No. 1-ranked Kansas could play as many as 11 games between now and when college basketball’s national champion is crowned on April 6, in Indianapolis. And during the most pivotal and scrutinized portion of the season, the Jayhawks will have to at times get by without starting center Udoka Azubuike.
Whenever one of the best big men in the nation isn’t on the floor for KU, it will be up to Azubuike’s backup, David McCormack, to make sure his minutes result in a net positive outcome.
A sophomore who is averaging just 13.5 minutes a game in Big 12 play, McCormack won’t be asked to do anything unreasonable in the weeks ahead. But sensible basketball minds will agree that he should be more than serviceable if Azubuike is hurt, in foul trouble or needs a breather.
At 6-foot-10 and 265 pounds, McCormack is a presence inside, even though he doesn’t rebound, block shots or influence the outcome of opponents’ attempts in the paint as successfully as Azubuike does. But he proved at Kansas State this past Saturday he can impact the game in a supportive way, even in crunch time.
When the Jayhawks (26-3 overall, 15-1 Big 12) played the final six-plus minutes in Manhattan without Azubuike, because of his ailing ankle, McCormack checked in with his team up two, and in the 5:58 that followed, KU outscored K-State, 11-9.
In that span, McCormack accounted for a turnover, a steal, an assist on Christian Braun’s late-game 3-pointer, a foul, a missed jumper, a successful shot attempt and another foul.
Due to Azubuike’s ankle issue, McCormack played 20 minutes in total — his most since he was still in the starting lineup in January. The reserve center contributed nine points and four rebounds, went 2-for-7 from the floor and 5-for-6 at the foul line.
Bill Self thought KU played well down the stretch, with McCormack in for Azubuike.
“He made a big shot. He took a silly one and made a big shot,” Self clarified. “And then the one that he made at the end of the (shot) clock got waved off. I thought he did fine. I don’t think we win the game without any of our seven today that played a lot of minutes, but certainly David was pretty clutch down the stretch.”
One knock against McCormack is that so many of his shot attempts are mid-range jumpers and long 2-pointers. Earlier in the season, when KU regularly played McCormack and Azubuike at the same time, those attempts were a little more forgivable, because they relatively spaced the floor — or at least made the interior somewhat less crowded for driving guards.
But now that McCormack spends almost all of his minutes as KU’s only big on the court — and If Azubuike’s injured ankle keeps him out of KU’s home finale versus TCU it will be all McCormack all the time — he would be better suited taking his shots inside. Per BartTorvik.com, in his 26 games versus Division 1 opponents this season, McCormack is 18-for-20 (90%) on dunks, 37-for-48 (77.1%) on shots at the rim and 38-for-89 (42.7%) on other 2-pointers.
Plus, if he spends more time posting up and quickly attacking, he’s more likely to get to the foul line, where he’s quietly one of KU’s best shooters (36-for-44, 81.8%).
“I don’t know if you guys know this — that’s the first free throw he’s missed in conference play this year,” Self remarked of the big man’s lone misfire at the charity stripe versus K-State.
McCormack, who is converting 54.1% of his attempts this season and making 47.9% in Big 12 contests, isn’t shy about taking shots in his limited minutes. If he can reprogram his offensive approach by taking those shots inside, he could even become a more effective player just in time for March Madness.
Self had few critiques, though, of McCormack’s game following KU’s win at K-State.
“I thought his ball screen defense was OK. I thought he rebounded OK. But I don’t know,” Self replied, when asked if there were things McCormack could do to be more effective during his minutes. “He’s obviously a good shooter from 15 and in, so he needs to shoot the ball. But I would say just keep doing what he’s doing. He’s kind of settled into his role and is doing it pretty well.”
Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 83-58 win over Oklahoma State on Big Monday at Allen Fieldhouse.
• The Jayhawks weren’t always knocking down the 3-pointers the Cowboys invited them to take. But the offense didn’t ultimately suffer for KU as a result.
