Before the season began, not a whole lot was expected out of David McCormack during his freshman year with the Kansas basketball program.
It wasn’t that the 6-foot-10 forward from prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy lacked potential. It was just that McCormack was joining what looked like a very crowded frontcourt, with 7-footer Udoka Azubuike, 6-9 forwards Dedric Lawson and Silvio De Sousa and 6-8 Mitch Lightfoot all possesing more experience than the freshman.
Of course, McCormack’s expectations have changed significantly since then. Azubuike suffered a season-ending wrist injury and De Sousa was ruled ineligible by the NCAA. What’s more, as KU lost two potential starting guards for an unknown amount of time due to Marcus Garrett’s injured ankle and Lagerald Vick’s leave of absence, all of the sudden Kansas needed McCormack — now.
After not playing a single minute in KU’s road loss at Kansas State on Feb. 5, McCormack was thrust into the starting lineup. The freshman big man went from rarely playing 10 minutes in a game to hearing his name called during pre-game introductions.
The Jayhawks (19-6 overall, 8-4 Big 12) are 2-0 with McCormack in the starting five, with wins against OSU and TCU. But that doesn’t mean his transition to a new role has been easy.
As McCormack continues getting used to starting he said both Azubuike and De Sousa have helped him out by offering up some advice.
“Don’t try to go out and make home run plays and be a superstar,” said McCormack, relating their message. “Just do what you know how to do and do what you do best, and you can work your way up to doing things like that. That’ll benefit the team in the times that it counts.”
Playing alongside more established members of KU’s rotation, McCormack hasn’t been asked to do much. Through his first two starts he’s scored 4 total points (with all of them coming at TCU) while playing a combined 31 minutes. He’s just 1 for 6 from the floor as a starter, but is averaging 4.0 rebounds a game, plus 1.0 blocks and no turnovers.
Sometimes McCormack is running so hard or such a ball of energy inside while positioning for a rebound or posting up that it appears he’s trying to do too much. His shots inside have looked hurried, too, and sometimes the ball gets away from his hands as he goes after a rebound or entry pass.
Effort and want-to clearly aren’t issues for him. McCormack said what he must continue to work on is slowing things down.
“I know right now I’m not the playmaker type, the go-to guy,” he said. “But I know if I need to set a ball screen or get a specific rebound that’s my job to do and make sure I do that properly.”
KU coach Bill Self has praised one such aspect of McCormack’s impact repeatedly. The freshman’s footwork allows him to defend ball screens effectively on the perimeter.
The 6-10, 265-pound forward said he’s been working on his ball screen defense “a while,” predating his time at KU.
“I knew that was going to be a big thing, coming into college, just working on my lateral movement and speed,” McCormack said, adding coaches and Azubuike talk with him regularly about little things that can make him even more functional in that role. “Getting out and hedging the ball screen but making sure I get back quick, as well.”
With only six games left in the regular season, McCormack is currently one of four freshmen starting for KU — though that could change when Garrett is cleared to play.
Self and his staff ask much more of guards Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji and Quentin Grimes than they do of McCormack. But the big man who was a McDonald’s All-American just a year ago is happy to be contributing with his fellow freshmen.
“Other than youthfulness I think we all bring energy in our own way,” McCormack said. “Devon is just speedy, fast. You know, he does what he can in leading. And as you can see, Ochai, coach says he has like a model-type smile. He always has great energy, great positivity. I just bring as much energy as I can as far as rebounding. And Q just tries to bring people together, as well. So I think we just connect people in our own way.”
At some point, everything will begin clicking for McCormack, and he’ll provide KU with even more. Maybe it will happen this season, or maybe it will show when he’s a sophomore. In the meantime, he’ll keep doing the little things that can help, as advised by the big men who were supposed to be playing in front of him this season.
When the Kansas Jayhawks left Ames, Iowa, on Saturday it seemed more likely center Udoka Azubuike would play Wednesday versus TCU than miss a second game in a row.
