There weren’t 30 better college basketball players than Kansas stars Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson in the shortened 2019-20 season. But at least that many prospects from the NCAA ranks and overseas are expected to get selected before the pair of Jayhawks in this year’s NBA Draft.
Although Dotson hasn’t yet officially reached a decision on entering his name into the pool, the latest mock draft from ESPN is assuming, just as KU coach Bill Self has, that Dotson will declare.
At this point, ESPN draft experts Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz project that both Dotson, KU’s speed-bursting point guard, and Azubuike, the Jayhawks’ defensive-minded center, will be second-round picks.
Still, the KU teammates both are thought of highly enough that they barely missed out on the first round. The newest mock draft slated them as back-to-back picks to open round No. 2, with Azubuike going first in the second and final round, and Dotson getting drafted right after him.
Point guards such as LaMelo Ball, Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton, R.J. Hampton, North Carolina’s Cole Anthony, Theo Maledon, Arizona’s Nico Mannion, Alabama’s Kira Lewis Jr. and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston are projected to go in the first round, ahead of Dotson, KU’s AP second-team All-American.
The latest first-round projections don’t include many traditional centers, what with the game trending away from low-post big men. The mock draft had one going early, with Memphis center James Wiseman at No. 2. The first round also featured two players listed at both forward and center: USC’s Onyeka Okongwu, Memphis’ Precious Achiuwa
Only two other players who are strictly considered centers, Washington’s Isaiah Stewart and Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr., were listed as first-rounders, but they were in Azubuike’s neighborhood, between picks No. 26-30.
The forecast provided by Givony and Schmitz displayed what they thought teams were most likely to do with their draft picks. But they admitted it’s also an even more inexact science than usual at this juncture, because the NBA hasn’t even yet sorted out its final standings for the season, which remains on pause amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Nor has the league held its lottery to determine the order for the top 14 picks.
The uncertainty also stretches to the pre-draft process itself. It may well prove difficult for prospects such as Azubuike and Dotson to improve their stock, because they still don’t know when or if they will be able to work out for NBA teams.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the league informed its 30 franchises that in-person workouts and interviews with prospects are off until further notice.
Per Wojnarowski, teams can only conduct interviews via video conference, and are limited to four hours total for those interactions with a given player. What’s more, Wojnarowski reported teams aren’t allowed to request video of recent workouts from prospects and can only watch video footage of games or practice sessions that occurred before the NBA suspended its season on March 11.
So whatever relatively recent action general managers, coaches and scouts want to view of Azubuike and Dotson will have come from the Jayhawks’ truncated 28-3 season for the time being.
A 20-year-old 7-footer from Nigeria, Azubuike shot 74.8% from the floor playing inside, while averaging 13.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots.
Also 20, and actually a smidge older than Azubuike, Dotson, a 6-2 point guard, put up 18.1 points per game, with 4.0 assists and 2.1 steals to go with 30.9% 3-point shooting and an 83% mark at the free throw line.
Some years in college basketball, picking All-America teams can be uncomplicated, even obvious. This bizarre, postseason-less 2019-20 campaign was not one of those years.
Sure, Dayton’s Obi Toppin fell into the clear-cut category, but as Friday’s release of the Associated Press All-America teams reminded everyone, it got a little trickier for the 65-member voting panel after that.
The complex nature of filling out the rest of the first team ultimately cost Kansas stars Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson from securing a spot. Instead, the two best players on the unambiguous No. 1 team in the country landed on the second team.
Both Azubuike, a 7-foot senior center, and Dotson, a 6-2 sophomore point guard, were legitimate first-team candidates. But neither was so clearly better than the other that voters could separate them. In tandem, Azubuike and Dotson made KU great. Still, neither had otherworldly statistical production to back up his case.
KU, in Bill Self’s 17 seasons as head coach, has landed one player on the AP’s first team four times — and has never had two first-teamers in the same year. So getting both Azubuike (13.7 points per game, 10.5 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 74.8% shooting) and Dotson (18.1 points, 4.0 assists, 2.1 steals, 46.8% shooting) on the first team this year was never going to happen.
What would it have taken for one of KU’s stars to represent college basketball’s best team on the first tier? For one, voters valuing winning over individual numbers.
Along with college basketball’s breakout star, Toppin (20.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 63.3% shooting), every other member of the AP first team averaged at least 20 points per game. Iowa junior big man Luka Garza (23.9 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 54.2% field goals), Marquette senior guard Markus Howard (27.8 points, 3.3 assists, 41.2% 3-point shooting), Seton Hall senior guard Myles Powell (21.0 points, 2.9 assists) and Oregon senior guard Payton Pritchard (20.5 points, 5.5 assists, 41.5% 3-point shooting) all had gaudier statistics than KU’s two standouts.