After a low-percentage first half of shooting (34.4% from the field), the Jayhawks finally got rolling a few minutes into the second half.
They connected on nine shots in a row to bury OSU, with four of their baskets in that stretch coming at the rim.
• KU finished 44% from the field in the easy home victory. The Jayhawks went 10-for-28 on 3-pointers and scored 28 points in the paint.
• The Cowboys spent much of the loss shooting in the low 30s, percentage wise.
Their 13 turnovers didn’t help, either, on a night OSU shot 38% from the floor. The Cowboys had to find and hit 3-pointers to stand a chance, but KU held them to 3-for-12.
• KU star senior center Udoka Azubuike looked ready for the attention OSU would give him from the opening moments of the rout.
Four OSU defenders zeroed in on the KU big man on an early touch and Azubuike wisely and quickly kicked the ball out to Ochai Agbaji for a wide-open 3-pointer, which the sophomore guard drained.
Azubuike wouldn’t be denied his chances to score, though, as he helped KU demolish OSU inside, all while he kept giving the Jayhawks high-level rim protection, too.
The Jayhawks’ 7-footer left the latest win with 19 points, 16 rebounds 3 blocked shots and a 7-for-8 night at the free throw line.
• Devon Dotson only shot 3-for-12 in the win. The sophomore point guard helped make up for that with his defense, as well as 4 assists and 5 boards on his 11-point night.
• Isaiah Moss quickly set his feet for his second shot attempt of the evening, a great look at the hoop from the top of the key, and the grad transfer knocked it down with the OSU defense collapsing on the interior any time KU got the ball inside. He looked like the perfect solution to OSU’s defensive strategy.
Moss finished 3-for-6 on 3-pointers. Not exactly a game-changer, but the exact kind of solid production KU need from him.
• Ochai Agbaji bounced back nicely from a scoreless game at Baylor, putting up 15 against OSU, to go with his typical defensive effort.
• Marcus Garrett was the best creator and distributor among KU’s guards, dishing 7 assists.
His defense, as always, made him a huge bonus for the Jayhawks’ lineups, too, on a night Garrett produced 5 points and 3 rebounds.
• David McCormack early on looked explosive on an offensive rebound and follow jam, hranessing his energy for good.
McCormack wasn’t done there, either, with the blowout allowing him to get plenty of quality minutes. The sophomore backup big came away with 10 points and 4 rebounds, plus 1 block.
• Christian Braun looked confident with the ball in his hands again, and was a shooter that gave OSU trouble, as he went 3-for-4 from deep.
• The KU subs outscored OSU’s, 24-13.
Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 78-75 win over Texas Tech on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
• The Jayhawks looked poised to blow Texas Tech out in the game’s opening minutes, seeking out open shots and making sure to get the ball inside. The great start would be short-lived but needed.
• KU scored 18 points in the paint in the first half, even as Udoka Azubuike went without a made field goal inside.
• Kansas shot 55% from the floor in the first half, but four players combined to go just 9-for-15 on free throws.
• With Udoka Azubuike finding it hard to stay on the floor versus Tech, and the Red Raiders adjusting well at halftime, the KU offense began to unravel at times in the second half, allowing Tech to make it a one-possession game on a couple of occasions.
• Timely responses to Tech scores and runs made the difference down the stretch. KU shot 48% in the second half and 1-for-5 on 3-pointers. The Jayhawks scored 38 points in the paint.
• Texas Tech missed its first 7 attempts from the field as KU raced out to a 10-0 lead behind strong defense from its four-guard starting lineup, which happens to be anchored by the very large Azubuike. The Red Raiders fell behind by as many as 15 points in the first half. But were able to go on a key spurt when Azubuike checked out of the game with two fouls.
KU limited the visitors to 38% shooting in the game’s first 20 minutes, when the Red Raiders were 2-for-9 on 3-pointers.
• Tech’s offense got comfortable from time to time in the second half, and the Jayhawks quite a few times let the visitors do that by giving up 3-point looks. The Red Raiders went 7-for-12 from deep in the final 20 minutes.
