Don’t bury this Kansas basketball team’s two-big lineups just yet.
Bill Self hasn’t. It doesn’t even sound like he has bothered locating his shovel.
KU’s head coach wants to see more evidence of what combinations of Udoka Azubuike, David McCormack and Silvio De Sousa can do for the No. 5 Jayhawks before he gets too caught up in what they haven’t a couple of games into a long season.
“Right now” Self is sure to emphasize — meaning he doesn’t necessarily believe the statement will be true in the future — KU’s offense is better with four guards on the floor. It may be more a sliver of optimism than stubbornness that has Self waiting to watch it all play out.
The reasons to stick with two bigs are obvious. If it works, KU should theoretically be able to maximize its rebounding and rim protection, while also having larger bodies to set screens for various offensive actions and sets. The idea would be that the Jayhawks get such a boost in those areas that there’s a net gain outweighing the negatives that accompany playing two bigs.
And the most obvious unwelcome results could come on the defensive end of the floor. College basketball lineups are more perimeter-oriented now, so if Self has two of his three largest bodies on the court at the same time, either McCormack or De Sousa will have to defend someone who plays more like a wing when KU opponents have four-guard lineups. (Seven-footer Azubuike won’t be the one asked to pull that off.)
Think about Self’s KU teams through the years, since he came to Lawrence in 2003, and consider what usually inspires him to pick one player over another or one lineup combination over another. It’s defense. Self cares about that and the toughness associated with playing it more than how many more 3-pointers the Jayhawks can hoist with four guards.
Just as issues currently exist offensively for this roster when KU rolls with two big men — neither McCormack nor De Sousa can help space the floor as shooting threats — there are factors on the defensive end of the floor that could eventually lead Self to pivot and stick with one post player.
“Our two bigs — which are true bigs, it’s not like they’re really tall guards or perimeter 4-men — our bigs are all big,” Self said of what makes playing two of them at once risky at times for KU’s defense.
“How are we going to guard ball screens? If we switch,” Self added, “can one of those guys — Silvio or David — stay connected and be a good perimeter defender? And if we don’t switch how do we get back to shooters?”
All of those defensive actions and reactions become simpler when KU has four guards on the court. So KU’s coaches have kept working with McCormack and De Sousa to see if they can make enough improvements as defenders outside to make these not so modern lineups worthwhile.
“In defense of those guys, they’ve never done it before,” Self said, noting as he often has in the season’s first week-plus that Azubuike, McCormack and De Sousa really all are centers at heart. “Silvio’s never played on the perimeter, and David’s never played on the perimeter. This is new to them, as well.”
Neither McCormack (listed at 6-foot-10 and 265 pounds) nor De Sousa (6-9, 245) is going to transform into the type of versatile 4-man defender Self loves — think Josh Jackson. But they aren’t so awful that Self has abandoned any hope of them getting better out of their element.
Self, if so inspired, will blast a player for not performing up to the coach’s standards or call one out for being “soft” in some way, shape or form. But he didn’t say anything close to that during his weekly press conference on Thursday afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse.
Instead, Self said this of McCormack and De Sousa as perimeter defenders: “I think they’re getting better at it.”
Junior guard Marcus Garrett, often lauded by Self for his basketball IQ and defense, said during the team’s closed practices he sees McCormack and De Sousa improving. When screens call for one of the bigs to switch, Garrett shared, he sees both taking pride in “actually guarding on the perimeter.”
“Just staying in front of the ball when they get a switch. Just don’t let a guy just make one move or play with the ball and go right by him,” Garrett gave as examples. “I’m starting to see them move their feet and actually being active once they switch on a guard.”
It obviously doesn’t always go according to plan. Asked whether one of the bigs ever has to guard him outside and how that goes, Garrett just tried to hide a grin and didn’t need to provide any details that would make a teammate look bad.
Even if the improvements McCormack and De Sousa have displayed during practices have been minor in the near week since matchups with perimeter-oriented UNC Greensboro led Self to play four guards for 35 minutes, the fact is Self wants KU’s two-big lineups to work.
