If for some reason you needed any more proof that this year’s Kansas basketball team isn’t going to win the Big 12 or roll into the NCAA Tournament as one of the favorites to cut down the nets in Indianapolis, you found it Saturday in the Jayhawks’ 75-68 loss at Oklahoma.
If you’ve watched enough KU basketball through the years, you didn’t need a reminder that the current roster can’t dominate like so many of its elite predecessors.
Either way, we should all be on the same page now. This Kansas basketball team looks like a fairly ordinary No. 5 seed.
It’s because the Jayhawks have been so consistently ridiculously good in the Big 12 for so long, that it may be challenging for some to accept that. Even one of the least imposing teams Bill Self has coached in his 18 years with KU, the 2018-19 roster that finished 26-10 in the wake of Udoka Azubuike’s season-ending injury, was a No. 4 seed. That’s the lowest seed line KU has fallen to on Self’s watch.
It looks like that might change this year.
March Madness brackets are still seven weeks away from being finalized. But right now the Jayhawks are 10-5 overall, 4-4 in the Big 12 and not living up to their current No. 9 ranking, which will obviously take a significant hit when the new AP top 25 comes out on Monday.
As they failed to get the defensive stops they needed to win at OU on Saturday, something Self said after KU’s loss at Baylor earlier in the week came to mind.
“We’ve got a nice basketball team. A pretty good basketball team.”
Self’s no fool. He knows this is a flawed team — at least by KU’s standards. But the reality of the situation is there’s actually nothing wrong with having a “nice” or “pretty good” basketball team. Most programs around the country would love to be a No. 5 seed on Selection Sunday.
Does that mean complacency is about to set in for the Jayhawks? Of course not.
The goal will remain to change the narrative between now and when the games and outcomes matter even more in March.
KU senior Marcus Garrett, who played on a Final Four team in 2018 and arguably the best team in the country in 2020, no doubt understands how far away this team is from those heights. But he also has an idea of where KU better adapt if the Jayhawks want to alter their trajectory.
“I feel like we just have to lock in defensively,” Garrett said after the Sooners shot 45%, marking the third game in a row — all three KU losses — that the opponent shot at least that well.
“If we can get key stops there late, stops at the end of the shot clock,” Garrett added. “I feel like there’s a lot of times when teams just score at the end of the shot clock on us or late at the end of the game.”
Last year, the Jayhawks’ benefited from the smothering defense they could play with Azubuike, Garrett and Devon Dotson. Other years, they just out-talented most of the Big 12 pretty easily.
Having a “nice,” “pretty good” basketball team isn’t something KU fans are used to seeing, nor the type Self is used to coaching. And while Self has openly demonstrated he knows where KU’s at right now — “We’re just like 97% of the teams in America,” he said at one point after the OU loss — he remains optimistic about the Jayhawks’ chances to evolve into something greater.
KU isn’t anywhere near playing to its ceiling currently. But Self said his team got closer to its optimum level in December, following the season-opening loss to No. 1 Gonzaga, when he thought the Jayhawks “were pretty damn good” while winning eight in a row.
“Usually our teams get better after Christmas. Post-Christmas we haven’t been nearly as good,” Self said after his team fell to 2-4 in January. “And I think a lot of it is the competition, I think it’s where we’re playing, but also I think we don’t have the same oomph as what we had prior.”
The search for ways to change course midseason is officially on. Self openly shared after the OU loss he may need to shake up KU’s lineup. As he tinkers in the days ahead, he hopes to find some combinations that do the trick.
“I am very optimistic that this team could still have a very, very, very successful and potentially storybook ending,” Self said. “I still believe that. I think we’ve got to do some soul-searching and look in the mirror — and I’m talking about coaches everybody — and find out, ‘Hey, just what do we really need to do and commit to for us to be the best we can be.’ Because I think we say we want to commit to it, but I don’t think we’re all totally bought in to that. So I think there’s some things we can do to improve in that area.”
This season’s story is different than the ones KU fans are used to reading. But didn’t a lot of those old page-turners end in despair anyway? Maybe the hopelessness of a — gasp — three-game losing streak will dissipate by March.
Regardless of the wins and losses that come in November, December, January and February, the goal is always to be peaking when March Madness rolls around.
Saturday’s loss at OU could be the wakeup the Jayhawks needed. Self doesn’t seem interested in stubbornly plodding ahead with something that isn’t working.
Will whatever comes next magically turn KU back into a No. 1 seed? No. But it’s time to embrace the fact that these Jayhawks are not going to reach the level of Gonzaga or Baylor this season. KU could theoretically even beat one of those elite teams on a given day or night, but it's consistency that separates the Zags and Bears from every other team — especially KU.
There might be some real entertainment value in the Jayhawks as a No. 5 seed, too. KU as the hunter instead of the hunted during the NCAA Tournament sounds intriguing.
It doesn’t feel like all that long ago that Tyon Grant-Foster was finding ways to soar and shine off the bench for Kansas during the nonconference schedule. But as the stakes have risen and the opponents have become more daunting in Big 12 play, Grant-Foster’s minutes have dwindled.
Earlier this week the 6-foot-7 junior college transfer didn’t play a second during the Jayhawks’ Big Monday game at No. 2 Baylor. That prompted a postgame question for head coach Bill Self regarding whether Grant-Foster was even available.