• KU’s only starting big man picked up his second foul at the midway point of the first half. A charge call and a third foul a couple minutes into the second half meant the most valuable man on the roster would spend even more time on the bench.
• The Jayhawks led, 53-48, when Azubuike finally came back in with 12:55 to play in the second half.
• KU needs Azubuike on the floor to overwhelm opponents and truly be great. This was not the big man’s day and the senior 7-footer had 5 points and 8 rebounds in 16 minutes.
• KU’s guards all brought an assertive offensive approach to the afternoon. And with the way Marcus Garrett remained intent on getting to the paint, Tech’s defense had to keep moving and reacting. Garrett kept the Red Raiders off balance and set himself and his teammates up for great shots in the game’s opening minutes.
The Jayhawks led by 15 less than 8 minutes in after Garrett made his way inside for his second layup. When he wasn’t scoring off drives, he was assisting for uncontested, high-percentage looks.
• Garrett fell hard on a drive inside late in the first half, appearing to bother his ankle or foot. He already had 7 points and 2 assists when he checked out with 4:25 left until halftime.
He’s Marcus Garrett, though. So he was fine. And by the end of the game he was blocking shots inside in a one-possession game to seal a KU win.
Garrett willed the Jayhawks to a win and gave them 15 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks.
• Devon Dotson proved just as impossible for Tech defenders to stay in front of, as the sophomore repeatedly blew by Red Raiders for layup, on his way to 13 first-half points.
After Tech made it a 2-point game with less than 9 minutes to go in the second half, Dotson seemed to take it personally. He sought out a layup, grabbed two defensive rebounds and threw a lob for a powerful David McCormack slam in the following minute-plus, as KU extended its lead to 8.
Dotson came through with 21 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals and 3 assists.
• Ochai Agbaji came out hot for KU, nailing his first three shot attempts, all jumpers. Those quick 7 points would remain his total at halftime, but his quick start helped KU create some crucial separation against a strong Tech defense.
Agbaji finally scored again when the game was tight in the second half, and his defense, as always, was a must on the perimeter. Plus, taking his first free throws of the game with KU up 1 points with 14.3 seconds left, Agbaji made both on a 1-and-1.
The sophomore had 11 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks.
• Christian Braun wasn’t finding open looks from 3-point range early, but he didn’t force the issue, either. The freshman, inches second career start, took hard-nosed drives to the paint instead, seeking contact and getting to the foul line.
His first bucket of the day felt meaningful, though, as he cashed in an open 3-pointer to give KU a double-digit lead minutes after it was a 2-point game.
Tech defended Braun well, though, mostly, and he gave KU 6 points and 5 boards.
• When David McCormack made his return from his two-game suspension, the Red Raiders initially looked more effective on both ends when the sophomore was on the floor.
But McCormack eased his way back and eventually helped KU keep its head above water for a while in the second half, when Azubuike picked up his third foul early on.
His size and athleticism helped him erase a couple of Tech layups. And the sophomore even showed off his passing with one bounce pass assist and another feed on an Isaiah Moss cut.
McCormack provided 6 points and 6 boards, plus 3 rejections.
• Moss missed his first 3-point try and turned the ball over before he did anything productive, but didn’t let a rough beginning to his afternoon deter him.
The senior guard really tok off in the second half, and even put up points in bunches without getting them from deep as one might expect.
Moss finished with 12 points and looked perfectly suited for his 6th man scorer role.
• The KU rotation now has two starting level players coming off the bench in McCormack and Moss, and the Jayhawks’ subs outscored Texas Tech’s, 20-5.
Anyone out there pondering the pros and cons of the Kansas basketball team continuing to start two bigs — even though it ends up playing more four-guard lineups — isn’t alone.
Bill Self is right there with you.
While the Jayhawks’ head coach has started sophomore forward David McCormack in 16 of KU’s 17 games, Self these days seems more contemplative on the matter.