Bill Self described holding the 7-footer out at Iowa State as “precautionary,” until Azubuike had an MRI on his injured right wrist. The results, though, presented a worst-case scenario for both the big man and KU, and by Sunday evening Azubuike’s season was officially over, due to torn ligaments that require season-ending surgery.
Prior to that news coming out, this was supposed to be a post about how much KU needed Azubuike on offense — and in a way it still is — but the original idea was that we would soon see how much the Jayhawks benefit from his presence and how essential the center would be for their success.
It’s no coincidence that KU looked worse than it has at any point this season when Azubuike was in too much discomfort to suit up against the Cyclones.
What do both of KU’s losses so far this season have in common, other than that each happened inside an opponent’s arena? For one, both defeats came with Azubuike taking on the role of spectator instead of enforcer. Now the same will be true for KU’s final 17 regular-season games, as well as the postseason.
The Jayhawks went 9-0 with their big man from Delta, Nigeria, in the starting lineup. Some of KU’s best victories to date — over Michigan State, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Marquette — featured Azubuike. And even though the starting center didn’t dominate in every one of those wins, his presence was always felt by opposing frontcourts.
Explosive around the basket, despite his hulking, 270-pound frame, Azubuike is a special kind of post player, who can make an impact even on days when he doesn’t turn into an unstoppable scorer in the paint. Just the energy exerted trying to body up against Azubuike or deny him in the post wears on rival bigs. His value to KU (12-2 overall, 1-1 Big 12) can’t be overstated.
Azubuike’s season reached a premature conclusion — 14 games in for KU and only nine games played for the junior — with him averaging 13.4 points on 70.5 percent shooting to go with his 6.8 rebounds per game in just 20.4 minutes. Azubuike, per sports-reference.com, led Kansas in player efficiency rating (29.9), true shooting percentage (64.9 percent), effective field goal percentage (70.5) and usage percentage (29.1 percent).
The 19-year-old is an offensive force at the college level. Without Azubuike Saturday at Iowa State, KU fell into its largest hole of the season (19 points with 2:46 to play) and finished with its smallest scoring total of the season (60) — the only other game in which the offense looked nearly as bad came in a 63-60 win over New Mexico State; another game Azubuike missed (ankle).
None of this, of course, bodes well for KU’s immediate future.
Unless this injury misfortune galvanizes the Jayhawks, this KU team won’t win many Big 12 games very easily. They needed Azubuike subduing defenders in the paint and catching lobs for emphatic jams. According to kenpom.com, KU (ranked No. 10) is one of six Big 12 teams ranked in the top 26 in the nation, joining No. 9 Texas Tech, No. 13 Iowa State, No. 21 Oklahoma, No. 25 Texas and No. 26 TCU. What’s more, most of those teams are ranked among the top 20 in the country defensively, per kenpom, with TCU being the lone outlier at No. 39.
Kansas doesn’t have the 3-point shooting (34.1 percent on the season) or multiple steady scoring options to roll in conference play without Azubuike. So a four-guard lineup surrounding redshirt junior forward Dedric Lawson is now a must — as is Lawson playing at an All-American level if KU wants to live up to its own standards of winning the Big 12 and making a deep March Madness run.
There is no automatic substitute for what Azubuike provided this team.
One can’t take the utopian jump to a conclusion that somehow KU will soon learn from the NCAA that 6-9 sophomore Silvio De Sousa has been cleared to play and the Jayhawks won’t miss a beat. We know as little about the likelihood of a De Sousa return now as we did the day KU announced it would hold him out of competition.
Let’s assume KU will have to keep on working with the roster it has been, minus Azubuike. Though freshman David McCormack clearly possesses talent and potential, the 6-10 big man from Oak Hill Academy can’t easily step into and fill Azubuike’s adidas.
Self rarely has played McCormack (2.5 points and 2.4 rebounds in 7.2 minutes per game) so far this season. The move would be to gradually change that. Now that Azubuike is gone, McCormack’s opportunities should increase. And because he won’t be thrown into the starting lineup and asked to do what Azubuike did, McCormack shouldn’t feel too much pressure to live up to some unreasonable expectations.