Azubuike and Dotson had them all beat in the win-loss column, though. When the season ended abruptly because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Jayhawks were 28-3 and a near lock to be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Toppin was the only first-teamer who could claim anything close to that, as he helped Dayton go 29-2 and be in position for a coveted No. 1 seed.
Seton Hall went 21-9 overall (13-5 Big East), and in ESPN’s most recent version of bracketology was a No. 3 seed. Oregon went 24-7 (13-5 Pac-12) and had a spot on the No. 4 line. Iowa was 20-11 (11-9 Big Ten) and a No. 6 seed. Marquette went 18-12 (8-10 Big East) and could’ve met KU in the second round as a No. 9 seed.
Did Garza, Powell, Howard and Pritchard all have more impactful seasons than Azubuike, whose defensive dominance and force of nature offensive presence inside helped KU become the favorite to win it all in 2020?
Were all four of them really more effective than Dotson, who was a blur on both ends of the floor and got to the paint for layups and drawn fouls more than many bigs, helping KU enter the canceled postseason on a 16-game winning streak?
It’s complicated, and there are nuances, and that’s why KU went without an AP first-teamer, even though, for instance, ESPN.com’s All-America lists from Jeff Borzello had both Azubuike and Dotson on the first team.
Some AP voters clearly recognized how great KU became because of its two stars. Dotson picked up 30 first-team votes and Azubuike had 22. Compare that to the first-team votes for the other three AP second-teamers and the respect is obvious. San Diego State’s Malachi Flynn had 12, Michigan State’s Cassius Winston picked up nine and Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr. garnered three.
The voting process gave Dotson 237 points and Azubuike 235, so they weren’t too far behind the final two members of the first team, Powell (37 first-team votes, 261 points) and Pritchard (37 first-team votes, 259 points). Toppin (325 points) was a unanimous selection. Garza (321 points) showed up on the first team on 63 ballots. Howard (279 points) received 43 first-team votes.
While there are far greater issues to worry about these days than college basketball honors, the relatively worst part of these second-team results for Azubuike and Dotson is they don’t have the chance to go out and prove themselves as first-team talents with most of America watching. Not that even that would’ve mattered much to those two. They were more invested in winning a national championship than individual numbers.
You thought watching your favorite team get upset in the first or second round of the NCAA Tournament was tough. Welcome to the truest form of March Sadness.
The idea of any basketball being played this weekend or in the weeks to come toppled, domino style, beginning Thursday morning. As conferences nationwide canceled their postseason tournaments, the trend reached the Big 12 and the Sprint Center less than an hour before a quarterfinal between Texas and Texas Tech was supposed to tip off.
By the afternoon, the NCAA and its board of governors went ahead and canceled the entire postseason. No Selection Sunday. No brackets to fill out. No buzzer-beaters. No Cinderellas. No Final Four. Not even “One Shining Moment.”
This is all, of course, for the greater good of society. Health experts far more knowledgeable about this novel coronavirus and how it spreads than those of us who wanted to watch more basketball advised against these games and the March traditions that we’ve come to know and love. It was a prudent move, reached with the well-being of people who could be fatally impacted by COVID-19 in mind. Even if it took the NBA, NHL and MLB all suspending their games for the NCAA to take a similar action, the people in charge of the March Madness moneymaker finally followed the ethical route.
But it’s OK to be disappointed in the result, sensible as it was. Imagine the sorrow college athletes throughout the country are still experiencing, and will continue to deal with, in the wake of this unprecedented measure.
It’s hard to dream up a more let down group of players than those on the Kansas basketball roster. The No. 1-ranked Jayhawks hadn’t lost a game since Jan. 11. They were in position to become the No. 1 overall seed in the national championship tournament, with the help of two potential all-Americans, Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson, and a defensive guru, Marcus Garrett.
They had zero clue this past Saturday in Lubbock, Texas, when they beat the Red Raiders for an outright Big 12 title that it would be the last time they ever competed together. The Jayhawks looked like a team that could play nine more times — three in the Big 12 Tournament and six more in the NCAA Tournament — cutting down more nets and acquiring more postseason hardware along the way.
Instead, it’s all suddenly over.
For months, the lives of these players revolved around gearing up for this 2020 postseason. Now they’re no doubt left with a sense of emptiness, because the bizarre circumstances of these times meant they didn’t even get a chance to go validate their incredible regular season with some postseason glory.