Self said he was, and it wasn’t an injury for Grant-Foster that limited KU’s rotation to eight players in the 77-69 road loss. It would seem Self didn’t regret the decision.
“I hate that he didn’t play and that he’s not playing much,” Self said, obviously referencing how the backup’s minutes have plunged during Big 12 play. “I would certainly like to see more in practice that would probably give us confidence to play him in a situation like that.”
Grant-Foster didn’t have any issues finding playing time when KU last took on a non-Big 12 opponent. He scored a personal season-best 13 points on 5-for-10 shooting in 20 minutes during a rout of Omaha on Dec. 11. But since then, here’s how much he’s played during KU’s 4-3 start to conference play:
• W at Texas Tech — 4 minutes
• W vs. West Virginia — DNP
• L vs. Texas — 10 minutes
• W at TCU — 9 minutes
• W vs. Oklahoma — 3 minutes
• L at Oklahoma State — 1 minute
• L at Baylor — DNP
His most time off the bench in league play has come in a blowout loss and a blowout win. When games are in the balance, Self turns to the players he trusts most.
“He’s not playing,” Self bluntly replied on Thursday, when asked during a video press conference about where Grant-Foster is in his development this season. “That kind of says it right there.”
KU’s coach made it clear Grant-Foster — currently averaging 3.7 points on 40% shooting (1-for-15 on 3-pointers), as well as 2.6 rebounds a game in just 9.4 minutes — hasn’t been held back for any disciplinary measure or anything of that nature. Basically, what Self sees in practice hasn’t convinced him to play Grant-Foster more in games.
“I love the kid. He’s a great human being. A sweet spirit,” Self said, before admitting he thought Grant-Foster would be contributing more at this stage of the season.
“He’s terrific. He just hasn’t had the opportunities,” Self said. “It’s hard to give guys opportunities when you haven’t seen some consistency.”
KU’s coach seemed genuine in his fondness for the athletic junior guard, who transferred in during the past offseason from Indian Hills Community College. So much so that Self actually appears authentically conflicted about not playing Grant-Foster.
“I’ve got to get him out there,” Self said, even repeating the sentence. “I want to get him out there. He deserves to be out there.”
It was those words out of the coach’s mouth on Thursday that leads one to believe we’re about to see more of Grant-Foster in the next couple of weeks, beginning Saturday at Oklahoma. It’s difficult for a young player to grow and gain confidence without playing during actual games. And it appears Self is trying to find the balance between teaching Grant-Foster about the effort it takes to earn minutes and giving the first-year KU player some opportunities to prove himself.
Assuming no more postponements pop up due to the pandemic, the Jayhawks (10-4) have upcoming Big 12 games against OU, TCU and Kansas State in which Grant-Foster could be integrated into the rotation. (A Jan. 30 nonconference road trip to face a 10-2 Tennessee team might be more of a challenge for the developing reserve.) But the time to see if Grant-Foster can indeed live up to Self’s standards is now, given that freshman guard Bryce Thompson’s broken finger has hurt KU’s depth.
Grant-Foster is the type of offensive player who has never encountered a shot attempt he isn’t convinced he will make (see: his 25.1% usage and 3.4% assist percentages). But that could potentially be a good thing for KU if the Jayhawks can turn Grant-Foster into a specific type of role player who comes in for an offensive spark. If he can make that happen, he’ll also have to avoid becoming a defensive liability if he wants to stay on the floor.
We should know by Feb. 6, when KU plays at WVU, whether Grant-Foster has become a key member of the rotation, or if that will have to wait until next season. If Self trusts him to play against a Bob Huggins team in Morgantown in February, that’s a true sign of progress.
Self isn’t giving up on Grant-Foster, even though he said Thursday the Jayhawks have been playing “the guys that give us the best chance” of late.
“But we hope that changes,” Self said, “because he would enhance our chances if we all felt like we were in tune with what we needed to do.”
As good as he was for a three-game stretch leading up to the Jayhawks’ marquee Big Monday showdown at Baylor, no one really expected Kansas big man David McCormack to keep putting up 20 points a game.
But given the way he had been playing, McCormack taking an erratic turn in the opposite direction — and quickly — left the Jayhawks scrambling to rally throughout a 77-69 loss to the second-ranked Bears.
After KU effectively played through its junior big for three straight games, McCormack had a travel and two poor fouls before the top 10-ranked teams had played three whole minutes Monday night in Waco, Texas. Kansas already trailed undefeated and No. 2-ranked BU, 8-2, when playing the five spot became senior Mitch Lightfoot’s job and McCormack headed to the bench for the first time.
Even though the Jayhawks would never dog their teammate for an off night, it has to be difficult to see a veteran post player struggling to that extent when KU was going to need some breaks and solid play from everyone to beat one of the two truly elite teams in college basketball this season.
“It’s not like every night you’re going to get a perfect performance from everybody,” KU sophomore Christian Braun replied, when asked how the rest of the Jayhawks needed to respond when it wasn’t McCormack’s night.
“We’ve got guys like Mitch – Mitch played well tonight,” Braun added of Lightfoot, who chipped in eight points and four rebounds in close to 17 minutes off the bench. “He came in, got some dunks, gave us some energy. But I just think the team as a whole,” Braun went on, “we’ve got to have a better start. And that would’ve solved a lot of our problems. Not playing from behind.”
Braun was making a different point when mentioning the hole KU fell into, but the Jayhawks (10-4 overall, 4-3 Big 12) needed a better start from McCormack.