The way he explained on Monday his recent line of thinking, Self suggested slightly altering the starting five was on his mind this past week. He may have even come closer than ever to switching it up for one of KU’s road games at Oklahoma and Texas, but the moving parts gave him pause.
The Jayhawks didn’t know for certain going into those games whether sophomore point guard Devon Dotson, who was dealing with a hip pointer, would be able to play. Before the game at UT, Self said, if he decided to start senior guard Isaiah Moss instead of McCormack, and then Dotson wasn’t cleared to play, he would have essentially been taking McCormack out of the starting five just to put him right back in. The coach didn’t want to “mess with” his big man’s mind with any juggling.
“So I thought it was best just to leave a status quo,” Self explained, “so you’re only messing with one guy, as opposed to messing with two.”
Dotson, of course, ended up returning and starting at Texas, so Moss, who started in Dotson’s place at OU, was the only Jayhawk waiting to find out his role at UT.
The approach worked, as Kansas (14-3 overall, 4-1 Big 12), now ranked No. 3 in the nation, won back-to-back road games. But the fact that he thought so hard about the starting five leads one to wonder whether Self’s more open than ever to making a change.
He said Monday, ahead of KU’s Sunflower Showdown with Kansas State at Allen Fieldhouse, he doubted one was imminent. Even so, Self went on to describe a potential benefit of starting Moss.
“We know that our five most productive players on the floor is with Isaiah in the lineup,” Self said, clarifying that five-man group teams Moss with four other KU starters, Dotson, Marcus Garrett, Ochai Agbaji and Udoka Azubuike. “Stats, analytics prove that out.”
To Self’s point, in Saturday’s win at Texas, that lineup played 15:36 and outscored the Longhorns, 28-18, while committing three turnovers. The starting five, with McCormack on the court instead of Moss, played 7:32, was outscored, 15-10, and turned the ball over once.
McCormack, a 6-foot-10, 265-pound sophomore, still brings a different kind of presence to the floor that Self appreciates. The coach valued the big man’s play so much at UT that McCormack logged 20 minutes, a new high for him this season in Big 12 play. The starting forward who so often plays a backup’s minutes contributed 6 points and seven rebounds.
More importantly, overall, lineups with McCormack worked against Texas. When he was in the game, the Jayhawks outscored UT, 34-24. When McCormack sat, Texas outscored KU, 33-32.
“From a chemistry standpoint, I think up until this point it’s still been best for us to go the way that we've been going,” Self said of starting McCormack, “because you're still going to have ample opportunities to have that other lineup.”
Self wants KU to have experience playing bigger in case the Jayhawks need that type of lineup at some stage of the NCAA Tournament. And while a change to the starting lineup wouldn’t make getting those in-game repetitions impossible, it’s easy to see how it could be less appealing. Self didn’t hide the fact that KU has been better with four guards this season. If he removed McCormack from the starting lineup and gave the spot to Moss, carving out time to use two bigs probably isn’t going to give KU much of a spark against most teams.
Plus, if KU started four guards around Azubuike and didn’t at some point play two bigs, it would become even harder to find McCormack the minutes Self thinks the big man deserves.
Right now, Self is trying to take into account both chemistry and data as best he can.
“It's something that I think’s fair,” Self said of sticking with McCormack, “and I've actually thought quite a bit about.”
To McCormack’s credit, he’s amenable to his coach’s instincts, even when those lead Self to play smaller. At Texas, KU opened the second half with its best four-guard look, and Moss in for McCormack.
“Same approach as always,” McCormack said of the eight minutes he spent as essentially a second-half reserve. “Control what you can control. Coach felt like it was a better lineup, like going smaller would give us a better chance to win. And that’s what I want. I want the benefit of the team. And, you know, it’s not the first time that he’s done that. So I just stick to it and give myself up for the team.”