For Azubuike, a senior, and Dotson, a likely early NBA draft entrant, this must be unfathomable. They were poised to write their own memorable chapters in KU’s storied program. Maybe even leave as legends. Like Danny Manning or Mario Chalmers. Now they and their teammates become an all-time what-if in KU lore.
Unfortunately for college athletes and fans everywhere, this unique brand of March Sadness extends to sports everywhere. President Mark Emmert and the board of governors determined the best way for the NCAA to prevent further spread of COVID-19 was to cancel all remaining winter and spring championships. That means no title runs for college athletes in basketball, ice hockey, wrestling, gymnastics, track and field, lacrosse, baseball, softball, golf and tennis, to name a few.
We’ve never seen anything like this. And hopefully we never will again.
As everyone continues to process this odd non-postseason, it’s OK to both appreciate that people involved in sports are doing everything they can to limit a pandemic, while also expressing regret over how March of 2020 came to an abrupt conclusion.
It's normal for players on Bill Self’s Kansas basketball teams to wind up on All-Big 12 teams in March, but not once in his previous 16 seasons did Self coach a team with two stars so productive that either could easily have won conference player of the year.
Of course, that changed in year No. 17, thanks to Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson.
A 7-foot senior center, Azubuike ended up sweeping the Big 12 player of the year awards, earning the distinction from both the conference’s coaches and the Associated Press.
But that didn’t mean Azubuike was the obvious choice. AP voters gave the big man 10 votes, but seven went to his teammate Dotson, a sophomore point guard.
Azubuike intimidated on the interior, while Dotson reigned on the perimeter. They formed an ideal complementary duo and made up the driving force behind KU’s incredible 17-1 run through the Big 12.
Was one more responsible for the Jayhawks’ success than the other? You could make strong cases for either and still not convince someone on the other side of the argument. Ultimately, both sides are right, because the dominating center and high-speed point guard formed a reciprocal pairing that resulted in KU emerging as the top-ranked team in the country.
Self said earlier this week he never had before coached a tandem with such a hefty one-two punch that it was difficult to discern which player was actually better.
“Yeah, when we had Marcus and Markieff, they were hard to distinguish,” Self joked of the Morris twins. “From a postseason award standpoint, I don't know that we've had anything like this before.”
Just in two of the previous three seasons, Self coached clear-cut All-Americans in Frank Mason III (2017) and Devonte’ Graham (2018) who were obvious choices for Big 12 player of the year. The same was true earlier in the decade, with Marcus Morris (2011) and Thomas Robinson (2012). And even though Mason and Graham were teammates in 2017 and Morris and Robinson played together in 2011, there was always clear separation between those KU duos in those particular seasons. Robinson and Graham each stepped up to become “the guy” after a teammate with a key role moved on.
In Azubuike and Dotson, Kansas (28-3) has two of “the guys” entering the postseason together.
Self thought the only time KU could have had a somewhat similar scenario was 2014, when the Jayhawks’ top two freshmen, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, went on to become two of the top three picks in the draft. Of course, that combo never got to realize its March Madness potential, as Embiid suffered a season-ending injury late in the regular season and KU lost as a No. 2 seed in its second game of the NCAA Tournament.
Azubuike and Dotson are more likely to become two of the top three picks in the second round of the draft, but they’ve turned into highly effective college stars. The Jayhawks haven’t benefited from the presence of such a valuable pair of players since the year before Self arrived. In 2003, big man Nick Collison and fleet-footed guard Kirk Hinrich took KU all the way to the national championship game.
Azubuike and Dotson are the most impactful Kansas duo since, and exceptional enough in this college basketball season that they could take the Jayhawks one step further — and maybe help deliver KU its first national championship since 2008.
With the regular season officially behind them, the No. 1-ranked Jayhawks should feel right at home when they’re away from Lawrence this postseason, and not just at their mid-March home in Kansas City, Mo., for the Big 12 Tournament.
Kansas fought its way to a 10-1 road record, bolstering its claim to the No. 1 overall seed on this upcoming Selection Sunday.
By definition, the Sprint Center and every NCAA Tournament venue in which KU could play in the weeks ahead, is a neutral site. But that’s open to some interpretation. Kansas fans could gobble up tickets in Kansas City this weekend, turning those contests into pseudo home games, the same way KU’s annual regular-season dates in Sprint Center masquerade as a home game on the schedule.
Once the Jayhawks (28-3) begin their NCAA Tournament run, though, their experience as road warriors this season should come in handy in high-pressure games, in Omaha, Neb., the opening week, and possibly Houston or Indianapolis the following one.
