In the business of college basketball, whether your team has been flexing all season or took a detour on the struggle bus at some point, it better be trending upward when March rolls around, because what transpires in the postseason is what everyone will remember anyway.
That’s why there is more intrigue surrounding Kansas now than at any point during this strange 2020-21 season. The Jayhawks are coming off as good a February as almost any team in the country (especially considering how poorly their January went).
“This team, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’ve kind of been up and down this year,” KU coach Bill Self joked while addressing the Allen Fieldhouse crowd after his team’s chef’s kiss of a win over previously undefeated Baylor. “I think we’re just now finding our stride. I think we’re just scratching the surface of what we can become.”
The hope inside the KU locker room is that the Jayhawks can launch into the final stretch of the calendar — and the NCAA Tournament, when the first round begins on March 19 — still flying high on the momentum of a 7-2 February and an eye-catching win over Baylor, arguably the best win on any team’s résumé at this juncture.
Looking around at the national landscape, the Jayhawks have to feel better about their current level of play than many teams. Among the consensus top teams in the country, only No. 1 Gonzaga (7-0), the overwhelming favorite to win it all, and Michigan (5-0) got through February unscathed.
To get a better sense of how KU’s past month stacks up with other programs, have a look at how each team ranked in the top 20 at KenPom.com entering March fared (see full list below).
The Jayhawks are one of a handful of under the radar teams that appear to be surging right on time. In February, Loyola Chicago went 7-1, West Virginia went 6-1 (and easily beat KU on Feb. 6), and both Arkansas and San Diego State posted a perfect 6-0 mark for the month.
To be fair, the Jayhawks can’t yet be in the same discussion as Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan, Iowa and other Final Four contenders. Their inconsistent season makes it impossible to blindly overlook the issues that led to their stock plummeting in January, when they went 3-5. For observers, those seeds of doubt can not be forgotten.
For the players, though, KU’s resurgence in the win column is just what they needed to elevate their confidence and complement their vastly improved team defense.
“We’re not done,” senior guard Marcus Garrett said during his Senior Night speech, after the Jayhawks beat Baylor, 71-58. “We’re not done at all. We want a long season here.”
The Jayhawks’ successful reboot during February sure makes an extended stay in Indiana later this month seem a lot more realistic.
How KenPom’s top 20 teams fared in February
No. 1 Gonzaga — 7-0
Best wins: at BYU, at Pacific, at San Francisco, Saint Mary’s
No. 2 Michigan — 5-0
Best wins: at Wisconsin, at Ohio State, at Indiana, Rutgers, Iowa
No. 3 Baylor — 2-1
Best win: at Texas
Loss: at Kansas
No. 4 Houston — 5-2
Best win: at South Florida
Losses: at East Carolina, at Wichita State
No. 5 Iowa — 6-3
Best wins: at Michigan State, at Wisconsin, at Ohio State, Michigan State, Rutgers, Penn State
Losses: Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan
No. 6 Illinois — 7-1
Best wins: at Indiana (OT), at Nebraska (OT), at Minnesota, at Wisconsin
Loss: Michigan State
No. 7 Ohio State — 4-3
Best wins: at Iowa, at Maryland, at Penn State, Indiana
Losses: Michigan, at Michigan State, Iowa
No. 8 Alabama — 5-2
Best wins: at South Carolina, at Mississippi State, LSU
Losses: at Missouri, at Arkansas
No. 9 Florida State — 4-1
Best wins: Virginia, at Pittsburgh
Loss: at North Carolina
No. 10 Villanova — 4-3
Best wins: Marquette, Connecticut, St. John’s
Losses: at St. John’s, at Creighton, at Butler
No. 11 Loyola Chicago — 7-1
Best wins: at Missouri State, Drake
Loss: at Drake (OT)
No. 12 Wisconsin — 3-4
Best wins: at Nebraska, at Northwestern, Penn State
Losses: at Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois
No. 13 Virginia — 4-3
Best wins: at North Carolina State, at Georgia Tech, North Carolina
Losses: at Florida State, at Duke, North Carolina State
No. 14 Purdue — 4-2
Best wins: at Nebraska, at Penn State, Northwestern, Michigan State
Losses: at Maryland, at Minnesota
No. 15 Creighton — 4-2
Best wins: at Marquette, at Georgetown, Villanova
Losses: Georgetown, at Xavier
No. 16 Colorado — 6-2
Best wins: at Stanford, at Oregon State, Arizona, USC, UCLA
Losses: at Cal, at Oregon
No. 17 West Virginia — 6-1
Best wins: at Texas Tech, at Texas, at TCU, Kansas
Loss: Oklahoma (2OT)
No. 18 Arkansas — 6-0
Best wins: at Kentucky, at Missouri (OT), Mississippi State, Florida, Alabama, LSU
No. 19 Kansas — 7-2
Best wins: Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Baylor
Losses: at West Virginia, at Texas (OT)
No. 20 San Diego State — 6-0
Best wins: Boise State (OT), Boise State
It took a lot of heroes in some fire red throwback Kansas uniforms for the No. 17 Jayhawks to knock off No. 2 Baylor inside Allen Fieldhouse Saturday night. So of course KU’s signature 71-58 victory needed a blockbuster level plot twist.
On a night when KU big man David McCormack annihilated the Bears inside, the Jayhawks had to go without him during a crucial stretch late in the second half, when McCormack got whistled for his fourth foul.
Enter the Jayhawks’ unexpected star: old reliable fifth-year senior Mitch Lightfoot.
KU’s five-point lead didn’t disappear when Lightfoot checked in. It doubled in the three-plus minutes that followed.
Who saw that coming? Not anyone who had witnessed Lightfoot struggle recently when it came time for him to defend the paint in McCormack’s absence.