Happy with McCormack’s play at Texas, Self said it was an example of why people shouldn’t get hung up on starting roles, based on how a certain player performs in one game, because McCormack “was probably better” than Moss versus the Longhorns.
“He just has a different type of role,” Self said of his sophomore big man. “But I know what I hope for, and it doesn't have anything to do with who starts. It has everything to do with how are we able to be successful playing two bigs? Because we're going to some. And then how do we maximize the opportunity to play small, which we have to the majority of time?”
Moss (24.8 minutes a game in Big 12 play, 23.2 minutes on the season) is playing more than McCormack (14.6 minutes in the Big 12, 16.3 overall) anyway. Swapping one out for the other in the starting five isn’t going to change that.
“We’re still going through the process of trying to figure that out,” Self said of finding the proper combination of two-big and four-guard lineups, “but I do think getting some offense off the bench (Moss is averaging 8.1 points per game this year) hasn’t been bad for us.”
David McCormack is in a tough spot, which is a strange thing to say about a big man who starts for the No. 3 college basketball team in the country.
It’s just that the Kansas sophomore never knows from game to game how much playing time will be coming his way.
The Jayhawks, of course, open up against their opponents with an imposing frontcourt tandem in the 6-foot-10 McCormack and 7-footer Udoka Azubuike. However, KU often turns to four-guard lineups quickly, making it hard for McCormack to find minutes behind the team’s primary low-post player, Azubuike.
In the past two games, his 11th and 12th starts of the season, McCormack logged 11 minutes at Stanford and just 10 minutes — his fewest this year — against West Virginia.
Theoretically, it seemed KU might be able to get away with playing both of its big bodies versus WVU because the Mountaineers also start two behemoths, with 6-9 Oscar Tshiebwe and 6-10 Derek Culver. It turned out Saturday in Allen Fieldhouse wasn’t McCormack’s day, though.
“David got off to a terrible start,” head coach Bill Self said after KU beat WVU. “I don’t mean to be negative, but he got off to a terrible start. And then we put him back in there and he gambles (defensively) and misses on a guy who isn’t going shoot the ball from outside of 4 feet and gives him a dunk and it’s like he was just too sped up. He wasn’t himself.”
As a result, KU didn’t turn to the potentially powerful McCormack when the second half began, and he finished the Big 12 opener with 2 points and three rebounds. Those were actually an improvement on his scoreless outing at Stanford on Dec. 29, when he recorded two rebounds and turned the ball over three times.
Nevertheless, the former McDonald’s All-American didn’t leave the win over WVU without showing a positive sign for the future. McCormack only played three minutes in the second half, at one point giving Azubuike a breather and later on allowing KU to play in a tight game without its worst free-throw shooter, Azubuike, on the court.
Fewer than 3:30 remained on the clock when McCormack, with KU up 6 points, delivered a critical and impressive sequence. McCormack first skied over Culver for a defensive rebound, then headed down to the offensive end, where his activity and instincts led him up to the rim to finish off a lob from Marcus Garrett for a slam, as well as what was KU’s largest lead of the game up to that point.
“David is usually the kind of guy with poise, and when he went back in the game down the stretch, he was great,” Self said. “And he went and got that ball, he went and got that rebound and Marcus made a perfect pass to him when we set something up for (Garrett) to drive it downhill.”
Those plays in crunch time by McCormack proved he can come through even when he’s had a subpar outing or he’s not playing 20-plus minutes like he did against Duke, BYU and Villanova.
McCormack’s only playing 16.5 minutes a game. More often than not, KU (11-2) will need him to do his best Azubuike impersonation as the No. 2 center for the Jayhawks’ four-guard lineups.
The physically gifted sophomore is capable of performing that role well this season. Set high ball screens and roll or slip for lobs. Post up and score from the blocks when defenses aren’t doubling KU bigs inside. And, of course, defend and rebound.