It’s doubtful any combination of KU’s two bigs will become so overwhelming that going large will turn into the Jayhawks’ sole identity this season. But the goal should be flexibility. And having some of that on the defensive end of the floor always comes in handy in March. Round by round, one never knows what matchups the bracket might spit out. Ideally, Kansas will be able to adjust and feel comfortable with two bigs defending or just one.
So think of the longterm and defensive upside if Self seems more patient with two bigs than you figured.
As alarming as all those turnovers were for the Kansas basketball team in its season opener against Duke, another issue that could vex head coach Bill Self and his staff all season popped up on the defensive end of the court.
No, not all bigs who space the floor are as gifted as Duke freshman Matthew Hurt. But the Jayhawks’ issues with defending the 6-foot-9 forward on the perimeter during a 68-66 loss in New York made it clear KU’s bigs can get torched outside.
The game was just 30 seconds old when the Blue Devils, as most KU opponents with a big man who can hit from outside will, tested one of the larger Jayhawks defensively. With sophomore David McCormack defending Hurt, Duke went to a pick and pop action up top. When McCormack lingered too long to prevent a Tre Jones drive, Hurt was left open for a 3. The shot didn’t fall, but it was a harbinger of what would come throughout the game, — and possibly this entire season, unless KU comes up with a workable adjustment.
Running a ball screen with a big isn’t exactly creative, but Duke didn’t need to be with Hurt. All he had to do for his first made 3-pointer was square up and jab step at McCormack.
With KU starting two big men and playing with larger lineups featuring McCormack and center Udoka Azubuike most of the night, it meant one of the Jayhawks’ post players would have to step out his comfort zone and closer to the 3-point line, where both suddenly look far less imposing.
Self never is going to ask Azubuike to chase a stretch center or power forward, so it will be up to either McCormack or Silvio De Sousa to do so, with Mitch Lightfoot redshirting.
Hurt’s third 3-point attempt came with De Sousa guarding him in the first half. Again, Duke used Hurt to screen on the ball. Although De Sousa had a little more bounce in his step as he slid and shifted to help Devon Dotson defensively against the action, he left Hurt 10-plus feet of space for a catch and shoot 3 up top, which missed.
At that moment, Self decided to play with one big, subbing Christian Braun in for Azubuike. That allowed KU’s best all-around defender, junior Marcus Garrett, to defend Hurt. Coincidence or not, Hurt didn’t try a 3-pointer with Garrett or another KU perimeter player checking him in the first half.
With KU returning to its primary two bigs to open the second half, Hurt went right back to work outside, again on a pick and pop with Jones. McCormack recovered well this time, but the mere threat of getting beat off the bounce ultimately kept him out of sorts, as Hurt jab stepped him to sleep and drained a 3.
A few minutes later Hurt found himself wide open up top when Duke center Vernon Carey Jr. first set a ball screen for Jones and then, off the action, found himself in perfect position to screen McCormack. Both KU bigs were below the foul line as Hurt rose up for a great look that misfired.
No. 3 Kansas was fortunate that so many ideal opportunities for Hurt didn’t fall. Duke again used two bigs up top versus McCormack and Azubuike late in the second half for Jones. And as the point guard utilized a Hurt ball screen, Javin DeLaurier put another pick on McCormack, freeing Hurt for a deep 3, but an uncontested one. Again, it missed.
Nevertheless, the young big remained confident, and why wouldn’t he with so many open 3-pointers coming his way. With less than 4 minutes to play, Hurt just ran his way to a 3 in transition. With McCormack trailing, Hurt raced directly to the right corner to knock down a 3 over the KU sophomore big just as he caught up.
Hurt finished 3-for-7 from 3-point range as he scored 11 points in his college basketball debut. KU didn’t have a big man that could guard him or the actions involving him on this night.
McCormack will learn from this, as will all of the Kansas bigs. Self’s two-big lineups aren’t going away anytime soon. Perhaps De Sousa can turn into the perimeter defender the KU frontcourt needs on some nights.
Until that happens Garrett can fill in as a small 4-man when a an opposing big starts cooking outside. And opponents equipped to make that happen will do so gladly for the tradeoff of KU playing without one of its large, broad-shouldered bigs in the paint.
Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s season-opening 68-66 loss to Duke on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, in New York.