After nearly five game minutes on the bench, McCormack checked back in with the Bears leading 18-7. His next stint again started poorly, with a turnover. But an offensive rebound and a blocked shot would follow, and he wasn’t hurting KU by playing too amped up. The problem was he never could turn it up and make a larger impact after settling in.
Between foul trouble (he picked up his fourth with more than 13 minutes left) and the Bears just making his night a grind, McCormack finished with a season-low six points (3-for-6 shooting) in 20 minutes, to go with two rebounds, one assist, one steal and four turnovers.
“Everybody’s going to have ups and downs,” Lightfoot said. “As you’ve seen, Dave’s been terrific these last three games. He gives us a dimension I think I give us a little bit of, but he’s such an interior presence, gets buckets around the basket.”
The 6-foot-10, 250-pound McCormack was far from making an optical impact at BU, though.
“We need him to be playing his best ball,” Lightfoot said, “and I’m going to do everything I can as a teammate to help him and get him back to where he was these last couple of games.”
Given McCormack’s issues at Baylor, the biggest surprise of the night was that the Jayhawks stuck with playing a traditional big man up until the game’s final minutes. There was 3:44 showing on the second half clock when KU head coach Bill Self sent five guards — and neither McCormack nor Lightfoot — onto the court for the first time.
A Jalen Wilson dunk in that lineup cut Baylor’s lead to five with 3:18 left, but the answer 3-pointer from Jared Butler at the 2:56 mark seemed as demoralizing a moment as the Jayhawks experienced, and the Bears wrapped it up from there.
Theoretically, KU could have still won this game with McCormack playing poorly for much of the night. But it would’ve taken the Jayhawks executing a level of defense they’ve yet to show this season, as well as several members of their core rotation stepping up their production.
Faults aside, it’s also important to keep in mind that even on a night when McCormack wasn’t even close to being at his best, KU was only outscored 34-32 when he was in, while the Bears had a 43-37 advantage when he was out.
Even when it’s not pretty, there’s something about having the big guy out there that is beneficial, and that, no doubt, is why Self continues to stick with McCormack and a more traditional lineup. At least for now.
The Jayhawks need a much better version of McCormack — and some more experimenting with five-guard lineups — in the weeks ahead if they’re going to reach their ceiling.
Lightfoot isn’t worried about what’s ahead for McCormack.
“If you know David, his confidence won’t dip,” Lightfoot said. “He understands that we need him to be a good team and he’ll respond.”
For shooters on Bill Self’s teams, there’s a five-letter word that’s just as bad as any four-letter swear word: “slump.”
“I don’t like it if a guy were ever — a shooter — to ever admit that he’s in a slump,” Self said Friday.
And to his credit, sophomore guard Christian Braun didn’t spew such coarse language as “slump” while speaking with reporters on a video call earlier in the day. Rather, he said he was “just missing shots right now.”
The topic of Braun’s 3-point shooting came up ahead of Saturday’s home matchup with Iowa State, because, well, Braun hasn’t connected on many of his looks from beyond the arc recently.
After Braun, a 6-foot-6 guard who graduated from nearby Blue Valley Northwest High, went 16 for 36 (44.4%) in seven nonconference games to open the year, many expected him to continue burning KU opponents from downtown in conference play.
But his 3-point mark against Big 12 foes is 10 for 34 (29.4%) in six games. And that number is buoyed by one game in particular, against West Virginia, where he caught fire and went 6 of 12 from long range. Since the start of 2021, KU has played four games, in which Braun is a combined 4 for 19 (21.1%).
In total, Braun is 26 for 70 (37.1%) from 3-point range so far this season. He went 32 for 72 (44.4%) as a freshman.
Braun said he hadn’t noticed anything that was consistently affecting his shooting during KU’s 10-3 start.
“I just think I need to hit shots, shoot the ball better,” Braun said. “All that takes is just to keep shooting. I can’t go away from that. I know I’m a good shooter, and they’re going to fall eventually. I’ve just got to keep putting them up.”
That’s the perfect approach for a reliable shooter like Braun to take. It’s also part of the mindset his coach wants to see from him.
“I don’t think he’s in a slump,” Self said. “I think he’s missed shots.”
There are plenty of other ways to impact the outcome of a basketball game, of course. Self said that’s one of the first lessons he ever learned from his father, Bill Self Sr.
If Braun were just a 3-point specialist and nothing else, he wouldn’t be a starter at KU averaging 30.2 minutes per game. Braun is averaging 8.3 points while shots aren’t dropping for him in Big 12 play, but he also contributes 5.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.0 steals. On the season, he has led or tied for the team lead twice in rebounds and three times each in assists and steals. He even led KU in blocks versus Kentucky with two.
Braun stands out by making hustle plays and winning plays. According to the numbers KU keeps, he has a team-high 17 floor burns this season.
Though Self always wants his players doing more on those fronts, the coach is not worried about Braun’s 3-point shooting.
“A guy that has a reputation of being a shooter, you should not base his good or poor play based on if the ball goes in the hole or not,” Self said. “There’s plenty of other things guys can do to bring value, to help a team win. And Christian’s certainly capable of doing that. And he knows that.”
Braun’s effort and execution in other aspects of the game, no doubt, have helped him remain composed about his 3-pointers.