Lightfoot is without a doubt a fan and team favorite, but he only logged five minutes in each of KU’s previous two games against ranked Big 12 teams, Texas Tech and Texas. Opponents of late had found it much easier to get to the hoop for easy baskets when Lightfoot was manning the five position instead of McCormack. A little of that was even on display in the first half against previously unbeaten Baylor.
He wasn’t about to let that happen with a victory of this magnitude on the line, though. The first thing Lightfoot did after checking in late in the prime time battle was go at one of the best post defenders in the country, Baylor’s Mark Vital. Two dribbles from the left block into the paint with Vital on his back and Lightfoot scored right over him with a jump hook like he was the Jayhawks’ go-to big man, not a blue collar, often black-eyed backup.
As Lightfoot ran back to play defense, McCormack did the celebrating for him, jumping out of his seat on the bench to flex and salute the veteran.
The 6-foot-8 big from Gilbert, Ariz., wasn’t done there, either. Lightfoot put in a layup in transition off an Ochai Agbaji pass. And what would the Mitch Lightfoot experience be without his signature move, drawing a charge? His timing was perfect as usual when Davion Mitchell tried to attack him.
Lightfoot’s line won’t wow anyone: four points and four rebounds, and one block in 13 minutes off the bench. But the game easily could’ve taken a turn for the worse when he had to fill in for KU’s dominant big man.
That fact wasn’t lost on McCormack. “I was proud of Mitch,” McCormack said after KU’s best win of the season. “Plays hard, rebounds, defends. I mean, he does it all.”
McCormack was in the midst of a masterpiece, but Lightfoot more than stepped up to keep KU’s post play at a high level when the Jayhawks couldn’t afford any type of dropoff.
Fellow KU veteran Marcus Garrett said Lightfoot gave the Jayhawks “a lot” late in the second half, despite the backup big’s slow start.
“I was talking to him the whole game. I was telling him, Mitch we need (you),” Garrett shared. “Because I know what Mitch can do for this team. And that’s what he did down the stretch. And we needed it big time.”
Bill Self almost went another direction entirely in the second half, he revealed during his postgame video press conference.
“Mitch wasn’t very good the first half,” Self said of why he hesitated initially about sending the veteran in for more against Baylor in the second half.
“We were talking to ourselves, ‘Hey, let’s just play small.’ And we decided to go with him the second half,” Self said, “and that was obviously the right choice.”
Lightfoot’s defense improved when the coach gave him a second chance, and a sub not known for his offense even provided two huge baskets at a crucial juncture, making KU’s upset possible.
“I was happy for Mitch,” Self said. “He’s such a good kid and tries hard all the time.”
Effort and pride never have been an issue for Lightfoot. And the whole roster embodied that spirit for the first time this season against Baylor.
It was a vintage Self-coached KU team Saturday night, and right on time, too, with March and the postseason right ahead. You never know who might spark a marquee win. And on this night Lightfoot deserved as much credit as anyone for the Jayhawks.
If everything had gone according to plan, it would be hard to talk yourself into the idea that this Kansas team could beat this year’s Baylor team anywhere, including at Allen Fieldhouse.
As it turns out, though, the Jayhawks just might be catching BU at an opportune time for an upset.
Few scenarios are foolproof in these pandemic times. It turns out even playing basketball games can be a challenge. The Bears looked to be on par with Gonzaga throughout December and January, making them one of two obvious favorites to win the 2021 national championship. Then came February and a slew of postponements, some of which have since become cancellations, for Baylor.
The No. 2-ranked Bears, still undefeated heading into Saturday’s marquee battle with the No. 17 Jayhawks, went a full three weeks without playing a game as they dealt with COVID-19 protocols within the program. Prior to the pause, it was business as usual, with BU winning 83-69 at Texas. But when the Bears finally returned to action this week in Waco, Texas, they had to fight their way back from a 17-point hole in the first half to defeat lowly Iowa State (2-17 overall, 0-14 Big 12).
Surely the Bears will regain most, if not all, of their offensive and defensive powers before long, despite the layoff. But have they yet?
KU’s second shot at acquiring its most impressive victory of the season could come easier this time around, with the Bears rounding their way back into form. Still, easier is a relative term. Even if the Bears remain without high energy reserve big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, who missed the ISU game due to COVID protocols, and they’re some watered down version of their former selves, they still were so clearly superior to KU before their pause that nothing about this game will be trouble-free for the Jayhawks.
There’s too much to like about how Baylor (18-0 overall, 10-0 Big 12) has performed all season to think this game will be anything other than a grind. KU coach Bill Self identified a few of the things the Bears do best, all of which should have the Jayhawks wary about the task at hand.
“We’ve got to be able to run offense without turning the ball over, because they do force a ton of turnovers. And we certainly don’t need live ball turnovers, because they’re so good in transition,” Self said Friday during his video press conference.
Per KenPom.com, the Bears rank third in the nation in opponent turnover percentage (25.9%), as well as third in steal percentage (13.6%).
Veteran KU guard Marcus Garrett, who is about to play his eighth career game against Baylor, brought up the Bears’ defense (10th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom) when describing what impresses him about the Bears this season.
“They defend as a unit. They talk,” Garrett said, adding the Bears are “connected” on that end of the floor, which makes them particularly difficult to score against.
“It seems like their switches are so together,” the KU senior said. “They talk on defense and you can just tell they’ve been together for a while.”
Garrett, no doubt, will spend much of Saturday night doing all he can to keep BU junior guard Jared Butler in check, after the 6-foot-3 Butler lit up the Jayhawks for 30 points on 7-for-9 3-point shooting in the first meeting this season.