• The Jayhawks’ offense, though assertive early, quickly turned frantic, and they turned the ball over 5 times in the first 8 minutes.
The mistakes kept piling up in the first half, too. Udoka Azubuike, Devon Dotson, Silvio De Sousa and Marcus Garrett all were docked style (and substance) points with at least two turnovers in the game’s first 14 minutes, when KU gave away possession 13 times. KU even turned it over out of a timeout.
With 18 turnovers in the first half, KU gifted Duke its 33-30 intermission lead, built with 18 points off turnovers.
“We were awful. We’re lucky we’re only down three,” Bill Self said in an ESPN halftime interview, citing poor play from bigs and guards alike.
• KU also came out focused on getting the ball inside — either by feeding a big or a guard attacking. The Jayhawks didn’t even attempt a 3-pointer until a little more than 8 minutes in, when out of a timeout Ochai Agbaji drained a spot-up 3 from the left wing. Shortly after, freshman Tristan Enaruna followed his lead with a 3 of his own on his first college shot attempt.
The Jayhawks shot 2-for-5 from downtown in the first half and finished 4-for-11 in their opener. Playing large lineups didn’t exactly help out KU’s floor spacing. But maybe there aren’t shooters to make the arc a weapon for KU, especially with Isaiah Moss not yet able to play due to injury.
• Self told ESPN at halftime he wanted to see his players handle Duke’s heat, have some poise and show some leadership in the second half. The Jayhawks actually looked functional offensively for a few minutes out of the break, with the kind of focus, movement and energy that Self no doubt had in mind.
That didn’t last. An untimely giveaway with less than a minute left, with David McCormack trying to force a pass from the baseline to Azubuike, allowed Duke to take a three-point lead with 26.2 seconds to go.
KU finished with 28 turnovers in its 2019-20 debut.
• Duke got 14 more shots off than KU in the first half, because the Jayhawks were turning the ball over and giving up offensive rebounds (9). At least for KU’s sake the Blue Devils didn’t get hot from 3-point range or destroy the Jayhawks inside as a result in the first half. Give the Jayhawks at least a little credit for Duke’s 13-for-35 shooting in the opening 20 minutes, which kept the Devils from burying KU early.
• Defending Duke freshman forward Matt Hurt on the perimeter proved difficult for KU bigs, most often David McCormack, putting a spotlight on some potential longterm issues for the Jayhawks this season. If opponents have a big who can stretch the floor, KU will have to limit its big man minutes if McCormack or Silvio De Sousa can’t defend bigs and/or actions outside.
• In an ugly college basketball game, KU would need stops in the final minutes to start the season with a victory.
There was some good: Garrett protecting the paint with a swat at the rim; Agbaji securing a loose ball and throwing it off a defender; surrounding Vernon Carey in the paint and coming away with the ball.
And some bad: McCormack closing out ineffectively on a Hurt corner 3; Cassius Stanley driving off a ball screen for an and-one; surrendering an offensive rebound that led to a Tre Jones jumper.
• Shockingly, the first highlight from KU’s bigs came on an Azubuike dish. The 7-footer dropped a beauty of a bounce pass from the elbow to Agbaji for a backdoor slam and the game’s first points. The senior center proved at times to be an effective passer out of the post to cutters or divers. But turnovers, including a couple of travels, from Azubuike bogged down the offense, as well.
• Self started two bigs — Azubuike and David McCormack — but playing two post players together didn’t prove too effective on either end of the floor in the first half.
• In the opening minutes of the second half, though, Self stuck with the two bigs and they combined to chip in to a key run for Kansas. Azubuike assisted twice and slammed during the stretch, which also included a pair of layups for McCormack. Such success was short-lived.
The two-bigs mostly looked advantageous on the glass, with the two starting traditional bigs combining for 22 boards, as KU won on the glass, 44-34.
• Garrett proved he can make an impact offensively early by attacking off the dribble. He only needed a few minutes in MSG to use one of his drives to set up Azubuike with a lob and an easy slam for the big man.
The junior guard’s driving and dishing also keyed an 11-0 KU run in the second half, and his defense, per usual, was valuable, as he guarded multiple positions.