“You know, a lot of them are going in and out,” Braun said. “I think I have (continued to be assertive). There’s been a couple of games where I went 1 for 5 or I’ve gotten enough up. I just need to hit the shots. And that’s on me.”
Even on days when those quality looks rim out, Braun is a valuable player for the Jayhawks. And when he is knocking down 3-pointers on top of everything else he does, it’s KU’s opponents who are doing the cursing.
Christian Braun’s 3-pointers through six Big 12 games
Dec. 17 at Texas Tech: 0-for-3, 2 points
Dec. 22 vs. West Virginia: 6-for-12, 22 points
Jan. 2 vs. Texas: 0-for-5, 4 points
Jan. 5 at TCU: 2-for-4, 10 points
Jan. 9 vs. Oklahoma: 1-for-6, 5 points
Jan. 12 at Oklahoma State: 1-for-4, 7 points
Raise your hand if you thought in December David McCormack would be playing at an All-Big 12 level in January. And be honest.
When the Jayhawks’ starting big man was going 1-for-9 versus Kentucky or 5-for-12 against Creighton or 3-for-10 at Texas Tech, there wasn’t much evidence that McCormack’s junior season was going to be all that different from either of his first two years in a Kansas uniform.
If you truly believed McCormack would eventually figure it out in a few weeks’ time, you’re either an eternal optimist or you believed head coach Bill Self, who repeatedly during the preseason sang McCormack’s praises and then kept on banging the “McCormack is a good player” drum all through his big man’s struggles.
(Full disclosure: I did not raise my hand.)
Self is a basketball savant, but it was becoming difficult not to wonder what he had seen out of McCormack that had him so convinced about the junior’s potential to make an impact this season — especially after KU opened its January schedule with a home beating at the hands of Texas, in which McCormack went 0-for-4 and was so ineffective he only played 14 minutes.
Who could’ve known that would be a turning point in his third college basketball season?
After shooting below 50% from the floor in each of KU’s first nine games against Division I opponents, McCormack’s career night (24 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks) in a loss at Oklahoma State marked the third game in a row that he shot 55% or better and produced 17 points or more.
Behold: the David McCormack about whom Bill Self spoke in October and November isn’t a mythical figure. He’s an actual legitimate college big man, finally ready to make the best use of his 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame inside.
“I just kind of played to my size advantage,” McCormack stated matter of factly in a postgame video interview with reporters. “Did what coach asked, posting deep, tried not to force any shots and just made some good reads. That’s about it.”
McCormack scored 12 points, pulled in six rebounds and blocked two shots during the second half at OSU, as the No. 6 Jayhawks (10-3 overall, 4-2 Big 12) rallied out of a double-digit hole.
For stretches against the Cowboys, it seemed like McCormack was the only Jayhawk who was capable of scoring.
“He was great,” teammate Ochai Agbaji said of McCormack following the 75-70 defeat. “Just throwing it in to him, and his post presence throughout the whole entire game was great. We looked for him when things weren’t going for us and he was a big part of that comeback we kind of sparked.”
To Agbaji’s point, OSU led by 16 with a little more than nine minutes to go before KU went on a 21-2 tear, during which McCormack scored eight points in a little under eight minutes.
KU’s surging big man once again made the most of his offensive potential by not often drifting outside of the paint. Among his season-high 10 successful field goals, nine came within the paint and he only hoisted two jumpers from outside of the key. McCormack shot 10-for-18 overall and went 7-for-12 around the rim. Can he do even better inside? Yes. But remember: this is the same man who only made 46.7% of his attempts around the rim through KU’s first 10 games.
Even better news for KU: McCormack isn’t limiting his interior presence to one end of the floor. Three of the best shot blocking games in his 76-game career have come in the past week-plus. He tied his career high for blocks with three at Oklahoma State after swatting two each at TCU and against Oklahoma. This from a man who blocked three total shots in KU’s first seven games.
For McCormack, just like with his offense of late, his defensive improvement is tied to feeling more comfortable and confident on the court. He said he’s more aware defensively now, because of his preparation, making sure he knows what to expect from certain opponents off of scouting reports.
“Reading their moves and timing things up,” he said.
After the OSU loss, Self said McCormack’s play was what he pictured getting from the big man this year.
“I think David had a great game. I thought everybody was so poor defensively the first half but I thought he had a great game,” Self said. “We threw it to him, he delivered. He made some hard shots. Defensively, he controlled the defensive glass for the most part. I think David’s certainly on an uptick.”
Self continued: “I don’t know that he can average 20 and 10 the rest of the season, but I do think he has the potential to get 20 and 10 in any game.”
Typically, KU has the 3-point shooting to complement McCormack’s play inside. And if that was the case against the Cowboys, KU would’ve survived and won on the road. But on Tuesday at Oklahoma State, Agbaji (4-for-9 from deep) was the only Jayhawk on target, as the rest of the team combined to go 1-for-12.
If Jalen Wilson was the surprise of the season in December, then this reinvigorated McCormack is bombshell 2.0.
KU might need another revelation in the weeks ahead to become one of the elite teams in the country in time for March Madness. But McCormack’s stunning turnaround looks like a key development, even though his most outstanding game to date came in a loss.
The best basketball player in the Big 12 took down the best basketball program in the Big 12 Tuesday night at Oklahoma State.
Months away from becoming a millionaire, Cade Cunningham showed Kansas and anyone willing to shell out a few extra bucks for ESPN+ why some lucky NBA team is likely to select him No. 1 overall in the 2021 draft.
