve an NCAA Tournament seed between Nos. 1-4. But it’s very much in play.
In the most recent edition of Bracketology from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, KU (15-7 overall, 9-5 Big 12) landed as a six seed, on the same line as the likes of Colorado, Virginia Tech and Purdue — a group of meh teams in an underwhelming season for college hoops.
The good news for the Jayhawks is they have one last stretch still in front of them that could make up for all of that blah that got them in this position in the first place.
Up to this point in the season, KU doesn’t deserve to be a top four seed. No one was aghast this past weekend when the NCAA rolled out its bracket sneak peek of the top 16 overall seeds and the Jayhawks were nowhere in sight.
While KU, no doubt, is on an uptick of late, most years people who follow the Jayhawks closely wouldn’t call the past five results — three combined wins over the two worst teams in the Big 12 (Iowa State and Kansas State), a victory against fringe AP top 25 team Oklahoma State and giving up 91 points in a road loss at West Virginia — an uptick. They would call that mostly handling your business in February. Or they would still be fretting about KU’s setback at WVU. This isn’t a one seed or bust kind of year, though. Far from it.
To the Jayhawks’ credit, they have beaten the teams they’re supposed to beat all season long. Per the NCAA’s NET Rankings, KU is 3-0 versus Quadrant 2 opponents, 2-0 against Quad 3 and 5-0 when facing the lowest tier of opposition, in Quad 4. They don’t have any bad losses, as head coach Bill Self repeatedly has made sure to allude to recently when his team’s defeats or struggles come up.
It’s in those pesky Quad 1 games where KU has yet to differentiate itself amid the muck. Behind Gonzaga and Baylor exists an array of generally competitive teams that are nowhere close to touching those two national championship favorites. It wouldn’t take a meteoric rise for KU between now and Selection Sunday for the Jayhawks to cement a spot on a top four seed line.
Partly because as of Tuesday they were tied with Ohio State and West Virginia for the most Quad 1 games played so far (11) among teams in the top 35 of the Net Rankings, the Jayhawks’ 4-7 record in that category also tied them for the most Quad 1 losses in the top 35, with Purdue at 3-7.
Of course, those losses (six since Jan. 2) are why KU’s status kept falling in recent weeks. Sure, the Jayhawks were facing some quality teams, but they repeatedly lost those games. KU’s best victory in its past 10 outings came on Feb. 8 against Oklahoma State, a team ranked No. 43 in the NET and No. 44 at KenPom.com.
KU hasn’t defeated a legit top 20 team since Oklahoma (No. 9 AP, No. 17 NET, No. 21 KenPom) visited Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 9. But the Jayhawks, who actually appear to be settling in defensively and rediscovering some of that mojo that made them a top 10 team back in December, are about to embark on what could turn into a résumé building run.
Kansas has three more Quad 1 games on the horizon, following Wednesday’s game at K-State (No. 226 in the NET and 0-11 in Quad 1). Arguably, just going 2-1 in the final three games of the regular season could catapult the Jayhawks into a top four seed line.
Given the Jayhawks’ erratic season, neither of the first two matchups — Texas Tech in Lawrence on Saturday and at Texas on Feb. 23 — is anywhere close to a foregone conclusion. But with Jalen Wilson’s resurgence and Bryce Thompson back as the sixth man, KU winning both of those games no longer feels farfetched.
Nothing we’ve seen thus far from the fluctuating play of the Jayhawks tells us they should beat Baylor at the fieldhouse on Feb. 27. Even with their improved ball screen and help defense, could they score enough to beat the Bears? It’s not impossible, but it remains unlikely for now.
So cast that mirage aside, and let’s say the Jayhawks find ways to handle business at K-State and grind out wins over Tech and the Longhorns. A loss to Baylor isn’t going to hurt their seeding at that point, and they should still have opportunities to further lay claim to a No. 4 or — let’s get crazy — a No. 3 seed by padding their résumé at the Big 12 tournament.
Remember those seven quality losses on KU’s résumé? Ten teams ahead of the Jayhawks in the NET top 20 — through games played on Monday, KU ranked No. 21 — haven’t even played seven Quad 1 games yet: Baylor (6-0), Michigan (4-1), Houston (2-0), Virginia (3-3), Loyola Chicago (1-2), Colgate (0-0), Villanova (2-3), USC (3-1), Florida State (3-2) and Colorado (2-3).