Much later, a nifty attack and finish cut Duke’s lead to one in the final minutes. But his ventures inside in crunch time came away without points for KU.
• Dotson had some bright spots early, finishing in transition for one and drawing fouls and getting to the foul line on multiple occasions. But the sophomore point guard’s four first half turnovers (matching Azubuike’s total, pre-halftime) also meant the Jayhawks found no rhythm whatsoever on a national stage.
His speed showed up in the second half, with a drive and layup in the final 2:30, but another take off the bounce rimmed out.
• Agbaji stood out for the right reasons much of the game, swiping steals, getting on the floor for a loose ball and scoring some easy, high-percentage shots — all thanks to his activity. The sophomore from Kansas City, Mo., was the first player from either team in double figures, as his open 3-pointer early in the second half gave him 12 points and KU the largest lead for either team at that juncture: 6 (43-37).
Even so, Agbaji (5 cough-ups overall) couldn’t escape the turnover bug, either, and some mistakes of his in the second half came at bad times as Duke needed and achieved runs off KU turnovers.
• With KU’s bench unit mostly comprised of freshmen, De Sousa was the first man off the bench. But it was wing and newbie Enaruna who looked ready early, giving KU all 5 of its bench points in the first half.
De Sousa got to show off some of his activity inside in the second half, snatching some rebounds and also drawing contact that would take him to the free throw line.
Both have just one season of college basketball experience on their résumés. In terms of height, one of them has just one inch on the other. And when it comes to fit, either of the two University of Kansas big men have the ability to partner effectively inside with 7-footer Udoka Azubuike.
So which sturdy forward is the man for the frontcourt supporting role next to Azubuiike when KU plays big? Silvio De Sousa or David McCormack?
Head coach Bill Self and his staff, of course, have much of the offseason, preseason practices, scrimmages and even exhibitions to navigate before they really have to figure that part out.
In the meantime, the rest of the Jayhawks should get to witness quite a competition between the 6-foot-10, 260-pound McCormack, who became a more impactful player for KU late in his freshman season, and the 6-9, 245-pound De Sousa, whose first year of college basketball followed a similar path before the NCAA ruled him ineligible for what would have been his sophomore season.
“It could be,” McCormack said recently, when asked whether his battles with De Sousa in the weeks and months ahead could determine which of them enters the 2019-20 season as a starter. “But, I mean, I see it as friendly competition, pushing us to get better. And I know either way it’s going to benefit us both.”
As a freshman this past season, McCormack played in 34 games, averaging 3.9 points and 3.1 rebounds in 10.7 minutes a game. The big man who played at Oak Hill Academy (Va.) as a prep finished his debut college year shooting 62.5% from the floor, and proved to be far more effective toward the end of the schedule, after growing more comfortable at the collegiate level.
In early March, McCormack put up double-digit points in three consecutive games. In his season finale he provided 11 points and 6 boards against Auburn. McCormack projects as an overall more effective player for KU as a sophomore, particularly with the positive individual momentum that led into his offseason.
De Sousa’s a lock to blow away his previous season’s numbers, as well. Before breaking through late in KU’s 2018 Final Four season, De Sousa often played sparse minutes when asked to prove his merits to Self. Four minutes there, two minutes here. De Sousa played one minute three times in his 20 appearances off the bench for KU. In half of those 20 games he played four or fewer minutes.
It’s already been more than a year and two months since De Sousa proved in an Elite Eight matchup versus Duke (4 points, 10 rebounds and 1 block) that his presence can change a game for the better for KU. The big man never got the chance the following year to show off how much he had added to his repertoire since putting up 4.0 points and 3.7 rebounds in 8.8 minutes as a freshman, when he shot 68.1% from the floor.
Ahead of his junior year with the Jayhawks, the forward from Angola expects his clashes inside with McCormack will be intense.
“Oh, yeah,” De Sousa began, before making it clear that didn’t mean any animosity existed between the two KU bigs. “Battles are on every team. Everybody who wants to play, they must earn it.”
After watching closely as McCormack developed into a more forceful presence inside, De Sousa assessed that his teammate had a good freshman season.
“So I’m going to have to battle and fight every single day and just kind of earn the spot,” De Sousa added.