Even though KU is likely to be well represented in the stands at various stops during the 68-team national tournament, any sense of a home-court advantage will be out the window.
“I think when you're rated high,” KU head coach Bill Self said Monday during his press conference, “a lot of times if the game's close in the NCAA Tournament, the majority of the people in the building that aren’t a KU fan would certainly pull for the underdog or the upset, so to speak.”
It’s in those moments that the tension ratchets up in a hurry, potentially infiltrating even a great team’s collective psyche.
That’s when these Jayhawks can lean on their familiarity with winning games outside of Lawrence.
As Big 12 Player of the Year Udoka Azubuike said Monday, the Jayhawks’ confidence entering the postseason is only reinforced by their impressive record on opponents’ home floors.
“Some of the games, we didn’t really play well,” Azubuike said, regarding KU’s 10 road wins. “But we played good defense and we paid attention to details and that kind of helped us. Moving forward, we know we’re not always going to play well offensively, but we’re going to find a way to grind it out defensively.”
That defense, of course (No. 2 in the nation in adjusted efficiency according to KenPom.com), is what makes the Jayhawks a favorite to win it all. And they’ve been so locked in on that end of the floor this season that getting stops and winning has become second nature, and they don’t need the boost of the Allen Fieldhouse crowd to make it happen.
All-Big 12 point guard Devon Dotson said KU’s run through its road schedule highlighted the players’ resiliency.
“That shows that we have some strength and toughness — like mental toughness — to overcome runs or bad moments that we have,” Dotson said. “We can overcome it. That’s a positive, that we can overcome that.”
Self’s KU teams often fare well on the road, and that doesn’t necessarily guarantee postseason success — we’re talking about March Madness after all. Still, their 10-1 road record this year gives Self confidence about this team’s potential as the Jayhawks head into postseason play.
“We've had some teams here that you knew that we would get a great effort and you knew that you would probably have a great chance to win, because you knew our crowd would be so good and get guys jacked to play,” Self said. “I don't I think this team needs that as much. At least I hope not. We haven't so far.”
KU road records in Self era, and NCAA Tournament result
2003-04 — 5-5; Elite Eight
2004-05 — 6-4; lost in 1st round
2005-06 — 6-2; lost in 1st round
2006-07 — 8-2; Elite Eight
2007-08 — 8-3; National Championship
2008-09 — 6-4; Sweet 16
2009-10 — 9-2; lost in 2nd round
2010-11 — 9-1; Elite Eight
2011-12 — 8-2; National runner-up
2012-13 — 7-3; Sweet 16
2013-14 — 5-6; lost in 2nd round
2014-15 — 5-6; lost in 2nd round
2015-16 — 7-3; Elite Eight
2016-17 — 10-1; Elite Eight
2017-18 — 7-3; Final Four
2018-19 — 3-8; lost in 2nd round
2019-20 — 10-1; ???
Road records of NCAA champions, since 2004
2004 — Connecticut, 6-4
2005 — North Carolina, 8-3
2006 — Florida, 6-4
2007 — Florida, 5-4
2008 — Kansas, 8-3
2009 — North Carolina, 11-2
2010 — Duke, 5-5
2011 — Connecticut, 5-5
2012 — Kentucky, 8-1
2013 — Louisville, 8-3
2014 — Connecticut, 6-4
2015 — Duke, 9-2
2016 — Villanova, 10-2
2017 — North Carolina, 6-5
2018 — Villanova, 9-3
2019 — Virginia, 10-1
(Road records of NCAA champs via teamrankings.com)
Lubbock, Texas — Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 66-62 win over Texas Tech on Saturday.
• The Jayhawks missed a lot of shots in the first half (39% shooting), but still headed to halftime up 32-24 versus the Red Raiders.
Points in the paint made that possible, as KU outscored Tech, 14-6, in the first 20 minutes.
That helped offset KU’s 3-point shooting, with the No. 1 team in the country going just 3-for-12 in the first half.
• Although the Jayhawks turned it over 7 times in the first half, Tech only scored 2 points off those miscues.
• A slow offensive start to the second half (2-for-11 shooting, 0-for-2 3-pointers, six minutes in) kept Tech right in the thick of it with KU.
• KU shot 43% in the second half and on the day outscored Tech, 38-16, in the paint. The Jayhawks shot 1-for-5 on second half 3-pointers.
• KU’s guards occasionally had trouble cutting off the long strides of Terrence Shannon Jr., when the 6-foot-6 freshman sought out driving lanes, but the visitors mostly proved effective at keeping Red Raiders out of the paint.