Self said KU will have to defend the arc to be successful, and called Baylor (42.1% on 3-pointers in Big 12 play, 43.2% on the season) “the best 3-point shooting team, maybe in America.”
The Bears were only 8-fo-25 from 3-point range against ISU in their return. And they barely won the battle of the boards, 36-35, out of character for a team that is averaging a +4.1 rebound margin in Big 12 play.
Just because the Bears have unpaused or rebooted and returned to actually playing games again doesn’t necessarily mean they’re back to performing at the same level. Maybe the tuneup versus ISU will be all they needed. But if multiple players had COVID, that also potentially complicates the team’s re-acclimation. Some professional athletes who have contracted the virus, including the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and the Washington Wizards’ Russell Westbrook, have said publicly that they still dealt with the effects of COVID after recovering and returning to play. It’s awful that such a thing would happen to any athlete or team at any point, let alone during a season, but the virus’ impact on the Bears might still be lingering.
The point is a Bears victory over KU is no longer inevitable. There is some mystery to Baylor right now. BU is still the favorite, a rare feat for a visiting team entering Allen Fieldhouse. But KU has a clear advantage in the continuity department. The Jayhawks have been playing basketball without a pause all season — a key to their recent resurgence, especially in how they’ve progressed defensively.
No one could see it coming back in January, but a lot has changed for both teams since then, and the Jayhawks now have a realistic shot at toppling one of the two best teams in the country.
As pivotal a role as David McCormack has played in Kansas turning its season around, the time has come for the Jayhawks’ veteran big to make one last step in his progression and put his inconsistencies behind him.
Lapses in judgement and execution from McCormack cost KU in what could’ve been a signature road win, but ended up as a 75-72 overtime loss at Texas on Tuesday night.
Plagued at times this season by fluctuations in his effectiveness, the broad range of the McCormack experience was on display in Austin, Texas. The good. The bad. The “What was that?”
Offense rarely has been as problematic for McCormack late in the season as it was earlier in his junior year. The Jayhawks took an early lead in OT when he wisely passed out of the post to hit Christian Braun for an open corner 3-pointer. A few minutes later, after McCormack poked away the ball on defense for a steal, he had one of his most impressive one-on-one post moves in Big 12 play, going at Jericho Sims, a superior athlete, and scoring over Sims’ near perfect defense with a jump hook.
KU led 72-70 with 1:37 left in overtime. But the Jayahwks wouldn’t score again. In part because McCormack, who draws a ton of attention from the defense even when he’s not the one taking the shot, fouled out 10 seconds later.
Matt Coleman III and Sims were poised to run a ball screen together out on the left wing, when Coleman opted instead to attack off the dribble toward the baseline. Coleman clearly had an angle on KU’s big man and McCormack lost control while trying to make up ground (even though he had help defenders behind him) and he bumped the speedy UT guard, fouling out in the process.
“David’s foul was not smart at all,” KU coach Bill Self said afterward. “I don’t know what he was thinking about, running up to guard Coleman like that. All he’s got to do is just channel him off and keep him on the side and let him turn the corner.”
McCormack only played 24 minutes in a game KU’s other four starters all logged 38 or more because he got himself in foul trouble immediately at Texas, getting called for his second foul 3 minutes and 12 seconds into the action.
Those early whistles sent him to the bench, and he wouldn’t return until the start of the second half. A few minutes after getting back in, an inconceivable missed dunk by McCormack at the 17:16 mark, which would’ve made KU’s lead 10 points at the time, seemed to be a turning point. Whether the shock of seeing the 6-foot-10 veteran brick an uncontested two-handed jam off a pick and roll sent the Jayhawks into a stupor or invigorated the Longhorns, KU only made one field goal in the six-plus minutes that followed and Texas tied the game before a Marcus Garret layup ended a 1-for-10 shooting stretch that was accompanied by four turnovers.
Even with his snags, McCormack would score six of his 12 points in the final seven minutes of regulation, and he made overtime possible with a putback on the offensive glass in the final seconds of the half.
The glitches in McCormack’s game against Texas weren’t the only problems that led to the KU loss, of course, as Self brought up during his postgame video press conference when the blown dunk came up.
“David’s been great for us. He’s been great for us for a while now. And obviously you don’t put anything on one player or one situation,” Self said. “We had numerous chances to make free throws. We had numerous chances to take better care of the ball. We had numerous open shots that we could’ve knocked down. Those things happen.”
The coach said all of that just to bring up a larger point about how McCormack actually is capable of better than what he showed at Texas.
“But we’ve got to get our bigs playing big. I mean that’s the bottom line. David’s done a pretty good job with that offensively, but we’re still not rebounding the ball,” Self said.
McCormack finished with four rebounds for the second time in KU’s past three games and fouled out for the second time in the previous four. Neither is a good sign with the postseason just ahead.
“Jalen Wilson can not be our best rebounder each and every game,” Self went on, referencing the redshirt freshman consistently doing better on the glass (seven consecutive games leading KU in rebounds). “We’ve got to have some big guys getting some of them.”
Wilson is KU’s best rebounder. So that’s not going to change. What Self really was saying is that he wants more out of McCormack. Self knows KU can’t afford any glaring inconsistencies from its most effective big during the postseason, or the Jayhawks’ stay in Indiana for the bubble-esque NCAA Tournament will be a short one.
Now that McCormack has proven he can play at an All-Big 12 level when he’s at his best, Self is holding him to that high standard. That’s totally fair. KU’s loss at Texas, though far from a doomsday result, served as another reminder that the Jayhawks (17-8 overall, 11-6 Big 12) will only go as far this March as McCormack can take them. When he has an off night, the chances of them piecing enough together to defeat an NCAA Tournament level team diminishes.