It took a lot of zone defense in the second half for the No. 6 Jayhawks to keep Cunningham and his Cowboys from sprinting away to a win, but the damage the conference’s latest one-and-done star did early on set up OSU’s 75-70 upset win at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Even more spectacular, the young man who put up 18 points, seven rebounds and three assists and set the tone offensively in the first half delivered one of the most important defensive plays of the night. With the game tied at 70 in the final minute, Cunningham blocked Marcus Garrett’s layup and then flew to save the ball out of bounds and sling an outlet pass that led to a Rondel Walker layup and a three-point play with 38 seconds to play.
Cunningham also closed out on Ochai Agbaji well with about nine seconds left to influence a missed 3-pointer that could’ve tied the game. And his long arms were back in the view of Garrett on the baseline out of bounds play that went awry in the final seconds, when Garrett’s pass got picked off by Bryce Williams, sealing the Cowboys’ victory.
Back to when Cunningham paved the way for the win with his offense, though.
When the Jayhawks played man defense in the first half, they had no answers for the versatile 6-foot-8 phenom from Arlington, Texas. Even when KU’s smartest and best defender, senior lockdown guard Garrett, matched up with Cunningham, the Cowboys ran ball screens that either involved big man David McCormack, knowing McCormack wouldn’t switch onto Cunningham, or sought out a screen from another OSU guard, looking for a switch that Cunningham could exploit one-on-one.
KU kept the point guard in an NBA small forward’s body scoreless for a little more than six minutes to open the game, but that wasn’t going to last. Cunningham found a great look at a 3-pointer from the right wing for his first basket, tying the game at 14 early. Before long he was crossing up Tristan Enaruna and burying a long jumper. The next trip down, in transition, Cunningham discovered himself wide open for another 3-pointer, back on the right wing. He cashed it for OSU’s first lead of the game, a basket that ignited everything for OSU’s upset bid.
Soon after he found that favorite spot of his on the right wing again, sized up Christian Braun, rose up and drained a third 3-pointer off a crossover.
Once Cunningham got going, the Cowboys around him believed they could not only play with KU, but beat the Big 12’s powerhouse program.
“He was the best player in the country for the first 10 or 12 minutes of the game, or 14, whatever it was. He scored, he made 3’s,” KU coach Bill Self said afterward.
“Killed us on ball screen defense. I thought he showed everybody why he’s so good, because he did it a plethora of ways. It wasn’t just catching and shooting. He did it by playing,” Self said. “I thought he was very impressive.”
Cunningham took the Cowboys to the locker room at halftime with a 46-35 lead, already boasting 14 points, five rebounds, three assists and a block on his personal stat line.
While he did play through some freshman mistakes at times — stepping on the sideline in the corner, committing an offensive foul out on the perimeter while driving with his head down in the first half and much later traveling in the corner with KU rallying in crunch time — Cunningham mostly played so well that KU spent the second half in a 2-3 zone and a triangle-and-two zone to negate him.
“Just getting the ball out of his hands,” KU junior guard Ochai Agbaji said of the defensive approach for most of the second half, “and getting other guys to make plays.”
It worked for the most part, even though Cunningham hit a jump hook in the paint over Garrett shortly after intermission, and later on connected on another floater over Garrett in transition.
And even when Cunningham actually missed a crafty lefty runner off the bounce near the midway point of the second half, KU’s defenders had zeroed in on him to the point that Isaac Likekele easily swooped in for the offensive rebound and putback. That and-one play created by Cunningham’s offensive gravity with 9:16 left put KU in a 65-49 chasm.
“I thought we did a good job second half of neutralizing him,” Self said, “but a large part of that is because we played zone.”
Now the Jayhawks have seen the Big 12’s most gifted offensive player in person and lost. They’ll have to wait until Feb. 8, when Cunningham plays in Allen Fieldhouse for the only time in his brief college career, to see if they can slow him down for two halves and avoid an OSU sweep in 2021.
David McCormack isn’t the only Kansas big man enjoying a January resurgence. Fifth-year senior Mitch Lightfoot is coming along in tow, just in fewer minutes, as McCormack’s backup.
With the Jayhawks’ young sixth man guard, Bryce Thompson, out of the mix recently due to an injury, Lightfoot’s minutes have become more consistent as head coach Bill Self has played larger lineups instead of mixing in more five guard combinations. In November and December, Lightfoot never played double digit minutes in consecutive games. His 15 minutes in a home win over Oklahoma on Saturday, though, made it three in a row where he gave KU 14 or more minutes off the bench.
The regular opportunities to contribute are allowing Lightfoot to make an impact. In the aftermath of a bad home loss to Texas on Jan. 2, both McCormack and Lightfoot bounced back with a big week at TCU and versus Oklahoma.
“I think Mitch has played equally well,” Self said after noting how McCormack has come along, “in the minutes that he’s had. And I just think that’s been our best lineup, to go that route.”
Lightfoot’s numbers rarely are eye-catching. The 6-foot-8 forward had four points, five rebounds and one block in 17 minutes at TCU. He followed it up with seven points and two blocks in 15 minutes against OU.
As Self said on Monday, ahead of the No. 6 Jayhawks’ trip to Oklahoma State, it’s been rare this season for KU’s bench players to sub in and produce at the level of a starter. But that’s what Lightfoot did against the Sooners. In the 14:56 that he was on the floor, KU outscored OU, 27-21. The Sooners edged KU, 38-36, when Lightfoot sat.