He could even turn into a more effective scorer by taking Azubuike’s approach to shot attempts when McCormack is in for the 7-footer. Per hoop-math.com, Azubuike attempts 75.8% of his shots at the rim (with dunks and layups). McCormack has only taken 39.7% of his shot attempts in that high percentage portion of the paint. On his 31 tries to date on layups and dunks, McCormack is converting 74.2% of the time, second among Jayhawks only to Azubuike’s 87.5%.
A starter and a role player all at once, McCormack has the right attitude and skill set to pull it off, difficult as it may be. The more effective he can be when it’s his turn to be KU’s only big on the floor, the better the Jayhawks will be overall.
Kansas City, Mo. — Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 98-57 win over UMKC on Saturday at Sprint Center.
• Throw out the first 8 minutes or so and KU mostly overwhelmed UMKC. The Jayhawks rarely even needed the 3-point line to continually add to their lead.
KU shot 63% from the field in the second half and finished with 52 points in the paint.
• KU didn’t need to do much to disrupt and challenge the Roos, and once the Jayhawks consistently played with some effort the hometown team’s chances of keeping up diminished.
UMKC shot 42.3% overall in defeat, turned it over 22 times and made 9 of 18 3-pointers.
• On a day that KU should have come out and dominated inside from start to finish, the listless start from the Jayhawks kept the game close early, with UMKC even leading nearly 10 minutes in.
• The interior play for Kansas picked up right about the time that Udoka Azubuike returned from his first breather on the bench. KU had tried its two starting bigs (Azubuike and David McCormack) for a few minutes, then Silvio De Sousa as the lone interior player. None of those looks were particularly effective in front of a low-energy crowd.
But KU, which trailed 11-10 when Azubuike checked back in, steadily built a 10-point lead in the 5 minutes that followed. The 7-foot senior blocked a couple shots, scored inside, grabbed some rebounds, even passed out an assist to Devon Dotson for a layup as KU finally began playing with some focus and gaining control.
Azubuike finished the win with 9 points, 5 rebounds and 3 blocks.
• When Azubuike headed to the bench for another breather in the latter stages of the first half, KU got some Udoka-like production out of McCormack. The sophomore big was up to 10 points and 4 rebounds by the final media timeout of the half. He hit jumpers, played hard inside and helped KU maintain a double-digit lead.
McCormack made sure KU headed to intermission on a positive note, too, as he provided energy and scoring in the final minutes of the half. He finished with 28 points and 7 rebounds.
• One would have figured Dotson, Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett would come out flying around the flooring making life difficult for UMKC’s guards on both end of the court. But it took the trio a while to warmup for this nonconference December matchup.
• Agbaji couldn’t put together the types of shows he had of late, but Dotson and Garrett started producing once KU regrouped.
Oddly enough it was Garrett (13 points, 4 assists), who hit each of his three 3-point tries, who was the only Jayhawk hitting from outside, while also distributing and defending.
Dotson’s obvious speed advantage showed up from time to time, and the longer the game went the more he was able to stand out as UMKC wore down. Dotson contributed 18 points and 3 assists.
Agbaji wasn’t involved much offensively for much of the win, finishing with 5 points on 2-for-3 shooting.
• It wasn’t until very late in the blowout that KU’s reserves really started contributing. Silvio De Sousa was the most effective, especially in the second half. KU’s third big man in its rotation put up 9 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks.
This was a great opportunity for the reserves to shine. But KU only had 13 bench points when Chris Teahan checked in late with KU up 39. The reserves finished with 25 points.
Christian Braun provided nice effort on the glass, too, with 7 rebounds.
Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 71-56 win over BYU on Tuesday at the Maui Invitational.
• An ugly first-half stretch for the Jayhawks’ offense kept the semifinal tight during the opening 20 minutes. KU missed 8 shots in a row and went close to 6 minutes without scoring during one stretch.
Even though KU had the bigs to potentially outmatch BYU inside, the Cougars often made it difficult for the Jayhawks to get the ball in their post players’ hands. So points were hard to come by as KU shot 2-for-9 on 3-pointers in the first half and only attempted three free throws.