McCormack doesn’t have to be flawless — and he won’t be. But he does have to be on the court, because the Jayhawks are better overall when he’s out there in most scenarios. KU did put together an impressive run in the first half with five guards when McCormack sat. Overall, though, Texas outscored Kansas, 39-35, during the 21:25 that he was off the floor. KU’s starting five — McCormack, Garrett, Braun, Wilson and Ochai Agbaji — played together for 22:09 at Texas and held a 37-34 advantage.
KU isn’t going to win any shootouts in the NCAA Tournament. If the Jayhawks want to make some noise, they’ll need to win games on defense by making opponents uncomfortable. KU can only do that if McCormack is playing major minutes, occupying the paint and taking a smart approach to contesting and altering shots.
McCormack has shown over the course of the season he can provide KU with a bit of everything. The final piece of the puzzle is doing it all with a steady regularity. More balance. No erratic dropoffs. Avoiding foul trouble and long stretches on the bench will make that all the more achievable, too.
Better for KU and McCormack for him to learn that lesson now, than during some heated March Madness game in a few weeks.
Most of the men’s basketball teams in the Big 12 will be making up missed games next week. Not Kansas.
The Jayhawks proved to be the only program in the league fortunate enough amid a season marred by COVID protocols and even severe weather postponements to enter this week having already played 16 conference games — the exact number that every Big 12 team would have been at, if not for the pauses and rescheduling and general calendar chaos.
Quick. Knock on some wood or partake in your personal superstitious act of preference. We don’t want to jinx anything. We want to see Kansas play Baylor on Saturday.
OK, now that we’ve absolved ourselves of any wrongdoing, take a second to appreciate what KU’s players and staff have done (with some luck along the way). The No. 17 Jayhawks (17-7 overall, 11-5 Big 12) have made it to the final week of the regular season without having to “pause basketball activities” or miss a string of games because of positive COVID cases. KU had a meaningless nonconference game against Tarleton State wiped out during an already busy week in December because of issues with the opponent. Even better, the Jayhawks encountered just one Big 12 postponement (because of Iowa State’s protocols at the time), and they already played the makeup game and won it.
When this week’s slate of games began, Baylor — one of the two best teams in the country this season, but apparently one of the worst at managing pandemic life — had only played nine Big 12 games. Nine. Half the league schedule. In late February. As in March is almost here.
Kansas State got in 15 of its 16 league games ahead of this final stretch. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Iowa State all entered the week with 13 Big 12 games behind them. West Virginia, Texas and Texas Tech each had played 12. And TCU got in 11.
Even though the past several weeks haven’t always been pretty for the Jayhawks on the court, they do have to consider it opportune that the schedule broke the way it did for them and they were able to keep working through their struggles.
Can you imagine how the season might be playing out if KU also had to stop playing or practicing in recent weeks, not getting the chance to grind their way out of a slump and come out on the other side?
Sophomore guard Christian Braun appreciates that the Jayhawks have reached this stage of the season without any major interruptions.
“I think there’s advantages to it. We went through a tough stretch,” Braun said, referencing KU’s 3-5 January. “So shutting down during that stretch would’ve been tough to come back from. But we’ve all done a really good job staying safe, staying away from everybody. And that’s really important for any team — especially now, this late in the season.”
If ever there was a time for the Jayhawks to become lax with health and safety guidelines, it was while stumbling through January, when even playing basketball on a national stage for a storied program wasn’t feeling especially fun for anyone.
As Braun said, though, they just kept isolating and working at getting back to what they came to Kansas for in the first place — winning basketball games. It paid off, too, and the Jayhawks’ arrow is pointing upward again with March and all of its accompanying Madness just around the corner.
Even so, KU is playing its final week of the regular season with NCAA Tournament seeding at stake. What if the Jayhawks also had to play two or three more games next week, and against the top teams in the Big 12, not the bottom feeders? That’s a scenario in which they could not only potentially suffer more losses and hurt their seed line, but also end up with further fatigued players heading into the postseason, with so many games on the schedule in such a small window.
It’s not likely for Baylor, even after going three full weeks without a game, to fall out of its position as a No. 1 seed in the next two weeks. BU and Gonzaga clearly have established themselves as the title favorites for 2021. But what’s ahead of the Bears, after some tinkering at the Big 12 offices, is five games in 13 days.
KU coach Bill Self, who like many of us thought BU would have to play three games both this week and next, said Monday during his video press conference that would be “a lot for anybody to play.”
Unlike KU, which will conclude its Big 12 slate on Saturday, when the Bears visit Lawrence (again, fingers and toes crossed and all of that), these teams that have more games unplayed than time to play them didn’t even know until Tuesday which opponents they would have waiting for them during the conference’s built-in makeup week.
Texas coach Shaka Smart said Monday during his video press conference that Big 12 decision makers told the Longhorns that league administrators planned to plug a formula into a computer to determine the makeup schedules for teams such as the Longhorns and Bears.
The Jayhawks don’t have to worry about any such headaches. All they have to do is play the games that were already on the schedule and keep taking the pandemic seriously during what has to seem like a never-ending cycle of mundane downtime.
Braun stressed it would be important for the Jayhawks to remain “locked in” — and he just as easily could’ve mean that literally about KU players in McCarthy Hall — and not have any setbacks in terms of COVID testing.
“No team can afford to get shut down,” Braun said of this late stage of the season. “The guys have done a great job.”
The most imposing player on the floor, Kansas big man David McCormack did much more than outmuscle the Red Raiders in the paint Saturday afternoon in a top 25 battle at Allen Fieldhouse.
And with McCormack as a game-changing focal point on both ends of the court at Allen Fieldhouse, the Jayhawks delivered their first marquee victory since December, a 67-61 win over No. 15 Texas Tech that signaled they actually are turning a corner before February turns to March and the postseason arrives.