• The Jayhawks ran into even more trouble defending the arc. The Red Raiders opened 4-for-9 from 3-point range 12 minutes in, before KU only allowed 3 more attempts (all misses) before intermission.
• As has been on the case on the road all season long, it was KU’s defense that made a victory possible. Even without a gaudy amount of steals and blocks, the Jayhawks just made it difficult for the Red Raiders to score — a must in a hostile environment versus a well-coached team.
• Tech, after shooting 30.3% from the field in the first 20 minutes, however, came out guns blazing in the second half. Starting 4-for-5 from the floor, Tech, after trailing by as many as 8, tied the game at 37.
• The Red Raiders shot 37% on the day and went 8-for-26 on 3-pointers.
• Udoka Azubuike drew tons of attention from Tech defenders whenever KU could get him the ball in the paint, but the senior center mostly handled those situations well, even after a couple of potentially discouraging turnovers early on.
Azubuike scored 8 of his 15 points in the first half, and executed some nice passes out of the post to open shooters.
The big man played his final regular season game for KU, posted another double-double, with 11 rebounds.
• Devon Dotson came out attacking, scoring two of KU’s first four baskets off dribble attacks that got him layups.
In the midst of a terrific atmosphere and a tight game early on, Dotson’s pick and roll with Azubuike for a dunk, when the big man already had a couple turnovers in the paint, felt like an important moment for the offense.
Even better for the Jayhawks’ chances, Dotson often set up teammates for good looks at Tech, too, with 4 assists on KU’s first 10 field goals.
A surefire first-team All-Big 12 guard, Dotson didn’t let a stepback air-balled 3-pointer to open the second half ruin his day. The sophomore point guard was driving to finish at the rim over length a minute later.
Dotson on a 6-for-15 shooting day, ultimately was productive, putting up 17 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists, while struggling from time to time with turnovers (5).
• Marcus Garrett, always the glue guy, provided KU with stellar defense, great effort on the glass and leadership.
His perfect entry pass into Azubuike with 2-plus minutes left gave KU a crucial basket in crunch time. In the final minute, he drove in for a clutch layup that put KU up 4.
A junior guard, Garrett finished with 9 points,, 2 assists and 9 rebounds.
• Isaiah Moss hit his first 3-pointer with 6:38 left in the first half. And though he missed his next 2 attempts in the half, KU functioned well with him on the floor, because Tech defenders have to respect him as a long-range threat.
Moss put up 3 points and went 1-for-5 from deep
• Ochai Agbaji knocked down a right corner 3-pointer early on, and every time that someone other than Moss or Christian Braun connects from downtown, that’s a good sign for the Jayhawks’ offensive potential in the weeks ahead. However, his next three 3-point tries misfired.
What helped Agbaji stand out, though, was his willingness to keep making effort plays when his shots weren’t falling. His hustle in transition to follow a Dotson miss on a toughly contested layup paid off, as Agbaji fushed a follow jam.
He also hit a timely 3-pointer under the 10-minute mark of the second half, with the Red Raiders surging and the crowd giving them even more life.
The sophomore guard posted 12 points and 6 rebounds in the regular season finale.
• David McCormak harnessed his energy well in the first half when he came in to give Azubuike a breather. The backup big asserted himself to look for shots and hit the offensive glass. Even though he needs to finish some of the looks he got inside as a result of his approach, he gave KU more positives than negatives.
McCormack got on the floor to secure a key defensive rebound in the second half, with a little more than 7 minutes to go, leading to a transition layup for Dotson.
KU’s backup big provided 5 points and 6 rebounds.
• Braun delivered what was a rare basket for KU early on in the first half. Spotting up in the left corner, he attacked a closeout off the bounce to seek out a layup, and he drew a foul for an old-fashioned 3-point play.
The freshman guard gave KU 5 points and 4 rebounds, and finished a must-have fast-break layup — set up by his steal — smoothly with less than 1:30 left.
• Tech’s reserves were a bit more impactful, overall, than KU’s on a heated March afternoon, and Tech prevailed in bench points, 16-10.
Grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 75-66 win over TCU on Wednesday at Allen Fieldhouse, where the Jayhawks assured themselves of at least a share of the 2020 Big 12 title.
• The Jayhawks scored their first 12 points in the paint to establish their interior dominance versus the visitors from Fort Worth, Texas. That trend would continue throughout and become a critical component of KU’s early March win.
KU controlled the paint, outscoring TCU, 46-16, inside, and shooting 53.7% overall from the field.
• KU wasn’t as successful from long range, however, going 3-for-12 on 3-pointers.
• The No. 1 team in the nation benefited from 14 offensive rebounds, which led to 19 second-chance points.