• The high-percentage looks for KU increased in the second half, and the Jayhawks’ passing influenced that shift. Devon Dotson, Marcus Garrett, Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack and Udoka Azubuike each dished an assist as KU opened the second half 7-for-10 from the floor.
KU shot 53.1% from the field in the second half and only turned the ball over 4 times in the final 20 minutes to pull away.
• The importance of KU’s defensive work outside the 3-point line became evident quickly versus BYU, with the Cougars getting up 5 3-pointers in the first 5 minutes. BYU routinely worked the ball around to seek out open looks and the Cougars showed no hesitation to fire away when they found an open man.
BYU went 3-for-9 in the opening 10 minutes, and KU was fortunate that some of the Cougars’ good looks didn’t fall. The Jayhawks spent the better part of the next several minutes limiting BYU’s 3-point opportunities. But a late half flurry — 2-for-5 in the 3 minutes leading up to halftime — cut into KU’s lead.
The Cougars shot 5-for-17 from deep in the first half (29.4%) and 38.5% from the floor.
• BYU missed its first 10 3-point tries in the second half, as KU got out to a comfortable lead. Some were open, on some KU’s defense deserved at least a little credit for the shots not falling. The Cougars only made 9 of 33 (27.3%) from long range in the loss.
• Even though much of the BYU offense is built around back cuts and passing, the Cougars turned the ball over 20 times and scored just 18 points in the paint.
• KU only got two made shots at the rim apiece out of its biggest players, Udoka Azubuike and David McCormack in the first half.
The Jayhawks made sure to change that in the second half, with layups and dunks from the two bigs helping KU build its first double-digit lead.
• McCormack found a rhythm as a scorer, putting up a team-high 16 points, while showing some touch as KU advanced to the Maui Invitational final and a matchup with Dayton.
• Ochai Agbaji did much more than put up points (14), but the sophomore did a bulk of that work, too, in a low-scoring game.
Agbaji’s rebounding and passing came in handy, but so did his his hustle.
• Devon Dotson (13 points, 5-for-16 shooting) took it right at the BYU defense off the bounce early, proving his handles and speed in the open court could be a problem for the Cougars. But some missed layups by the point guard kept him from destroying BYU the way it seemed he might.
Even so, Dotson had one of his better distributing nights, racking up 8 assists.
• Marcus Garrett’s workmanlike approach to the opening minutes of the second half allowed KU to build its biggest lead of the game up to that point, before the first media timeout. Garrett’s passing, driving, defense and even a 3-pointer turned a tie game into a 38-31 KU lead.
• With Isaiah Moss off offensively, KU got little production from its subs. Moss knocked down his first attempt, a 3, of course, in rhythm but couldn’t replicate that moving forward. He finished the win shooting 2-for-8 from the floor.
Still, Moss is a good fit for the KU offense’s spacing and flow, and the Jayhawks’ lead grew when he was on the floor.
• Silvio De Sousa barely played until the game was all but over (3 minutes).
Tristan Enaruna wasn’t creating as much as he can offensively.
Moss (5 points) was the only member of the bench who had scored much of the night. But Christian Braun finished an alley-oop pass on a break from Dotson in the final minutes and Enaruna hit 3 of 4 free throws.
One spot in the Kansas basketball team’s starting lineup is subject to change. For now.
It’s mostly been David McCormack occupying the position up front, next to Udoka Azubuike, for the No. 4 Jayhawks. However, Bill Self isn’t opposed to going with Silvio De Sousa in his two-big starting lineup either.
A few weeks into the season, McCormack has started three games and De Sousa one as Self figures it out. But the coach said during his weekly press conference on Thursday he’d prefer to have the matter resolved rather than keep switching back and forth.
“I’ve always thought our best teams we all knew who was starting and who was coming off,” Self said. “I would think that that would be the case.”
Almost thinking out loud about the merits of both McCormack, a 6-foot-10, 265-pound sophomore, and De Sousa, a 6-9, 250 junior, Self remarked that McCormack has been the better of the two overall a mere four games into the season.