Scoring at will early on versus the Red Raiders, McCormack not only avoided one of his infamous slow starts, he set the tone for the No. 23 Jayhawks.
The powerful junior said after his 17 points and eight rebounds in KU’s fifth consecutive win that everything worked so well for him because he played with a free mind, not overthinking the various tasks at hand.
“Just playing to my strengths, knowing the scouting report, knowing that I can play over both their bigs,” McCormack said of his approach. “Just playing to my size. Doing the simple things.”
He certainly made it all look effortless in the first half, and not just when he was scoring. The offense had some flow and watchability to it, even when shots weren’t falling for his teammates, because McCormack didn’t take his scoring success as a green light to force up shots. The big man often kicked the ball outside from the low block just to see a great 3-point look for a fellow Jayhawk rim out. And that didn’t discourage him either.
No thinking necessary. Just keep making the right play. That was McCormack on Saturday.
And his teammates eventually caught up with him in that department after he went 5-for-5 in the first half and everybody else in a KU uniform shot a combined 6-for-23.
Persistence from all involved eventually helped KU’s offensive balance, and in the second half Jalen Wilson and Ochai Agbaji each scored 10 points. It didn’t matter that McCormack shot 2-for-5 in his 18 second half minutes, because the Red Raiders were so concerned about him as both a scoring and passing threat that it worked in KU’s favor.
“He was the reason,” Wilson said, “why everybody was getting so open from the 3-point line. His ability to suck the defense in once he was attacking the rim.”
McCormack opened the game by finishing every one of his first seven shot attempts. Wilson said it seemed as if KU’s veteran big couldn’t be stopped.
“When he plays like that it opens up the floor for everybody else,” Wilson said. “And it just gets it all going.”
The offense, in the first half especially, looked so flawless when KU (17-7 overall, 11-5 Big 12) played through its big man that it was astonishing he finished the game with only two assists. It wasn’t for a lack of unselfish passes out of the post.
KU head coach Bill Self, who called McCormack’s passing “great,” said the 6-foot-10 big read Tech’s defense well when the Red Raiders dove in to collapse around him.
“That’s one thing I think he does very well,” Self noted.
Coming off a not so productive individual showing at Kansas State earlier in the week, McCormack left KU’s far more impressive win against Tech most pleased about his approach to the day and how it worked for him. He spoke of playing with a “free heart” and “free mind.”
“Just having patience. I made sure just to have fun,” McCormack said. “Played for others. Tried to get my teammates as much open looks as I could out on the perimeter or if they were cutting, whatever it may be in order to get the ball moving.”
His considerate tendencies showed up on defense, too, even though, as Self noted afterward, McCormack wasn’t “unbelievable” as a post defender.
That’s never been his strength. But McCormack isn’t a defensive liability, either. When he subbed out, Tech noticeably found it much easier to get to the rim and score. The Red Raiders outscored KU, 8-4, during the 5:02 in total he spent on the bench.
What McCormack has become is a smart defender who eats up space in the paint and finds ways to get his arms in the sight lines of shooters, even if he isn’t a shot blocker.
“When he helped, he helped on balance and challenged shots,” Self said, crediting McCormack’s position defense.
“That’s one thing, if you’re a five-man and the guy you’re guarding isn’t a 3-point shooter, you can kind of be like a free safety, kind of help everybody, direct everybody,” Self added. “And he did a good job of that today.”
The only thing lacking from a signature performance by McCormack was a double-double, as he came up just two rebounds shy.
When asked about the work some of his teammates put in on the glass, McCormack joked that they were stealing his boards.
Actually, it was just another case of his willingness to make the right play and help the Jayhawks win.
“I may box out the opponent’s big man, but it opens up a crashing lane for (Christian Braun) or Jalen and we’re active on the glass,” McCormack said. “We know what we have to do in order for us to win.”
That’s becoming more clear than ever with these Jayhawks, who back in January seemed baffled by quality opponents.
This latest victory should be a mind-freeing one for them. They’ve proven they can beat an upper tier Big 12 team again. They just had to follow McCormack’s lead.
The Jayhawks have looked far from flawless, but the least complicated part of their February calendar is complete. Welcome to the make or break portion of the Kansas basketball schedule.
Now that KU has another aesthetically challenged win over one of the Big 12’s lower-tier teams out of the way, it’s time to find out if the Jayhawks truly are trending in the right direction leading up to March.
Yes, they’re on a four-game winning streak for the first time since December, when they rattled off eight straight following their season-opening loss to national title favorite Gonzaga. But this current string of enhanced play — mostly on the defensive end of the floor — from the Jayhawks hasn’t included a lot of wow factor. And the offense qualified as ugly at best much of the time in their two most recent victories.
With its 59-41 road win against rival Kansas State on Wednesday night in Manhattan, KU (16-7 overall) improved to 10-5 in the Big 12. A solid record in a strong league.
Here’s the thing: seven of the Jayhawks’ league wins to date have come against the bottom four teams in the conference: Oklahoma State (which entered Wednesday’s slate of games ranked No. 45 in the country at KenPom.com and No. 39 in the NCAA’s NET Rankings), TCU (110 KenPom, 101 NET), Iowa State (148 KenPom, 232 NET) and K-State (190 KenPom, 226 NET).
In fact, those four teams account for seven of the Jayhawks’ eight victories in 2021 — the other came, 63-59, against Oklahoma, in Lawrence on Jan. 9. And, let’s be honest, that win over OU occurred before the Sooners took off. Oklahoma was unranked at the time. Senior Brady Manek didn’t play. It was the first game that Elijah Harkless started. The Sooners are 7-1 since, including a 75-68 win over KU in the rematch.