The Jayhawks could have as many as six more Quad 1 games on their record by Selection Sunday, further beefing up their case. It will take an impressive turnaround to make it happen, but keeping the streak of attaining a top four seed alive remains a realistic and attainable goal.
(KU last fell below that line in 2000, when Roy Williams coached a lineup featuring freshmen Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich and Drew Gooden to a No. 8 seed and a second-round exit.)
Though he only logged 19 minutes in his return to the Kansas lineup Thursday night, freshman Bryce Thompson played a starring role in making basketball look easy again for the Jayhawks in a 97-64 dismantling of Iowa State.
With Thompson out due to a broken right finger since Jan. 12, KU hadn’t blown anyone out in even longer. And after missing the 6-foot-5 guard with play-making skills and strong defensive instincts for seven games, the Jayhawks’ first chance to play with him again proved promising for the stretch run ahead.
This didn’t look like a freshman who had only played one game out of the previous 11 due to a couple of injuries. Thompson came out not tentative, but craving the chance to reintroduce himself to the Big 12.
His eight-point, three-assist night off the bench began with Thompson seeking opportunities to attack off the dribble from the perimeter. In his first game action since hearing something “pop” in his hand at Oklahoma State more than four weeks back, Thompson put up four quick points in the first half, but also slid over as a help defender to smack a Tre Jackson layup try out of the air.
Said teammate Jalen Wilson of Thompson’s return: “He gave us great energy. We’ve been missing him.”
Thompson even acted as the primary ball handler late in the first half, when senior Marcus Garrett was on the bench. That led to him feeding Mitch Lightfoot inside for a bucket, but the stretch also included Thompson trying to take on all of the Cyclones by himself, dribbling into a forced turnaround jumper when there were still 15 seconds on the shot clock. It was a decision head coach Bill Self didn’t care for, and Thompson heard about it at the next timeout.
The next time the freshman touched the ball, though, coming off a screen, he went straight to the paint for a floater to score, an example of him remembering the brief shot selection lesson sent his direction during the recent stoppage.
Thompson came through with more unselfish plays for KU (14-7 overall, 8-5 Big 12) in the second half, including a drive where he looked to kick the ball out to Christian Braun for an open 3-pointer instead of trying to go one-one-one himself in the paint. He also dished an assist to David McCormack on another break when his own foray into the paint nearly got knocked away at first. Never lacking confidence, the next trip up the floor Thompson went end to end off a defensive rebound to get to the hoop for his own layup.
His passion for the game came through with every big play he delivered.
“It felt amazing,” a beaming Thompson said about finally returning, during his postgame video interview. “Being away from the game for so long, to get back out there and just compete and to win and hear the crowd — all the little things you kind of take for granted.”
Plenty of KU looking better than it had in weeks had to do with the opponent — ISU fell to 2-13 on the year and 0-10 in Big 12 games. But Thompson’s return played a noticeable factor, as well.
It would’ve been reasonable to have low expectations for what a freshman guard coming back off of so much missed time and playing with a fingerless protective glove on his shooting hand could provide.
But the outlook for how much he can help this KU team changed immediately shortly after he stepped onto the court versus ISU.
And according to Self, Thompson set himself up for success in recent weeks, allowing him to play assertively and with poise.
“He’s a student. He studies. He watches,” Self said. “When he came on his official visit (as a high school recruit from Tulsa, Okla.) and we were practicing, he was walking up the sideline, up and down, to make sure he heard every word that every coach was saying to everybody as we practiced that day.”
That’s when Self first learned how much Thompson “cares” and wants to learn.
“He’s been that way also since he’s been out,” Self said of Thompson’s approach while sidelined during recent weeks. “He was not a thinker tonight. He was more (reactive). Most guys that had been out that long would’ve been a thinker.”
Thompson thought he was “pretty good” in his return. But he also quickly brought up some botched defensive assignments he wanted to go back and review, to prep for the rematch at ISU on Saturday.
This week and next will be crucial for Thompson to get himself totally reacclimated for KU’s stretch run of the season, with games at ISU and Kansas State followed by matchups with Texas Tech, Texas and Baylor.
“Games like (Thursday’s) where we’re a lot better than the (opponent), it helps me to be able to stay out there, get my flow, get everything good,” Thompson said, adding the first thing he needed to do following the win was take an ice bath and get his body “back right.”
The Jayhawks, who went 5-5 without Thompson, could actually turn this season around with him. It won’t be easy like it was against the Cyclones, but his cerebral approach and love for the game will inject some life into a rotation that has missed him more than many onlookers probably realized.