These two will be tussling in the paint and around the rim on KU’s practice courts, but how they handle various other parts of the job is likely to dictate who plays more.
If Self wants to start two big men, rather than four guards around Azubuike, ultimately, the forward who emerges as the starting 4-man will be the one who is the best fit for the lineup overall. And that might come down to which of them is more comfortable operating from the high post and/or playing some on the perimeter in order to better balance the floor.
Neither has proven in live action what he can do in that role, and neither is likely to look as natural doing so as Dedric Lawson, for example.
Both could kill it on the offensive glass playing next to Azubuike and both burly forwards possess the potential to make the paint a treacherous place to visit for KU opponents.
However, unless one of De Sousa and McCormack unexpectedly dominates the other, making the victor a no-brainer of a decision for Self, it could come down to other intangibles. Who is more versatile defensively? Which one can keep the ball moving offensively and feed Azubuike in the post? Who can drive the ball not just to score but to help keep the offense flowing?
They’ll have all summer long and then some to fine tune those aspects of the game that might not come as naturally as a jump hook off a post up.
De Sousa seems to have the more natural jumper between the two, and not because of that, but due to the tenacity that characterizes much of his game and his bounce, the sure to be fan favorite inside Allen Fieldhouse who won his appeal after the NCAA robbed him of a year of his basketball career would be my pick to win the available staring job up front.
And McCormack would be a terror of a first big off the bench.
Salt Lake City — Thursday afternoon inside the Kansas locker room, shortly after the Jayhawks opened their path through the NCAA Tournament with a first-round victory over Northeastern, head coach Bill Self had a question for his players.
“Good job. Hey, guys. One down and how many to go?” Self asked.
A mixture of responses followed, with “five” being the overriding reply.
“One,” Self quickly corrected them, as seen in a video posted on KU’s social media accounts. “One down. One to go. Hey, hey. One down and one to go, OK? All right, good job.”
When it comes to March Madness, Self always prompts his teams to look at each stop along the way as its own, four-team, two-game tournament. If the Jayhawks win the first two-game tournament, they get to go somewhere else and try to win another.
Apparently at least a few players who grew up watching The Big Dance and came to KU with dreams of chasing a national championship got caught up in the moment, knowing six wins is what it takes to cut down the nets at the Final Four.
“That tells you the impact I’ve had on their lives, as far as them paying attention,” Self would joke after the fact.
So who was to blame? Who said five?
“I think I said five,” a smiling Dedric Lawson admitted Friday at Vivint Smart Home Arena, ahead of KU’s second-round matchup with Auburn. “I forgot it was a two-game tournament.”
And with that response, Lawson didn’t hesitate to use the conversation as an opportunity to mess with nearby teammate Charlie Moore, teasingly throwing him under the bus.
“It was really Charlie’s fault. Charlie, he play too much. He’s the one that made me say five,” a grinning Lawson continued. “But we all know it’s a two-game tournament, one game at a time and things like that, so we can’t get ahead of ourselves.
Why was Moore at fault? What did he do?
“He play too much, man,” Lawson replied. “I ain’t even gonna say what he did.”
Learning that Lawson had just placed the blame on him, Moore provided his version of the story.
“That was definitely Dedric. I wasn’t gonna say nothing. But Dedric said five. If you’re listening closely to the video you’ll hear Dedric say it,” the smiling Moore insisted.
With Moore and Lawson cracking themselves up with their accusations, Moore’s assertion continued.
“Everybody said one. Dedric yelled five,” Moore argued. “He over-yelled everybody, ’cause he thought he was right. But he really wasn’t.”
Why did Lawson say it was Moore then?
“I was next to him. I don’t know why he said that,” Moore retorted.
As the allegations flew back and forth, the reactions from David McCormack, sitting in the locker stall between Lawson and Moore, indicated he knew something.
Asked for some insight, McCormack provided his opinion.
“I mean, you can never tell with these two. Between them, Marcus (Garrett), all of them, they all like to joke around,” McCormack said. “Maybe Charlie might have tapped Dedric … I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past him, honestly. He probably told him the right answer was five and everybody else said one.”
What was McCormack’s response to Self’s question?