Dating back to that KU win over an OU team that has since emerged as a possible top three seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks failed each of their four chances to prove they can go toe to toe with that caliber of opponent. They lost at Baylor (No. 2 KenPom, No. 2 NET), at Oklahoma (No. 22 KenPom, No. 18 NET), at Tennessee (No. 15 KenPom, No. 13 NET) and at West Virginia (No. 16 KenPom, No. 17 NET). Would many teams go 4-0 against that road slate? No. But there’s a long list of college basketball teams that would go 0-4, and the Jayhawks are guilty by association.
Now comes the Jayhawks’ chance to clear their names on the court. Three games left to play, each one of them against the type of quality team they haven’t beaten in weeks. This recent slate of games against Iowa State and K-State were such a foregone conclusion you surely know what lies ahead: Saturday versus Texas Tech (No. 19 KenPom, No. 14 NET), Tuesday at Texas (No. 18 KenPom, No. 22 NET) and Feb. 27 versus Baylor (No. 2 in both).
During their road wins at K-State and ISU in the past few days, The Jayhawks seldom looked like a team capable of handling those upper echelon Big 12 opponents that are to come.
And they certainly know the Wildcats aren’t living in the same college basketball stratosphere this season as the Red Raiders, Longhorns or Bears.
“We’re going to have to play a lot better,” KU redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson said of the upcoming stretch. “The things that we get away with in some of these games is not going to work for other games.”
In particular, Wilson referenced K-State’s poor 3-point shooting — 3-for-24, a mere 13% — against Kansas. The Jayhawks’ defense only had somewhat to do with those results.
“I doubt that the teams we’re playing next will miss as many 3’s,” Wilson predicted.
While head coach Bill Self said he likes the direction in which his team is headed after KU’s fourth win in a row, and thinks the Jayhawks’ “best ball” is yet to come, he also mentioned on more than one occasion during his postgame video press conference that KU “labored to score” at K-State. That description applied to a 64-50 win at ISU four days earlier, too.
A lot of times, this team just isn’t that fun to watch for most people when its 3-pointers aren’t dropping — the Jayhawks went 4-for-16 at K-State.
Self’s not in this business to entertain those of us in search of artistic offense, though. So that’s part of why he’s feeling upbeat about his team headed into these next three games.
“It will be challenging. When you play the best teams it’s always challenging. But we won at Texas Tech and scored 57 or whatever it was, or 58 (it was a 58-57 road win on Dec. 17). So it’s OK whatever it is. The situation is, we know if the score is in the 80’s, it probably doesn’t benefit us when you’re playing really good competition,” Self admitted. “Because it would be really hard for us to get 80 against really good competition, especially teams that guard.”
He’s been preaching defense and making the opponent play ugly for weeks. Now the Jayhawks will have to make that happen against players far more skilled and effective than the ones they’ve beat up on recently.
“I think our guys are bought in,” Self said of his team’s defensive improvements, especially with how the Jayhawks defend ball screens and help. “And that’s something we’ve been trying to get them to do for a long time. So I’m in no way, shape or form going to diminish what we’ve done, because they’re actually doing exactly what I want them to do, which is learn how to win ugly. And they’re getting confidence playing that way.”
As long as the Jayhawks are more convinced than observers that they can once again beat the types of teams they did earlier in the season, that’s got to be worth something for the stretch run.
Marcus Garrett predicted the Jayhawks are about to show “how tough” they are, and the “fight” that they have.
“I feel like we’ve got the best coach,” Garrett added, when asked about what’s to come, “so we’ll definitely be prepared for those three games. And I think that we’re ready for them.”
This year’s Kansas basketball team might do something that hasn’t happened since Bill Self took over the program in 2003. Not that it would be advisable.
The Jayhawks certainly aren’t chasing the distinction of becoming the first KU team coached by Self to fail to achieve an NCAA Tournament seed between Nos. 1-4. But it’s very much in play.
In the most recent edition of Bracketology from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, KU (15-7 overall, 9-5 Big 12) landed as a six seed, on the same line as the likes of Colorado, Virginia Tech and Purdue — a group of meh teams in an underwhelming season for college hoops.
The good news for the Jayhawks is they have one last stretch still in front of them that could make up for all of that blah that got them in this position in the first place.
Up to this point in the season, KU doesn’t deserve to be a top four seed. No one was aghast this past weekend when the NCAA rolled out its bracket sneak peek of the top 16 overall seeds and the Jayhawks were nowhere in sight.
While KU, no doubt, is on an uptick of late, most years people who follow the Jayhawks closely wouldn’t call the past five results — three combined wins over the two worst teams in the Big 12 (Iowa State and Kansas State), a victory against fringe AP top 25 team Oklahoma State and giving up 91 points in a road loss at West Virginia — an uptick. They would call that mostly handling your business in February. Or they would still be fretting about KU’s setback at WVU. This isn’t a one seed or bust kind of year, though. Far from it.
To the Jayhawks’ credit, they have beaten the teams they’re supposed to beat all season long. Per the NCAA’s NET Rankings, KU is 3-0 versus Quadrant 2 opponents, 2-0 against Quad 3 and 5-0 when facing the lowest tier of opposition, in Quad 4. They don’t have any bad losses, as head coach Bill Self repeatedly has made sure to allude to recently when his team’s defeats or struggles come up.
It’s in those pesky Quad 1 games where KU has yet to differentiate itself amid the muck. Behind Gonzaga and Baylor exists an array of generally competitive teams that are nowhere close to touching those two national championship favorites. It wouldn’t take a meteoric rise for KU between now and Selection Sunday for the Jayhawks to cement a spot on a top four seed line.