“Energy’s the biggest thing with Mitch,” senior guard Marcus Garrett said of Lightfoot’s contributions. “And Mitch just knows everything. He’s been here for awhile. He knows how we want to guard, he knows how we run our offense. He basically comes in and just does everything we kind of need.”
After Lightfoot’s minutes fluctuated throughout KU’s first nine games — he only played 10 or more minutes against Gonzaga, Washburn and Omaha — it will be interesting to monitor his involvement once Thompson returns. Having the entire rotation healthy and available could lead to more five guard lineups, depending on the opponent.
Will Lightfoot’s minutes fall off when there are games where it makes sense to deploy five perimeter players for stretches? Or will McCormack and Lightfoot split the traditional big man minutes more evenly in those games?
Lightfoot showed against OU especially he can comfortably set up on the perimeter offensively when KU wants to space the floor. He can screen and roll or slip a screen and read the defense to make himself available for an easy feed inside. Many times, his activity on offense forced the Sooners’ defense to help in the paint — Lightfoot simply playing hard and making OU react created angles for other passes and/or drives, resulting in a more fluid offense.
McCormack had a perfect way to describe Lightfoot’s outing: “Mitch was Mitch.”
You want some vivacity out of any reserve in the lineup, and Lightfoot brings that on both ends of the floor when he’s at his best. Even though he’s not a rim protector in the traditional sense, Lightfoot is KU’s best shot blocking help defender, which is why he leads the Jayhawks with an 11.6% block percentage, per sports-reference.com.
If there’s one area where he can be even better, it’s on the glass. Somewhat surprisingly, Lightfoot’s output against OU didn’t include a single rebound. It happened to be a problem for McCormack (one rebound), as well. Lightfoot in most of those situations, Self said, wasn’t guilty of poor effort. His energy typically goes into boxing out when an opponent’s shot goes up.
“I think a lot of times they’re more worried about blocking their man off,” Self said of Lightfoot and McCormack, “and keeping their man from getting the ball and allowing somebody else to get it, which in times is OK.”
KU didn’t get burned on that front versus OU, because the Sooners only sent one man to the offensive glass. Obviously not every team will take that approach, though. And that’s why Self would like to see an adjustment.
“So I think hitting and going and getting,” Self said of the proper approach following a box out, “and not relying on someone else to get it I think is something that we can improve on.”
Lightfoot’s not a player Self ever has to worry about in the effort and energy departments. And this uptick from the dependable veteran looks like a crucial development for the Jayhawks (10-2 overall, 4-1 Big 12).
It seemed Saturday just wasn’t going to be Jalen Wilson’s day. Lackadaisical maneuvers on offense, lapses on defenses and even a missed dunk. And that was before halftime.
Good thing for Kansas that its leading scorer this season was mentally tough enough to find the Jalen Wilson fans and teammates have grown to love.
Crunch time brings out the best in the Jayhawks’ redshirt freshman starter. That was the case again at Allen Fieldhouse, where Wilson looked like himself in the game’s final minutes, making a full 180 from a first half plagued by mistakes.
KU wouldn’t have survived its scare from Oklahoma, 63-59, without Wilson recovering from the 13 minutes he played in the first half, which included 0-for-2 shooting and — far more troubling — six out of the ordinary turnovers.
Things went so poorly for Wilson that his head coach, Bill Self, called it “a rough day in a big way.”
Wilson’s first successful field goal attempt of said day didn’t come until there was 5:05 left in the second half. But he worked his way toward redeeming himself with his efforts on the glass throughout a surprisingly tight game with the Sooners (6-4 overall, 2-3 Big 12). A 6-foot-8 inside-outside threat, Wilson pulled down seven of his 11 rebounds in the second half.
And when it looked like OU might be poised to put together an upset bid late, Wilson played like a man who hadn’t missed a shot or slipped up at any point all day.
The aforementioned first basket came on a 3-pointer set up by Christian Braun, giving KU (10-2, 4-1) a five-point lead. Even so, the Sooners would take the lead twice in the final four minutes.
Wilson fed David McCormack for the basket that put KU ahead for good with a little more than two minutes left. Then Wilson stretched the lead to four on another 3-pointer at the 1:28 mark.
“That was crucial,” McCormack said of Wilson’s second 3-pointer, that made it a two-possession lead. “That was definitely a big shot. It was also a big momentum booster, as well.”
That wasn’t the Jalen Wilson who played in the first half. That Wilson was unrecognizable.
“He turned it over six times,” Self said, “and he was playing out of character and he was forcing it. And he didn’t let the game come to him at all the first half. That was the thing.”
Self didn’t stop there: “Didn’t guard. Just really didn’t do anything. I think he was a little too amped up going against (OU sophomore guard De’Vion) Harmon, a high school teammate and probably a little bit of a rival. And just wasn’t at his best. But we had his best down the stretch, which was most important.”
Everyone should know by now not to dismiss Wilson, just because of a slow start. The man shines in moments that aren’t for everyone. He came up with a game-sealing block at Texas Tech in KU’s Big 12 opener, buried a critical 3-pointer late against Creighton and delivered a must-have bucket versus Kentucky. The guy is a winner.