• KU’s biggest defensive issue came in the first half, when it could not stop TCU from burying 3-pointer after 3-pointer. The Frogs went 9-for-15 in the first 20 minutes.
The defense tightened up down the stretch, though, as KU held TCU to 4-for-14 shooting from long range in the second half.
• TCU turned the ball over 7 times in each half, and KU racked up 9 steals in all in the home finale.
• The Frogs only connected on 10 of their 28 shots in the second half. They hit 42% overall in the game.
• Udoka Azubuike was unstoppable as ever, sore ankle be damned.
The Jayhawks knew the first time they faced TCU the Frogs struggled to handle the 7-foot senior, so they counted on a repeat performance once they figured out Azubuike’s ankle wasn’t bothering him too much to limit his impact.
Azubuike put up a career-high 31 points in his final home game, and, oh yeah, also secured 14 rebounds and blocked 5 shots.
A spectacular finish to an incredible run for the center from Nigeria.
• Point guard Devon Dotson got rolling later in the first half, and often sped his way to baskets and the foul line. He hurt his lower left leg later in the second half, or he would have been even more productive than he was, with 18 points on 5-for-12 shooting, with 6 boards and 2 assists, plus 4 steals.
• Marcus Garrett again looked to be playing through pain (sore foot), but powered through it at points to make key plays.
His assist to Azubuike inside followed by a steal and layup of his own came at a critical juncture of the second half, as KU took control.
Garrett finished with 9 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals, even if his defense was a little below his high standards on a couple of occasions.
• Ochai Agbaji threw a couple of bad passes for turnovers but flashed his athleticism and finished with 8 points.
• Isaiah Moss only got 1 of his 7 3-point attempts to drop, but he played 37 minutes, and looked good setting others up a few times (3 assists), while contributing 5 points and 4 rebounds.
• Christian Braun played the majority of the bench minutes, with 20, and scored all of the bench’s points (4).
• When David McCormack and Tristan Enaruna were in the game, KU wasn’t quite as effective.
No. 1-ranked Kansas could play as many as 11 games between now and when college basketball’s national champion is crowned on April 6, in Indianapolis. And during the most pivotal and scrutinized portion of the season, the Jayhawks will have to at times get by without starting center Udoka Azubuike.
Whenever one of the best big men in the nation isn’t on the floor for KU, it will be up to Azubuike’s backup, David McCormack, to make sure his minutes result in a net positive outcome.
A sophomore who is averaging just 13.5 minutes a game in Big 12 play, McCormack won’t be asked to do anything unreasonable in the weeks ahead. But sensible basketball minds will agree that he should be more than serviceable if Azubuike is hurt, in foul trouble or needs a breather.
At 6-foot-10 and 265 pounds, McCormack is a presence inside, even though he doesn’t rebound, block shots or influence the outcome of opponents’ attempts in the paint as successfully as Azubuike does. But he proved at Kansas State this past Saturday he can impact the game in a supportive way, even in crunch time.
When the Jayhawks (26-3 overall, 15-1 Big 12) played the final six-plus minutes in Manhattan without Azubuike, because of his ailing ankle, McCormack checked in with his team up two, and in the 5:58 that followed, KU outscored K-State, 11-9.
In that span, McCormack accounted for a turnover, a steal, an assist on Christian Braun’s late-game 3-pointer, a foul, a missed jumper, a successful shot attempt and another foul.
Due to Azubuike’s ankle issue, McCormack played 20 minutes in total — his most since he was still in the starting lineup in January. The reserve center contributed nine points and four rebounds, went 2-for-7 from the floor and 5-for-6 at the foul line.
Bill Self thought KU played well down the stretch, with McCormack in for Azubuike.
“He made a big shot. He took a silly one and made a big shot,” Self clarified. “And then the one that he made at the end of the (shot) clock got waved off. I thought he did fine. I don’t think we win the game without any of our seven today that played a lot of minutes, but certainly David was pretty clutch down the stretch.”
One knock against McCormack is that so many of his shot attempts are mid-range jumpers and long 2-pointers. Earlier in the season, when KU regularly played McCormack and Azubuike at the same time, those attempts were a little more forgivable, because they relatively spaced the floor — or at least made the interior somewhat less crowded for driving guards.
But now that McCormack spends almost all of his minutes as KU’s only big on the court — and If Azubuike’s injured ankle keeps him out of KU’s home finale versus TCU it will be all McCormack all the time — he would be better suited taking his shots inside. Per BartTorvik.com, in his 26 games versus Division 1 opponents this season, McCormack is 18-for-20 (90%) on dunks, 37-for-48 (77.1%) on shots at the rim and 38-for-89 (42.7%) on other 2-pointers.