Partly because as of Tuesday they were tied with Ohio State and West Virginia for the most Quad 1 games played so far (11) among teams in the top 35 of the Net Rankings, the Jayhawks’ 4-7 record in that category also tied them for the most Quad 1 losses in the top 35, with Purdue at 3-7.
Of course, those losses (six since Jan. 2) are why KU’s status kept falling in recent weeks. Sure, the Jayhawks were facing some quality teams, but they repeatedly lost those games. KU’s best victory in its past 10 outings came on Feb. 8 against Oklahoma State, a team ranked No. 43 in the NET and No. 44 at KenPom.com.
KU hasn’t defeated a legit top 20 team since Oklahoma (No. 9 AP, No. 17 NET, No. 21 KenPom) visited Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 9. But the Jayhawks, who actually appear to be settling in defensively and rediscovering some of that mojo that made them a top 10 team back in December, are about to embark on what could turn into a résumé building run.
Kansas has three more Quad 1 games on the horizon, following Wednesday’s game at K-State (No. 226 in the NET and 0-11 in Quad 1). Arguably, just going 2-1 in the final three games of the regular season could catapult the Jayhawks into a top four seed line.
Given the Jayhawks’ erratic season, neither of the first two matchups — Texas Tech in Lawrence on Saturday and at Texas on Feb. 23 — is anywhere close to a foregone conclusion. But with Jalen Wilson’s resurgence and Bryce Thompson back as the sixth man, KU winning both of those games no longer feels farfetched.
Nothing we’ve seen thus far from the fluctuating play of the Jayhawks tells us they should beat Baylor at the fieldhouse on Feb. 27. Even with their improved ball screen and help defense, could they score enough to beat the Bears? It’s not impossible, but it remains unlikely for now.
So cast that mirage aside, and let’s say the Jayhawks find ways to handle business at K-State and grind out wins over Tech and the Longhorns. A loss to Baylor isn’t going to hurt their seeding at that point, and they should still have opportunities to further lay claim to a No. 4 or — let’s get crazy — a No. 3 seed by padding their résumé at the Big 12 tournament.
Remember those seven quality losses on KU’s résumé? Ten teams ahead of the Jayhawks in the NET top 20 — through games played on Monday, KU ranked No. 21 — haven’t even played seven Quad 1 games yet: Baylor (6-0), Michigan (4-1), Houston (2-0), Virginia (3-3), Loyola Chicago (1-2), Colgate (0-0), Villanova (2-3), USC (3-1), Florida State (3-2) and Colorado (2-3).
The Jayhawks could have as many as six more Quad 1 games on their record by Selection Sunday, further beefing up their case. It will take an impressive turnaround to make it happen, but keeping the streak of attaining a top four seed alive remains a realistic and attainable goal.
(KU last fell below that line in 2000, when Roy Williams coached a lineup featuring freshmen Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich and Drew Gooden to a No. 8 seed and a second-round exit.)
In a game filled with ugly basketball, one man in a Kansas uniform helped keep the Jayhawks’ Saturday road win at Iowa State at least relatively watchable.
If you happened to zero in on Jalen Wilson and all that he did in a 64-50 victory at Hilton Coliseum it distracted from the other unpleasantness.
The Jayhawks needed every bit of Wilson’s 22 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in 39 minutes, too, because none of the other starters had it rolling on this day in Ames, Iowa.
Asked what he liked about Wilson’s performance, KU head coach Bill Self’s response began with one word: “Everything.”
Self called Wilson, the 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman from Denton, Texas, KU’s best offensive player and rebounder, and lauded Jayhawks’ starting 4-man for knocking down four “big” 3-pointers. Twice in the second half Wilson buried a 3 to extend KU’s lead from single to double figures.
“He picked his spots wisely,” Self said. “He played with pace, poise. I thought he was really, really good.”
Wilson played all but 58 seconds of the Jayhawks’ first road win since Jan. 5 at TCU. And in during less than a minute rest he took, ISU went on a 6-1 run (anything that involved more than three points amounted to a run in that unsightly first half, which ended in a 24-all tie).
When Wilson was on the court, KU outscored Iowa State, 63-44. A month ago, when Wilson’s struggles coincided with the team’s worst basketball of the season, the idea of him delivering again the way he did in December seemed a long ways off.
Turns out it was. And Wilson didn’t turn a corner overnight. He’s been trending this direction of late, culminating with his fourth consecutive double-double.
Once he began focusing his attention and energy on the glass, he got headed back in the right direction.
“I think that’s something that definitely gets me going and helps my team, me starting on the defensive end rebounding and being aggressive on that,” Wilson said. “And then my offense will come naturally. I don’t really worry about every single game. I just approach every single time I get on the court to defensive rebound and be aggressive on that end and everything else will come.”
When David McCormak is subpar offensively inside, like he was in the first half at ISU, it’s imperative for another Jayhawk to step up and produce. Otherwise this team has no chance.
The game actually could’ve been even uglier for KU had Wilson not scored 10 points in the first half, when he also grabbed five rebounds and was the only starter to hit a 3-pointer, making two.
McCormack improved in the second half, but he appreciated how Wilson made an impact throughout the road win.
“Jalen played to his strengths,” McCormack said. “Driving downhill, getting and-ones, shooting the ball, playing with confidence, playing with energy. That’s what he does best. And that’s what he did today.”
As Wilson has regained his consistency — he’s averaging 16.3 points and 11.5 boards in KU’s past four games — he said his teammates’ continued confidence in him helped him get back to this point.
The Jayhawks (15-7 overall, 9-5 Big 12) have needed Wilson all season. When he exploded onto the scene in December, KU lived up to its top-five ranking. While he couldn’t maintain that level of consistency throughout the schedule, a late season resurgence would be perfect for this mercurial team.