“I took the smart route and I didn’t say anything. I just whispered to myself,” the freshman big explained, “and said one after the fact. So right or wrong, I just didn’t get called out.”
Whomever was to blame, McCormack said Lawson was “by far” the loudest to give the incorrect answer. But he wasn’t sure if there were others on Team Five.
“I just know I was standing next to Dedric, so he definitely said five,” McCormack said.
Surely veteran Mitch Lightfoot didn’t fail Self’s postgame locker room test, right?
“I don’t know what I said, to be honest,” Lightfoot claimed. “I’m not gonna self-incriminate, either. The next time he asks, we’ll be locked in on one.”
Of course, in order to do that the Jayhawks will have to get past Auburn on Saturday night.
“We’ve got to lock in for our second game of this one,” Lightfoot said, “and hopefully get to the next one.”
You can’t knock any of KU’s players for having large scale goals this time of year. The vibe the Jayhawks gave off in their locker room was one of confidence. They believe in themselves and their ability to make a deep run.
The incorrect “five” response that popped to the front of some players’ minds allowed them to have some fun along the way, too. But they all understand the crux of Self’s one down, one to go message.
“You can’t win five games if you don’t win one game,” Lightfoot said. “Slight issue.”
Kansas City, Mo. — Grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 65-57 win over Texas on Thursday night at Sprint Center.
The offense was at its best when Devon Dotson was blowing past perimeter defenders to get to the paint, but not even his flashes of dominance were enough to keep Kansas firing on all cylinders for a full 40 minutes against a Texas team operating in NCAA Tournament bubble territory these days.
Remarkably, KU outscored Texas 17-0 in fastbreak points. It often had Dotson to thank for those high-percentage, energy-lifting scores.
Those numbers also set the Jayhawks up for a 34–20 advantage in points in the paint.
Kansas shot 41.8% from the field and only made 3 of 11 3-pointers, but helped itself out by going 16 of 22 at the foul line.
UT big Dylan Osetkowski (18 points, 3 for 7 on 3-pointers) was the only Longhorn that seemed too much for KU to handle.
The other Longhorns combined to shoot 14 for 43 from the floor.
It seemed UT would need to catch fire from long range to pull off a quarterfinal victory, but the Jayhawks held them to 8 for 25 on 3-pointers.
David McCormack spent stretches of his Big 12 tournament debut posting up like a man possessed, and with him overpowering UT bigs at times, his 13 points and 9 boards were critical components of the win.
Dedric Lawson didn’t have his most efficient night, shooting 6 for 15 on the way to 16 points. But he’s the type of offensive threat that just his presence on the court benefits those around him. And he hit a timely 3-pointer as a trailer during the second half, plus he chipped in 6 boards and a couple of steals and one block.
Dotson (17 points, 4 assists) controlled the game more often than not offensively, and his assertiveness propelled KU into the semifinals.
Grimes’ shot was off much of the night (2 for 10). But he reached double figures with the help of a crucial second-half 3-pointer and a 7-for-8 showing at the foul line.
Ochai Agbaji was the low scorer among the starters, finishing with 2 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in 26 minutes.
Marcus Garrett accounted for all 5 of KU’s bench points and drew the praise of Bill Self after the win. Garrett also pitched in 8 rebounds and an assist in 20 minutes.
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
Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 78-70 win over Baylor on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
Baylor’s zone and its players’ ability to get back in transition made it nearly impossible for KU to play with any pace in the first half. Still, the Jayhawks looked comfortable in the half court more often than not.
The problem in the first half was KU missed plenty of very makable shots.
The Jayhawks shot 41.4% in the first half, while knocking in 3 of 7 from 3-point range and 5 of 6 at the foul line.
A focused start to the second half set the stage for a KU victory, though, as the Jayhawks opened on an 8-0 run and scored three of their baskets off layups.
KU shot 47 percent in the second half, and scored 18 points in the paint.
Baylor missed its first 10 attempts from 3-point range, but the Jayhawks weren’t able to put the visitors in any type of deficit early on, as the Bears never trailed by more than four during that stretch.
Still, KU hit the locker room at intermission with a slim 32-29 lead as the Bears had trouble both scoring in the paint (12 points) and hitting from downtown (2 for 15).