Plus, if he spends more time posting up and quickly attacking, he’s more likely to get to the foul line, where he’s quietly one of KU’s best shooters (36-for-44, 81.8%).
“I don’t know if you guys know this — that’s the first free throw he’s missed in conference play this year,” Self remarked of the big man’s lone misfire at the charity stripe versus K-State.
McCormack, who is converting 54.1% of his attempts this season and making 47.9% in Big 12 contests, isn’t shy about taking shots in his limited minutes. If he can reprogram his offensive approach by taking those shots inside, he could even become a more effective player just in time for March Madness.
Self had few critiques, though, of McCormack’s game following KU’s win at K-State.
“I thought his ball screen defense was OK. I thought he rebounded OK. But I don’t know,” Self replied, when asked if there were things McCormack could do to be more effective during his minutes. “He’s obviously a good shooter from 15 and in, so he needs to shoot the ball. But I would say just keep doing what he’s doing. He’s kind of settled into his role and is doing it pretty well.”
Manhattan — Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 62-58 win over Kansas State on Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum.
• The Wildcats, despite their struggles this season, are known for their defense — specifically their ability to disrupt possessions and create turnovers. The Jayhawks got an early reminder of that Saturday afternoon, with 3 turnovers less than 3 minutes in.
Although KU wouldn’t continue coughing up the ball at that rate, every time the Jayhawks did it gave K-State’s struggling offense some life. The Wildcats scored 12 points off KU’s 11 first-half turnovers.
• When the Jayhawks took care of the ball, they were scoring in the first half. They shot 56% from the floor and 3-for-5 on 3-pointers. Plus, the visitors went 14-for-18 at the foul line in a physical game.
• KU only scored 10 points in the paint — where the No. 1 team in the nation usually thrives — in the first half. That trend wouldn’t hold up so severely for the second half, as the Jayhawks had 8 points inside less than 7 minutes in. They finished with 26 points overall in the paint to K-State’s 18.
• The Jayhawks’ offense struggled more than usual after halftime. With 11:24 left, KU was just 4-for-14 from the field and 0-for-6 on 3-pointers. Their lack of 3-point shooting kept K-State in the game. KU went 1-for-10 from deep in the final 20 minutes.
• KU shot 33% from the floor in the second half, while turning it over 5 times.
• With K-State’s offensive struggles this season, maybe we should’ve anticipated a rough offensive start versus Kansas.
KU smothered the Wildcats in the opening minutes, after Cartier Diarra opened the day with a successful 3-pointer. It would be 7-plus minutes before K-State hit another shot from the floor. The Wildcats missed 9 shot attempts in a row and turned the ball over twice while falling behind, 14-5.
• In a low-scoring first half, though, KU’s defensive mistakes most often resulted in the Wildcats finding some open looks at 3-pointers. Those shots kept the crowd and the Wildcats from giving up on the idea of an upset.
The Wildcats kept it interesting in the first half with the help of 6-for-12 success from 3-point range.
• K-State, which spent much of the second half leading, went 2-for-13 on 3-pointers after halftime and shot 35% overall during the deciding half.
• KU’s massive center, Udoka Azubuike had scored 4 of his team’s 5 points when he rolled his right ankle inside, while coming down on his attempt to up-and-under his way to a bucket.
That came 4:15 into the Sunflower Showdown, and Azubuike walked slowly back to the bench under his own power, after taking some time to get up from the floor, as trainers came out to check him out.
After going back to the locker room, Azubuike returned to the floor with 9:01 left in the first half and KU up, 19-12.
Azubuike often wasn’t as engaged and active as usual while dealing with the pain in his ankle. That led to Azubuike not defending up to his standards at times.
The senior 7-footer finished with 6 points and 9 rebounds in 20 minutes.
• Devon Dotson’s speed proved even too much for K-State’s perimeter defenders to manage much of the time, with his attacks leading to layups and drawn fouls.
Dotson carried KU’s scoring throughout the first half as a result, scoring 15 as the Jayhawks took a slim 34-34 lead into halftime.
The surefire All-Big 12 first-teamer kept right on attacking when openings appeared in the second half, making his bursts to the rim look effortless.
Dotson put up 25 points and 1 assist.
• Ochai Agbaji got off to a rough start in the road rivalry game, responsible for a turnover on each of KU’s first two possessions. The miscues resulted in a rare early trip to the bench for the sophomore.
Agbaji returned to the lineup a few minutes later. After settling back in, he delivered KU’s first 3-pointer of the game off a drive and dish to the left corner from Dotson.
