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With head coaching job vacant, Jayhawks endorse Emmett Jones

Kansas receivers coach Emmett Jones slaps hands with Steven Parker at the start of practice on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019.

Kansas receivers coach Emmett Jones slaps hands with Steven Parker at the start of practice on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. by Nick Krug

With the future of the Kansas football program in limbo, some Jayhawks on Wednesday night began publicly drumming up support for Emmett Jones to become the team’s next head coach.

The endorsements for Jones, KU’s third-year receivers coach, began hitting the Twittersphere hours after Jeff Long stepped down as athletic director and two days removed from KU parting ways with Les Miles.

Having those two mammoth vacancies coincide made what will come next for the head coaching position all the more unpredictable, perhaps prompting players to voice their preference for Jones.

The social media movement began with freshman cornerback Jacobee Bryant tweeting, “(Jones) for head coach.” That simple recommendation picked up backing in the form of quote tweets from KU safety Kenny Logan Jr., as well as cornerback Valerian Agbajw Jr.

One of Jones’ position players, sixth-year senior Kwamie Lassiter II, also made his thoughts on the matter clear, posting, “Put Jones in that spot and (let’s) get to it!” Lassiter’s tweet was soon after retweeted by running back Velton Gardner, receiver Takulve “T.K.” Williams, defensive end Marcus Harris and other Jayhawks.

More calls for Jones, who also serves as KU's passing game coordinator, to take over would follow, too. Receiver Lawrence Arnold wrote, “As a player at KU we need a coach in office right now that (knows) the players and (has) a relationship with the players.” Jones followed that opinion with a hashtag in support of Jones.

De’Kedrick Sterns, a freshman offensive tackle who just enrolled at KU this semester, shared a similar tweet to Arnold’s.

Yet another receiver, Luke Grimm, posted a game photo of him and Jones, with the caption, “Y’all know what to do.”

On Tuesday, before he left KU, Long stated he planned on naming an interim head coach within the next couple of days. While the specifics of the new plan and timetable for naming an interim haven’t yet been made public, it’s likely KU Chancellor Douglas Girod and Kurt Watson, a KU alumnus and prominent donor whom Girod named interim A.D., will decide with current KU assistant will be the interim head coach.

It might be as soon as a few weeks, per Girod, that KU has a new athletic director in place. But it won’t be until then that the next steps for finding the permanent KU football coach will be solidified.

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Reply 6 comments from Austin Lopez Robert  Brock Jeff Coffman Forever2008 Layne Pierce Surrealku

The case for D.J. Eliot as KU’s interim head coach

Kansas defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot shows his frustration during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot shows his frustration during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

At some point in the next 24 to 48 hours, the Kansas football program is expected to at least have an interim head coach in place, even if that person ends up merely keeping the seat warm for a yet to be determined replacement for Les Miles.

As KU Athletic Director Jeff Long weighs his options for the present and future of the program, two current KU assistants seem to be the most obvious candidates for the job, either on an interim or permanent basis.

Among the current staff members, only receivers coach and passing game coordinator Emmett Jones and defensive coordinator and linebackers coach D.J. Eliot have played prominent roles for KU throughout the previous two-plus years.

Some of the reasons that Jones would be a sensible hire already have been highlighted by Matt Tait. So let’s also take a closer look at Eliot.

Obviously the Jayhawks’ third-year coordinator has more Power Five experience than anyone on the staff, having also led the defenses at both Colorado (2017-18) in the Pac-12 and Kentucky in the SEC (2013-16). And even before that, Eliot was coaching defensive ends at Florida State (2010-12) in the ACC.

One unique experience that Eliot brings to the table is his time at UK, where he was part of a Mark Stoops staff that turned a football program around at a basketball school. That’s the exact scenario KU’s administration is looking for. The Wildcats were 2-10 the year before Stoops took over. And when Eliot and other coaches joined him on the ground floor in 2013, UK went 2-10 again. But the Wildcats steadily improved from there — 5-7 in 2014, 5-7 in 2015 and 7-6 and a bowl berth in 2016, before Eliot left to work at Colorado.

Rebuilds take time, as KU football fans know all too well. And Eliot just a few years back helped orchestrate one in the SEC.