“I see Bryce playing an integral role in our success the rest of the season,” Self said, sharing Thompson may also be the team’s best passer off of ball screens. “Bryce plays with a smile on his face. He’s got personality. He plays with energy.”
Thompson set the bar high for himself in his return. And that’s just the type of player KU needs heading toward the close of the regular season.
Twenty games into a strange, at times hard to watch, Kansas basketball season, a Big Monday victory over Oklahoma State shined a spotlight on David McCormack, as well as the entire KU team’s trajectory. As the regular season winds down and February soon turns into March, these Jayhawks will only go as far as McCormack’s broad shoulders can take them.
That much was evident in a 78-66 Kansas win, even when McCormack’s offense was dead in the water in the first half, ahead of his second half vindication and a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double.
As KU once again toiled on offense — a recurring theme since the start of January in particular — throughout the opening 20 minutes, it became easy to wonder if the Jayhawks were about to drop another game to a quality opponent. What was it going to take for them to get their heads above water and show some promise before the postseason gets here?
The answer had to be at least a little disconcerting for KU fans who have grown wary of the team’s volatility. But the big man who has himself been chastised for his own inconsistencies throughout his junior season truly is the one player on the roster who could play well enough in the weeks to come to be the driving force behind the Jayhawks (13-7 overall, 7-5 Big 12) turning their season around.
Squint hard enough and you can see McCormack playing to his size and strength on a neutral court somewhere in Indiana next month, and the Jayhawks complementing his interior play with balanced contributions across the perimeter.
That’s how it all came together in the second half for KU versus the Cowboys, and that’s part of the blueprint for the Jayhawks from here on out. (Offensively, they also will need better 3-point shooting than the 5-for-15 they put up against OSU.)
There is no other player on the KU roster capable of putting the team on his back. Ochai Agbaji is the Jayhawks’ most effective scorer, with his now pure 3-point stroke and the ability to use his athleticism to finish above the rim both in transition and in set plays out of timeouts. But Agbaji is more of a steady contributor than someone to expect to suddenly become a 20 points per game scorer. Jalen Wilson is still a redshirt freshman, and probably at least a year away from producing at a consistent enough level to be a focal point of the game plan night in and night out.
The 6-foot-10, 250-pound McCormack isn’t without his flaws. But when he runs into issues, he often only has himself to blame. The offensive mistakes he makes — whether that’s playing too sped up, not gathering himself for a strong take inside or settling for a long 2-point jumper — are easy to fix.
And while McCormack obviously doesn’t fit the mold of vintage one-Jayhawk wrecking machines such as Danny Manning or Thomas Robinson, with his scoring, passing and defense in the second half against OSU, McCormack actually made KU entertaining to watch again, as he produced 21 of the Jayhawks’ 50 second-half points.
Forget must-win. This was a “non-negotiable game,” as McCormack put it during his postgame video interview from Allen Fieldhouse. Despite an awful individual start for the big man, as he stockpiled misses around the rim, the veteran didn’t let that weigh him down.
Marcus Garrett enjoyed McCormack’s aggressive approach that put KU over the top.
“That’s what I was telling him. I told him every time we passed it to him in the second half to go up,” Garrett said of McCormack, who went 6-for-9 from the filed and 9-for-12 at the foul line while playing 17 minutes in the second half. “I feel like when we have him as a presence down there it’s kind of hard for them to guard us, and it makes it a lot easier on the guards.”
KU shot 52% from the floor, 3-for-7 on 3-pointers and 21-for-26 on free throws with McCormack playing the role of go-to big and willing passer (three assists).
His head coach, Bill Self, would’ve called McCormack the best player on the court in the second half if projected top-three NBA draft pick Cade Cunningham hadn’t been on the floor, too.
McCormack is such a good teammate, and cares so much about the guys around him, maybe it just took him some time to feel comfortable being ultra-aggressive.
“The team-first guys are doing what’s best for the team,” Self said, making it clear McCormack is that type of player. “And what’s best for the team is David looking to score and us playing through him.”
Team-first players make an impact on defense, too. And McCormack did that against OSU by playing to the scouting report, helping off of non-shooting threats and pressuring Cunningham on ball screens outside when that was the call.
“Just helping on all drives and being a paint presence,” McCormack said of what he wanted to do on that end of the court, on a night that he also swatted away a couple of OSU shot attempts.