McCormack said he spoke with Wilson before the tide turned and reminded the redshirt freshman of what he looks like at his best.
“You’ve proven you can play,” McCormack told his teammate. “Just play your normal game. Don’t think. Just play loose. Play free.”
Added McCormack: “That’s what he did. And he was effective and helped us win.”
Wilson’s confidence in himself didn’t waver when he actually played like a redshirt freshman for a change.
“Second half late,” Agbaji said, “he knew that he was going to have to step up for us and make big plays, make those shots. And that’s what he did. And I’m proud of him.”
Wilson has become such a revelation for this Kansas basketball team, it’s easy to forget he barely played as a true freshman. Two games, two minutes, one shot attempt, one foul, one turnover, zero points, zero rebounds — that’s the extent of his 2019-20 stat line.
He gets a pass for having a bad day turnover wise (seven) and tying his season-low for shot attempts (2-for-4), while finishing with nine points and 11 boards in 29 minutes, because he played well with the game in the balance.
That’s just what Jalen Wilson does.
And because of who he is as a player, Wilson will learn from the miserable first half and make sure he doesn’t let it happen again.
Look at where David McCormack’s shot attempts came from in his season-high scoring night at TCU earlier this week, and it’s not surprising that the Kansas veteran big man enjoyed his most productive offensive game to date.
KU’s junior pivot scored a season-best 20 points — marking the second time in his college career he put up at least that many — on 7-for-9 shooting. His 77.8% field goal percentage put him above 50% against a Division I opponent for the first time this season.
McCormack, who in the Jayhawks’ first 10 games averaged 3.0 shot attempts at the rim, while attempting 5.4 per game from farther out, made a habit of doing damage deep inside the paint versus the Horned Frogs.
Of course, McCormack helped himself out by not settling for midrange jumpers. He went 4-for-4 at the rim (another big positive, considering he entered the week shooting below 50% from point-blank range this season), and 3-for-5 away from the rim. Even better: McCormack only took two shots that were from outside the paint — three if you want to be a stickler and count an attempt from around the right block.
Earlier this week, Bill Self called McCormack’s showing at TCU “dominant.” On Friday, ahead of the No. 6-ranked Jayhawks’ home game versus Oklahoma, KU’s head coach said his starting big man played to his size in the rout of TCU.
While praising McCormack on a number of fronts, Self pointed to the junior’s low post positioning and the job he did making himself available for passes deeper in the paint than normal.
“That takes some physicality to do that. I just thought he played to who he is,” Self said, referencing the measurements of the 6-foot-10, 250-pound man, and putting an emphasis on the word man while describing his player.
Although McCormack has endured some subpar offensive games so far, Self said he rarely is disappointed in the big man’s effort.
“I think sometimes guys can try really hard and give really good effort, but it doesn’t look like they’re doing it because they’re a little out of whack in some form or fashion or their balance is off, or technique’s off some, or whatever,” Self said. “I think David for the most part has always given great effort.”
In his first couple of seasons at KU, McCormack often played sped up. As Self referenced, it wasn’t that he wasn’t trying. Now the Jayhawks need him to harness his energy on offense by carving out good position inside for himself on a regular basis.
“I do think he’s got to do some things from a technique standpoint that allow him to create opportunities to get easy baskets,” Self said. “And I thought he did that (at TCU). And when he was in position to get them the other day, I thought he did a better job of finishing or demanding the ball or put himself in positions where they had to throw it to him.”
KU’s perimeter players obviously don’t mind feeding McCormack.
“All it is is just throwing the ball in there,” sophomore guard Christian Braun said of how KU can keep finding success scoring inside. Braun said McCormack and the other bigs are “more than capable” of scoring.
McCormack now has proven an inside-focused offensive approach can boost his productivity (10.5 points per game through KU’s first 11, fourth on the roster). And making a point to take the ball up strong inside should make even better use of one of McCormack’s strengths: his free-throw shooting.
The largest man in a KU uniform has a soft touch at the foul line. McCormack heads into Saturday’s home game versus Oklahoma having made 21 free throws in a row (he went 6-for-6 at TCU). On the year, he’s 38-for-44 (86.4%). Only Jalen Wilson (36-for-55, 65.5%) has attempted more for KU.
No one’s asking McCormack to average 20 points a game. But putting a priority on taking more of his shot attempts inside will make him a more effective and efficient scorer — especially if he can increase his 4.0 free throw attempts a game in the process.
In KU’s first three Big 12 games, McCormack was trending in the wrong direction offensively, shooting 7-for-23 (30.4%) and averaging 8.3 points. He proved at TCU a different line of attack can make him far more impactful.
As this Kansas basketball team steadily proceeds toward March, the Jayhawks could make their path to Indianapolis and the NCAA Tournament a little easier by continuing to address an issue that has plagued them throughout their first 10 games.
Even in victories, the Jayhawks consistently missed some of the most desirable shots they took — the ones around the rim.
Entering this week, KU as a team was averaging just 12.5 makes a game on 21.9 attempts from point-blank range. The Jayhawks’ 57.1% success rate on layups, dunks and such, per hoop-math.com, ranked 252nd in the nation through games played on Jan. 3. Every team in the top 100 in that category is converting 63.8% of the time or better.
The Jayhawks’ issues with finishing around the rim emerged immediately this season, in their first couple of games, and they haven’t gone away.