Other than Jared Butler’s 4-for-7 shooting in the half, the Bears were 6 for 21, and turned the ball over 8 times. But KU couldn’t keep Baylor from cashing in on offensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes — 9 BU second-chance points on 7 offensive boards.
The Bears found more success from long range in the second half (4 for 16 on 3-pointers), but not enough to make a serious run.
They finished the loss shooting 35.8 percent from the field overall.
David McCormack came out killing the Baylor zone and its frontcourt defenders in the paint.
Oftentimes it was Dedric Lawson setting him up to do so, either with passing or spacing or screening or clearing space or a pass that led to another action. The two bigs working in tandem made the Bears’ defense far less effective.
McCormack scored 10 points in the first half and opened the second by making sure he was more involved on the glass and as a defender. The freshman registered his second consecutive double-figure performance for the first time all season, in contributing 12 points, 5 rebounds and 1 block.
After a 2-for-9 first half, Lawson was more impactful offensively in the second half, primarily by getting to the foul line, where he finished 11 for 12 en route to his 20th double-double of the year (23 points, 14 rebounds).
Devon Dotson looked explosive in attacking the rim a couple of times in the first half, and on other occasions made determined drives into the teeth of BU’s zone to set up the passing KU needed to execute in the half court.
Although Dotson (15 points, 0 assists) didn’t do a ton of direct distributing for baskets, Quentin Grimes was most effective as a passer in the first half, when he dished 3 assists, including a perfectly placed lob for an Ochai Agbaji alley-oop jam.
Agbaji often asserted himself offensively, but his aggressiveness wasn’t paying off much of the afternoon, as he started 1 for 6 from the floor.
The energy and efforts of Agbaji (6 points, 3-for-10 shooting, 8 rebounds, 4 assists) on both ends of the floor kept made him a key contributor, though.
At times the same couldn’t be said of Grimes (9 points, 2 rebounds, 5 assists). Fortunately for the freshman, who drew the ire of his head coach on a few occasions, he made up for that by knocking down 3 of 4 from 3-point range.
Some Mitch Lightfoot (4 points, 4 boards) energy in the paint and some Marcus Garrett defense on the perimeter highlighted the efforts of KU’s substitutes.
As a major bonus for the Jayhawks, Garrett (7 points, 3 assists) knocked in a pair of 3-pointers.
Norman, Okla. — Grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 81-68 loss to Oklahoma at Lloyd Noble Center
It took KU a little more than 34 minutes of action to hit the 50-point mark in its latest road loss. The game never looked close on the scoreboard until it was basically over, with OU leading by as many as 24 points in the latter stages of the second half. Let’s not give the Jayhawks credit for a 13-2 run in garbage time.
The offense lacked the type of flow and confidence to challenge the Sooners. The Jayhawks shot 40.9% from the floor, only made 7 of 31 3-pointers and turned the ball over 15 times. KU’s giveaways led to 21 OU points.
The Jayhawks had no answers for the energy and focus of OU’s offense. The Sooners connected on 7 of their first 8 shot attempts and KU never could squash that momentum with some defense.
Both Brady Manek and Kristian Doolittle destroyed Kansas time and again, with the visitors showing no ability to counter the attack and come away with stops.
The Sooners shot 49.1% from the field and outrebounded KU 41-31.
Both Dedric Lawson and David McCormack contributed 18 points for the Jayhawks, and Lawson registered another double-double with 11 boards.
But neither big was the type of presence that could give OU serious concerns. Crazily enough, KU needed even more from them with the Sooners making KU’s guards mostly non-factors.
Not one member of KU’s backcourt stood out in this one, and, boy, did it cost the Jayhawks.
Quentin Grimes, Devon Dotson and Ochai Agbaji combined to shoot 7 for 25 and turn the ball over 7 times in defeat. They went a combined 2 for 14 on 3-pointers and were never able to adapt to OU’s inspired efforts.
The substitutes couldn’t give KU much of a spark either. Marcus Garrett’s 8 points and 5 boards made him the best of the bunch.
Mitch Lightfoot didn’t score, and neither did K.J. Lawson.
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.