Spend January and February grooming McCormack for a larger role and he’s likely to show far more during the season’s stretch run than he has to date. McCormack is a strong, athletic, high-energy big capable of running the floor. He just needs to get comfortable so when Lawson needs a breather or gets in foul trouble the offense doesn’t nosedive.
All of the sudden, this Big 12 title defense for KU won’t be nearly as straightforward as many assumed. Losing Azubuike may even prove to be the plot twist that wrecks the Jayhawks’ streak. How Self and his players handle this midseason disruption — and how quickly they adapt — will determine just how attainable that 15th Big 12 title in a row will be.
Your best post player goes down. Time for another to step up, right?
Not for this Kansas basketball team.
The absence of center Udoka Azubuike, no matter how long the 7-footer’s right ankle sprain keeps him out of the lineup, doesn’t necessarily mean more minutes for the frontcourt reserves who have been backing him up.
Head coach Bill Self loved the talents of Azubuike and Dedric Lawson too much to not go big and play them together. But now that his starting center is out, Self’s ready to adapt by reviving the four-guard look that worked so well for the Jayhawks the past couple of seasons.
While Lawson, a 6-foot-9 redshirt junior, isn’t the type of low-post player Azubuike is, Self isn’t going to ask his versatile forward, who leads the No. 2 Jayhawks in scoring (19 points per game), rebounds (10.7) and assists (3.1) to try to be someone he’s not. And Self has no intention of forcing junior Mitch Lightfoot or freshman David McCormack into the lineup as a pseudo-Dok just because that’s the style KU played during its 7-0 start.
The offense will start running through Lawson even more now, as guards Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes, Lagerald Vick and Marcus Garrett play around him. If Lawson (32.7 minutes a game) needs a breather, then Self will turn to either Lightfoot (6.6 minutes) or McCormack (4.5 minutes) a little more than he has previously.
But even when KU is faced with defending a team that plays two bigs together, Self doesn’t think that will force him to match it. Garrett, a 6-5 sophomore guard, proved earlier this week in KU’s 72-47 victory over Wofford he can more than hold his own as the 4-man, the role occupied in recent four-guard lineups by Svi Mykhailiuk and Josh Jackson.
“We defended them so much better with Marcus on their big guy,” Self said of one factor that convinced KU’s coaching staff to start Garrett instead of another big in Azubuike’s spot. “I have confidence in Marcus defending the 4-man. Now we may need to trap the post or do some things like that. But I think that’s good for us.”
Ask a guard about the in-season modification to the Jayhawks’ style and he’ll think about what it will do for the offense.
“That gives us a bunch of freedom,” Grimes said of Garrett joining the starting lineup. “Really whoever gets (the ball on a defensive stop), all five can essentially bring it. So I think it’s definitely going to help us out for sure.”
Grimes envisions not only he and Vick catching more lobs but also he and Garrett throwing more of them.
“I think it’ll be really fun,” Grimes said.
Self, though, isn’t moving to a four-guard lineup because he’s concerned about anyone’s enjoyment or entertainment. He’s backing away from a two-big approach because Garrett’s defensive versatility makes it an easy decision.
“He’s got good size, he’s got long arms,” Self began, when asked how Garrett is able to guard both perimeter and post players. “But he is very, very smart. As far as IQ and understanding the game on the defensive side, he’s right up there with the best that we’ve ever had. And he’s tough. And he’s strong. And he pays attention to scouting reports. So he knows when to show, when not to show, when to front. … He just does a better job, I’d say, than the majority of college players out there early in his career, because he does have a great feel defensively.”
And, believe it or not, Self and his staff have long thought this year’s KU team has a chance to become “really good” defensively. Self said Thursday that may even end up becoming this group’s identity.
For much of the first six games, that didn’t look to be the case. But Self saw during Tuesday’s win over Wofford glimpses of speed and length and activity from his guards that he and his assistants first witnessed during both the summer and fall.
He’s not ready to call KU a good defensive team yet. Self remembers how his team “stunk” on that end of the floor against Stanford just five days ago. But he has observed both improvement and potential.