HIs crash of the offensive glass and put-back early in the second half, with KU trailing, helped the Jayhawks from lingering even longer in a rut.
Agbaji gave KU 5 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists.
• Marcus Garrett turned the ball over 3 times and didn’t attempt an official shot from the floor in the first half, but his presence remained a must for KU, between his defense and his ability to complement Dotson as a ball-handler.
HIs first basket of the day, though, came in the final 2 minutes, and was a tough one inside in a two-possession game.
Garrett had 3 points, 3 assists and 4 rebounds.
• Isaiah Moss found it hard to get shot attempts against K-State. The senior guard, who is KU’s best 3-point shooter, had an 0-for-0 first half at Bramlage Coliseum, in 18 minute of action. To his credit, he still contributed offensively, going 4-for-4 at the foul line.
He finally took advantage of an opening immediately in the second half, but misfired on a 3-pointer from the right wing. He finally got himself a bucket by attacking in transition and finishing strong with KU still trailing 6-plus minutes into the second half.
Moss contributed 8 points and went 0-for-4 from 3-point land.
• KU would need David McCormack more than expected, with Azubuike’s ankle injury leading to more minutes.
McCormack played 10 minutes in the first half, and some defensive lapses hurt KU from time to time. He scored 5 of his 9 points before halftime and grabbed 3 of his 4 boards in that span.
• Christian Braun didn’t play enough to be a huge factor in the first half, but drained his lone 3-point attempt.
Braun, who scored 6 points, also put an end to KU’s cold streak from deep in the second half, burying an open look from the left wing that made KU’s lead 53-48 with 4:52 left.
• KU’s bench outscored K-State’s, 15-3.
College basketball awards season isn’t too far away now, and when it arrives, Kansas head coach Bill Self knows what he would be looking for in a Big 12 Player of the Year.
Self didn’t make a case Thursday during his weekly press conference for either of his team’s legit contenders, Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson, but rather shared his thoughts on the criteria he would use in selecting a conference’s top performer.
It was during this mental exercise that Self explained why he doesn’t first look to statistics when considering candidates.
“In general terms, I think winning is obviously very important,” Self replied, when asked how to best gauge such awards. “I believe sometimes putting up numbers is overrated a little bit if you have a lot of balance on your team.”
Self knows that from firsthand experience, thanks to one All-Big 12 first team from a decade ago that looks laughable in retrospect.
“I remember when we won the national championship in ’07-’08, we had three guys that should’ve been on first team. And zero made it in the media poll,” Self recalled, “because our leading scorer averaged 13.”
Indeed, the Associated Press All-Big 12 first team in 2008 included not a single Jayhawk. No Darrell Arthur. No Brandon Rush (the aforementioned leading scorer). No Mario Chalmers. All landed on the second team, presumably because KU was so balanced that they split the vote. So the AP first team was comprised of Kansas State’s Michael Beasley, Texas’ D.J. Augustin, Baylor’s Curtis Jerrells, Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin and Nebraska’s Aleks Maric.
While one could view this stroll down KU basketball memory lane as a lesson that voters should include Azubuike, Dotson and Marcus Garrett on this year’s All-Big 12 first team ballots, Self also pointed out that Baylor has “such good balance” this season, that the Bears’ individual numbers might go under-appreciated by some when it’s time to dole out postseason accolades.
“They’re not going to have a guy with the elite numbers as far as scoring output,” Self said of BU, led by Jared Butler’s 15.7 points per game and MaCio Teague’s 14.1.
When Self looks to identify the best players around, the hall of fame coach thinks about each man’s value to the team, and what that team would look like without a given player.
“To me those are all things that are somewhat intangibles,” Self said, “but I think they all would play a huge role in who would be a player of the year in every conference.”
Few would be surprised to see either Azubuike or Dotson take home the 2020 Big 12 Player of the Year. And Garrett has been so crucial to KU’s success this season that some would argue the junior guard and defensive savant is actually KU’s most valuable player.
Even Self admitted it can be difficult from week to week to identify which of KU’s three most important players is the team’s MVP. Not that he cares to choose one.
“We’ve had a pretty decent year up until this point, and we’ve had three guys play particularly well,” Self said of his No. 1-ranked Jayhawks. “But I think it will probably distinguish itself over the next three games, because guys have got to play in the biggest games, and these three are obviously pivotal if we’re going to have a chance to win the league.”
Regardless of how the awards and all-this-or-that teams shake out, KU has three team-first players in Azubuike, Dotson and Garrett, who are poised to take the Jayhawks on a deep run through the NCAA Tournament.