“But the way the game ended the other day,” Self went on, providing a counterpoint to his previous statement, “Silvio helped us win. And what he did defensively maybe nobody else on our team can do quite as well as what he does, what he did.”
De Sousa played the final 5:44 of KU’s win over East Tennessee State earlier this week, coming up with a steal, two blocks and a defensive rebound, as well as three baskets in the paint, as KU’s lead improved from 5 when he checked in to 12 by the final buzzer. De Sousa finished with 8 points and a rebound in 9 minutes off the bench.
That same night, McCormack, who twice this season has led KU in rebounds — 13 versus Duke and 11 adjacent Monmouth — only played 12 minutes and contributed 4 points and 3 rebounds as the starter.
“I really don’t have a preference,” Self said of which of the two bigs starts, adding he would see how practices go in the days leading up to the Maui Invitational before deciding which big would open KU’s next game on the court. “You know, it’s coach speak: it doesn’t matter who starts, it’s who finishes. But I know players don’t necessarily buy into that 100%, nor really should they — though I know it is important to some.”
The good news for Self, as well as the Jayhawks, is that it’s hard imagining two players better suited to handle this situation than McCormack and De Sousa. Their off-court personalities are similarly good natured and they both are high-energy competitors when they’re on the floor, making them uniquely equipped to keep battling for playing time without griping or second-guessing.
“They’re great teammates, great guys,” KU sophomore point guard Devon Dotson said. “Unbelievable personalities.”
This Kansas team has a minutes crunch up front, because Self isn’t playing two big men exclusively, even though that’s how every game so far has begun. For long stretches, the Jayhawks roll with four guards and one big. And most of the time that one big man is Azubuike, the 7-footer with the career 74.6% field goal percentage.
“It’s been a grind for those two,” sophomore guard Ochai Agbaji said while praising McCormack and De Sousa. “They have great attitudes every game. Having that when they don’t have the opportunity to play (as much as they’d like) is always good for our team.”
Self said both McCormack and De Sousa “deserve” to play more. So far this season McCormack is averaging 16.7 minutes while De Sousa has only played 11.1 minutes a game.
“But so much of it’s going to come down when you look at it to just a skill set and size standpoint, what we do well may not be exactly in line with what the other teams do well,” Self said of the four-guard KU lineups that eat into potential minutes for the two bigs in question. “So it will be game to game in many situations.”
McCormack might be the team’s best rebounder. De Sousa might be the best offensive rebounder and shot blocker — though none of KU’s three bigs plays like a true rim protector. Both can run the floor, bruise opposing frontcourt players and deliver the type of energy that can swing games.
That shouldn’t change when Self ultimately decides to start one over the other. If all goes according to plan, they can even be interchangeable energy players whenever needed. Their coach even likes the idea of being able to use playing time as a motivator for both.
“The reality of it is I think it does put an extra oomph in them when they get out there, knowing that if it doesn’t go great then somebody else probably can sub in,” Self said. “And if they play well it may limit your future opportunities, at least in that particular game.”
It’s easy to envision both McCormack and De Sousa as a starter or an ideal reserve big man. When one of them becomes the official owner of a starting position, the other shouldn’t feel neglected.
“I hope they both know that I see them as both being starters,” Self said. “As far as I’m concerned we’ve got six. And I hope they view it that way, as well.”
Whether it’s McCormack or De Sousa who locks down the starting spot, it’s a non-issue for Kansas. The Jayhawks will be fortunate to have one of them as a backup.
De Sousa might be perfect for the sixth man role. Flying for alley-oops, battling for offensive rebounds and bringing activity to the defensive end of the court makes De Sousa the type of player you can count on to bring some punch to the floor, and that’s a difficult commodity to find in college basketball.
The more De Sousa plays with the type of liveliness he showed in crunch time versus East Tennessee State, the more his minutes will go up, too, even as a reserve.
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.