Ahead of Tuesday’s game at TCU, KU head coach Bill Self had plenty of reasons to present when asked why he thought his Jayhawks haven’t fared better when they’re taking shots close to the basket.
“We don’t have guys that play above the rim,” Self began.
In recent seasons, of course, KU feasted off of the length and power of Udoka Azubuike (144-for-169, 85.2% at the rim in 2019-20) inside. While these Jayhawks aren’t blessed with such a dominating big man, as Self pointed out, they don’t exactly have the same types of guards who can get to the paint and finish layups like they did in the past, either — he dropped the names of Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham and Devon Dotson.
“And I think a lot of times our shot selection’s poor, too,” Self added.
KU’s coach didn’t call any players out for their shot selection. But in the Jayhawks’ first 10 games, one player in particular — starting big David McCormack — took nearly twice as many attempts away from the rim than he did near it.
McCormack hasn’t yet become a consistent scoring threat inside (14-for-30, 46.7% on shots at the rim), but he’s making himself even more of a strain on the offense by settling for even lower-percentage looks from farther out (18-for-54, 33.3%).
Even though McCormack played 90 minutes more than backup Tyon Grant-Foster through KU’s first 10 games, the veteran big only had two more makes at the rim than Grant-Foster (12-for-17), a newcomer who plays on the wing.
Redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson, a perimeter player who also serves as KU’s small ball center, is the Jayhawks’ best finisher around the rim (30-for-45, 66.7%) thanks to the smart angles he takes and his willingness to go at defenders in the paint to finish over them.
Individual strengths and weaknesses aside, senior backup big Mitch Lightfoot said of KU’s problems with converting inside, “That’s on all of us.”
But then Lightfoot said both he and McCormack need to be better finishers.
“I think when guards get to the hoop we can use our athletic ability more and get a couple more dunks, which are pretty high percentage plays,” Lightfoot said. “If we can do stuff like that I think we’ll be OK and get back to what we should be doing.”
KU only had 16 dunks in its first 10 games and five of those came against overmatched Omaha. McCormack entered this week with just five successful dunks among his 84 overall field goal attempts.
Asked on Monday if there were ways to get McCormack more attempts at the rim, some immediately came to mind for Lightfoot.
“Yeah, I would say we’ve got to look at him on rolls to the hoop and stuff, and just get him easy lobs,” Lightfoot said. “It’s also on Dave and I — posting up closer to the hoop to get easier layups, where you’re shooting a 3-foot jump-hook instead of a 6-foot jump-hook.”
On a wider scope, KU could boost its rim scoring as a team just by zeroing in on a few areas. Self said Monday these Jayhawks, unlike many of his best KU teams, can’t throw the ball to a big inside and come away with two points. What’s more, Self said these Jayhawks haven’t yet found enough ways to throw lobs for dunks or layups, nor have they ran to score in transition off defensive rebounds.
Then there are extreme instances, such as early in KU’s home loss to Texas on Saturday, when the Jayhawks drove in for a layup and forced help. Any such attempt, Self explained, should be a good shot even if it’s missed, because a big man loses his defender to the help rotation, freeing the big up for an offensive rebound and easy putback. On the example Self referenced, it was McCormack who missed a wide-open dunk on the offensive glass.
“Those are the things that are correctable and aren’t that far off,” Self said.
The Jayhawks have all of January and February, as well as the Big 12 tournament in early March, to keep improving in many areas, including as finishers around the rim. There is time for them to continue to evolve.
If McCormack can alter his offensive approach, so that he’s only taking his shots from the lowest portion of the paint — a what would Dok do mentality — that would help. If he doesn’t have a great look on the catch, he has shown recently he is capable of kicking the ball out for a 3-point shooter or driver.
KU would likely benefit from Wilson taking an even more assertive approach, too, so that he’s getting more opportunities to score inside.
Agbaji and Grant-Foster are the most athletically gifted players on the roster, and KU’s guards need to push the ball whenever possible, so the leapers can inject some life into the offense on the fast break more often.
A lot of little improvements will help KU convert at a higher percentage around the basket. And the Jayhawks need to form those good habits in the weeks ahead, because a team that misses a ton of shots inside isn’t going to advance very far in March.
KU’s shots at the rim, through 10 games
Jalen Wilson: 30-for-45, 66.7%
Ochai Agbaji: 20-for-35, 57.1%
Marcus Garrett: 20-for-36, 55.6%
David McCormack: 14-for-30, 46.7%
Tyon Grant-Foster: 12-for-17, 70.6%
Christian Braun: 11-for-26, 42.3%
Tristan Enaruna: 7-for-9, 77.8%
Mitch Lightfoot: 5-for-6, 83.3%
Dajuan Harris: 2-for-4, 50%
Bryce Thompson: 2-for-8, 25%
Latrell Jossell: 1-for-1, 100%
Gethro Muscadin, 1-for-2, 50%
KU team shooting at the rim, first 10 games
Vs. Gonzaga: 13-for-23, 57%
Vs. St. Joseph’s: 17-for-29, 59%
Vs. Kentucky: 14-for-33, 42%
Vs. Washburn: 8-for-12, 67%
Vs. North Dakota State: 12-for-17, 71%
Vs. Creighton: 11-for-22, 50%
Vs. Omaha: 18-for-27, 67%
At Texas Tech: 10-for-14, 71%
Vs. West Virginia: 7-for-13, 54%
Vs. Texas: 11-for-20, 55%