If that’s the vision, it may be difficult for either Lightfoot or McCormack to play huge minutes, even if they play well. KJ Lawson and Charlie Moore can step into the four-guard lineup around Dedric Lawson as needed. And Lightfoot and McCormack can sub in and still find ways to impact the game.
“We’re similar but still different,” the 6-10 McCormack said of what he and the 6-8 Lightfoot bring. “We’re both high intensity, both hustle players, both rebounders. There’s some aspects that Mitch does that I don’t. Like Mitch might step out and he’ll shoot a 3-pointer every now and then — something I may not do,” McCormack added. “Me, I’m more back to the basket. He may want to face up. So there are some differences, but there are some similarities at the same time.”
McCormack has the build and McDonald’s All-American pedigree to potentially perform his way into more playing time. And Lightfoot remains a strong help-side rim protector, as well as the best Jayhawk at taking charges.
But if neither ends up seeing a huge uptick in minutes while Azubuike is out, you won’t see either of them sulking. They’re two high character teammates, too, who will do all they can to contribute in a four-guard lineup that isn’t built to feature them.
As basketball has evolved into more of a floor-spacing, 3-point-friendly game over the course of the past several years, an increasing number of big men with frames both large and athletic enough to dominate the paint have relocated to the perimeter with the idea being they will better fit into modern offenses.
Six-foot-10 Kansas freshman David McCormack recognizes why some centers and power forwards want to adopt that style of play. But that’s not who he is.
McCormack prides himself on impacting the game with force on the interior.
“I definitely see myself as a classic big or more old school big,” he said. “I’m not one to tend to step out and shoot 3-pointers constantly or things of those sorts.”
Although it was only a glorified pick-up game, played to entertain the hundreds of KU basketball campers in attendance, McCormack performed with power around the basket in an intrasquad scrimmage this past week.
While scoring 18 points, the freshman from prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy showed off the following:
• a one-handed jam off a cut from the free-throw line
• a made jumper from beyond the right elbow
• a monster two-handed follow slam off a teammate’s missed 3-pointer
• a dribble into a contested baseline jumper from the right side
• a tomahawk slam to finish a fast break
• another two-handed follow dunk on the offensive glass
• a layup created by a teammate’s penetration
• a third fierce put-back jam, with two hands, upon meeting a teammate’s missed shot at the rim
While he at times resembles a big man from a bygone era, McCormack made it clear his effectiveness isn’t limited to layups, dunks, offensive rebounds and shots in the paint.
“I know I’m a back-to-the-basket big. But I also have the face-up game and mid-range,” he said.
McCormack, now in his second week of summer workouts at KU, began impressing his new coaches immediately. Assistant Kurtis Townsend said the 260-pound newcomer arrived with his body in great shape. A Bill Self assistant for the past 14 seasons, Townsend said McCormack dunks “everything around the basket,” has good hands, tries to block shots and already looks to be a “really good rebounder.”
A player of McCormack’s stature and four-star pedigree would immediately plug into most starting lineups as a freshman. But KU is so deep up front, with Udoka Azubuike, Dedric Lawson, Silvio De Sousa and Mitch Lightfoot, that the McDonald’s All-American figures to begin his college career as a super-sub.
“He plays with a high motor all the time,” Townsend said. “Sometimes he’s a little sped up, but, boy, if that’s your big guy that comes off the bench after those guys are pounding on Dok, I think he’s gonna be terrific.”
During his first week of workouts, pick-up games and one-on-ones — pretty much any time he was on a basketball court — McCormack said he most often found himself matched up with 6-9 sophomore forward De Sousa.
He’s looking forward to both training alongside and battling against every big in KU’s deep frontcourt.
“This is definitely a different experience with so many well-trained and developed bigs,” McCormack said. “Playing against another high-level athlete constantly with Dedric and Dok and Silvio and Mitch just constantly pushes you to be better.”
McCormack’s approach to the game should compel his teammates, as well, while also pleasing KU’s coaches. He’ll be too intense, mature and impactful to warm the cushy bench seats at Allen Fieldhouse as a freshman.
KU’s newest big man would fit in on a basketball court in any era. Just don’t be too surprised when he takes an old-school style into the 2018-19 season.