Remember three years ago how puzzling of an up and down regular season Malik Newman had for KU? Then Newman proceeded to kill it once the postseason began, finally playing up to his potential when the Jayhawks needed him most.
McCormack won’t have the benefit of playing with talented shooters like Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk the way Newman did, but he’s just as capable of erasing a season-long narrative around him by turning it up when the outcomes matter even more.
The Jayhawks need someone to lead them on a March redemption tour. For the first time this season, McCormack finally looks like a big man capable of making that happen.
When Bill Self said ahead of his Kansas basketball team’s rivalry game against Kansas State that the struggling Jayhawks may need to put an extra emphasis on throwing the ball inside and run the offense through David McCormack more often, some may have shuddered at the thought.
That wasn’t the extent of Self’s plan, of course. And Tuesday night at Allen Fieldhouse McCormack proved he can be an offensive focal point without the Jayhawks playing muddled.
KU’s 6-foot-10, 250-pound big man at times this season has been too quick to settle for a jumper or a difficult attempt in the paint over too many defenders.
Self doesn’t want to play 1990s big man basketball, with McCormack looking to score on every touch, wherever he gets the ball. KU’s coach wants his team to play through McCormack by having him pass the ball, too, when that’s the proper read.
As he accumulated 18 points on 9-for-14 shooting in a much needed 74-51 victory over K-State, McCormack didn’t stubbornly force the issue and try to do more than was necessary, which tends to be one of his biggest issues when his play gets scrutinized.
The No. 23 Jayhawks (12-6 overall, 6-4 Big 12) actually can play through their veteran big man, despite the valleys he has traversed this season, if he doesn’t become a jump-shooting black hole.
His assist numbers (none against K-State) don’t always show it — the Jayhawks who catch his passes out of the post have to knock down their 3-pointers for McCormack to get credit — but the big man has been a more aware and willing passer when he catches the ball on the block for a post-up or along the baseline while facing up.
Sophomore guard Christian Braun said KU’s go-to post player has worked a lot with his teammates to add that dimension to his game.
“Dave, he found me with some great passes today,” Bruan said, “has been in practice (too). But we’re trying to help him out, talk to him, find the open spots.”
KU’s guards formed a bad habit this season, Braun added, by not helping the big guy out by moving without the ball when it goes to him.
“Dave’s been doing a really good job scoring with his back to the basket,” Braun said. “So you know the next step from there is when guys collapse on him we’ve got to be able to kick it out and hit the shot.”
When KU’s offense has fallen off a cliff for stretches this season, it usually has something to do with 3-pointers not falling or McCormack being overly assertive, to the point that it becomes a detriment.
There have been fewer instances of the big man becoming the scapegoat lately, though. So it comes as no surprise that he said after KU’s home win that passing out of the post has become a bit of a personal point of emphasis for him.
“Not only does it encourage my teammates to shoot and give them open looks,” McCormack began, “but it also makes my job easier, because when I pass out of the post and they hit shots it makes the defense spread out more and I get more space to work in the paint.”
Copacetic offense may yet be within this team’s reach. For the time being, the Jayhawks are still trying to recover from that staggering January, so it may yet take a few games before they win with McCormack and the shooters around him perfectly complementing each other.
But the offense at least looked a little better versus K-State with Braun going 4-for-9 from long range and both Ochai Agbaji and Jalen Wilson knocking down a pair (the Jayhawks shot 9-for-29 as a team from 3-point range).
KU was far from aesthetically pleasing from tip to finish in the Sunflower Showdown, making it another “we’ll take it” type of victory for Self’s team.
The Jayhawks might be on the road to recovery, though, if they can master the art of playing through McCormack, who is far better now at deciding when to attack and when to keep the ball moving.
“I thought tonight in the first half he took a couple of bad ones,” Self admitted of McCormack’s shot selection early versus the Wildcats. But the coach also pointed out a few of his teammates missed McCormack for what would’ve been some easy looks inside, too.
Ultimately, Self likes what he is seeing from his former McDonald’s All-American.
“I do think he’s feeling the defense and if help comes he’s become a very willing passer,” Self said. “I think he’s become a better passer. And I also believe he’s attacking a guy one-on-one much better and playing through him and over him as opposed to playing around him.”
KU playing an offense centered around McCormack isn’t as horrifying as some would make it out to be, now that his feel for the game and comfort as a ball mover have made possessions that go into the post less predictable.