“I think he had so much success early,” Self said of Wilson, “it got him a little bit to the point where he was trying to force the success when he wasn’t having the same opportunities.”
Whether it’s Wilson picking his spots better or just him getting used to playing as the 4-man with one of KU’s bigs (the Jayhawks spent much more time in five-guard lineups featuring Wilson early in the season), the redshirt freshman seems past his rough patch.
“He’s just kind of figuring it out,” Self said. “But he’s been really good. He’s playing the right way.”
That “right way” line, one former KU head coach Larry Brown made popular, is the ultimate compliment. And Self wouldn’t have been able to say it about Wilson just a few weeks back, when the young player’s struggles came across in his body language, too.
Now Wilson’s not forcing the issue or worrying about his scoring. He’s just pounding the glass and making his team better — even on days when KU isn’t aesthetically pleasing as a whole.
“My teammates were looking for me, as we all look for each other,” Wilson said after standing out. “The ball just found me in good places, to shoot the ball in open spots, and I was able to hit them.”
These Jayhawks should take a win wherever they can find one. And if it comes against an Iowa State team that turns the ball over 23 times and is winless in Big 12 play, then so be it.
The viewers don’t have to be entertained for a Kansas basketball victory to benefit the team. Especially this season.
At least observers who were watching Wilson found enough entertainment value to keep tuned in.
Though he only logged 19 minutes in his return to the Kansas lineup Thursday night, freshman Bryce Thompson played a starring role in making basketball look easy again for the Jayhawks in a 97-64 dismantling of Iowa State.
With Thompson out due to a broken right finger since Jan. 12, KU hadn’t blown anyone out in even longer. And after missing the 6-foot-5 guard with play-making skills and strong defensive instincts for seven games, the Jayhawks’ first chance to play with him again proved promising for the stretch run ahead.
This didn’t look like a freshman who had only played one game out of the previous 11 due to a couple of injuries. Thompson came out not tentative, but craving the chance to reintroduce himself to the Big 12.
His eight-point, three-assist night off the bench began with Thompson seeking opportunities to attack off the dribble from the perimeter. In his first game action since hearing something “pop” in his hand at Oklahoma State more than four weeks back, Thompson put up four quick points in the first half, but also slid over as a help defender to smack a Tre Jackson layup try out of the air.
Said teammate Jalen Wilson of Thompson’s return: “He gave us great energy. We’ve been missing him.”
Thompson even acted as the primary ball handler late in the first half, when senior Marcus Garrett was on the bench. That led to him feeding Mitch Lightfoot inside for a bucket, but the stretch also included Thompson trying to take on all of the Cyclones by himself, dribbling into a forced turnaround jumper when there were still 15 seconds on the shot clock. It was a decision head coach Bill Self didn’t care for, and Thompson heard about it at the next timeout.
The next time the freshman touched the ball, though, coming off a screen, he went straight to the paint for a floater to score, an example of him remembering the brief shot selection lesson sent his direction during the recent stoppage.
Thompson came through with more unselfish plays for KU (14-7 overall, 8-5 Big 12) in the second half, including a drive where he looked to kick the ball out to Christian Braun for an open 3-pointer instead of trying to go one-one-one himself in the paint. He also dished an assist to David McCormack on another break when his own foray into the paint nearly got knocked away at first. Never lacking confidence, the next trip up the floor Thompson went end to end off a defensive rebound to get to the hoop for his own layup.
His passion for the game came through with every big play he delivered.
“It felt amazing,” a beaming Thompson said about finally returning, during his postgame video interview. “Being away from the game for so long, to get back out there and just compete and to win and hear the crowd — all the little things you kind of take for granted.”
Plenty of KU looking better than it had in weeks had to do with the opponent — ISU fell to 2-13 on the year and 0-10 in Big 12 games. But Thompson’s return played a noticeable factor, as well.
It would’ve been reasonable to have low expectations for what a freshman guard coming back off of so much missed time and playing with a fingerless protective glove on his shooting hand could provide.
But the outlook for how much he can help this KU team changed immediately shortly after he stepped onto the court versus ISU.
And according to Self, Thompson set himself up for success in recent weeks, allowing him to play assertively and with poise.
“He’s a student. He studies. He watches,” Self said. “When he came on his official visit (as a high school recruit from Tulsa, Okla.) and we were practicing, he was walking up the sideline, up and down, to make sure he heard every word that every coach was saying to everybody as we practiced that day.”
That’s when Self first learned how much Thompson “cares” and wants to learn.
“He’s been that way also since he’s been out,” Self said of Thompson’s approach while sidelined during recent weeks. “He was not a thinker tonight. He was more (reactive). Most guys that had been out that long would’ve been a thinker.”
Thompson thought he was “pretty good” in his return. But he also quickly brought up some botched defensive assignments he wanted to go back and review, to prep for the rematch at ISU on Saturday.
This week and next will be crucial for Thompson to get himself totally reacclimated for KU’s stretch run of the season, with games at ISU and Kansas State followed by matchups with Texas Tech, Texas and Baylor.
“Games like (Thursday’s) where we’re a lot better than the (opponent), it helps me to be able to stay out there, get my flow, get everything good,” Thompson said, adding the first thing he needed to do following the win was take an ice bath and get his body “back right.”
The Jayhawks, who went 5-5 without Thompson, could actually turn this season around with him. It won’t be easy like it was against the Cyclones, but his cerebral approach and love for the game will inject some life into a rotation that has missed him more than many onlookers probably realized.
“I see Bryce playing an integral role in our success the rest of the season,” Self said, sharing Thompson may also be the team’s best passer off of ball screens. “Bryce plays with a smile on his face. He’s got personality. He plays with energy.”
Thompson set the bar high for himself in his return. And that’s just the type of player KU needs heading toward the close of the regular season.