One major issue for KU since Mark Mangino left following the 2009 season, leading to the program began falling apart, has been the constant turnover throughout the coaching staff. Finding some stability by giving the interim — or permanent — job to someone such as Eliot and Jones could help avoid the Jayhawks taking too many steps backward (again) in this perpetual rebuild.

There’s no learning curve for Eliot or Jones at KU anymore. They’ve been here. They know the players. They know the challenges of coaching and recruiting at KU. The Jayhawks long have been in need of some continuity.

It certainly doesn’t hurt Eliot’s case, either, that entering the 2021 season, many of KU’s most promising young players are on defense. It was the play on that side of the ball that showed flashes of promise for the future in 2020, as Jayhawks such as safety Kenny Logan Jr., cornerback Karon Prunty and defensive linemen Marcus Harris and Da’Jon Terry emerged. Eliot, defensive backs coach Chevis Jackson, defensive line coach Kwahn Drake and safeties coach Jordan Peterson deserve some credit for helping the defense stand out for good reasons at times during a challenging 0-9 campaign.

Eliot came to KU in 2018 as one of Miles’ first few hires. And he took the job with the Jayhawks instead of going to work at a better program, Ole Miss, in the SEC. Following his first year at KU, Eliot turned down an assistant coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL. So it seems like Eliot is fond of KU and Lawrence, and willing to see what can become of these young players.

Whomever ends up getting the job, it will take someone invested in the program and serious about rebuilding it the right way — with year after year of high school signing classes — for KU football to finally turn a corner. Eliot and Jones sure look like candidates who would check those boxes.

Reply 1 comment from Keithii Njjayhawk

Jayhawks’ nearly fell all the way into complacency trap before escaping vs. UTEP

Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) wrestles on the ground for a ball with UTEP forward Tydus Verhoeven, left, and UTEP guard Souley Boum (0) during the first half on Thursday, March 4, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) wrestles on the ground for a ball with UTEP forward Tydus Verhoeven, left, and UTEP guard Souley Boum (0) during the first half on Thursday, March 4, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

When the Kansas basketball program announced last week it was adding Thursday’s nonconference game against UTEP to the schedule to bridge the gap between a much anticipated rematch with Baylor and next week’s Big 12 tournament, the news might as well have come attached with a Star Wars GIF of Admiral Ackbar warning, “It’s a trap!”

The Jayhawks crashed beaks first into it, though, coming off their best win of the year and seemingly approaching the regular season finale at Allen Fieldhouse as an afterthought of a pitstop on the way to the postseason.

The ultimate trap game nearly did them in, too. The Jayhawks were great five days earlier against previously unbeaten Baylor, one of the best teams in America. But a contrasting performance for much of the night against unheralded UTEP meant KU made its March debut in unspectacular fashion, escaping with a 67-62 win after trailing by as many as 15.

It was human nature for the Jayhawks to overlook a Conference USA opponent that came to Lawrence just two games above .500 on the season and 8-8 in its league. However, their inconsistencies throughout this albeit strange year should’ve had the Jayhawks prepared to play with an edge. Eventually they did. It just took too long for them to get there.

“It definitely started out as a trap game, just not having the right mentality,” KU junior forward David McCormack said afterward, adding the Jayhawks needed to be more aggressive early in the contest, when UTEP was in control. “But we were smart enough to realize that and flip the switch and make sure not to have the result of a trap game. We still walked out of here with a win and that was the main point.”

Ochai Agbaji (19 points, six rebounds, two steals) often made the types of plays that indicated he wanted to finish the regular season with a win. Similar instances of energy from other Jayhawks were much harder to find during the first 30 minutes of the game, though, before they collectively generated some momentum by making defensive stops and cutting UTEP’s margin to single digits.

McCormack, who scored 16 of his 18 points after halftime, became the go-to post scorer down the stretch that he should’ve been in the first half, keying KU’s rally as all the Jayhawks finally started playing with some purpose and fire.

“The first half,” KU coach Bill Self said during his postgame video press conference, “I didn’t think our energy was very good. I don’t think we respected them like we probably should’ve, even (though) after watching tape you could see how athletic they were.”

Self thinks UTEP’s two best players, Souley Boum (16 points) and Bryson Williams (23 points and 13 rebounds), are good enough to play for any team in the Big 12. There will be similar under the radar players awaiting KU in the weeks ahead. 

If the Jayhawks are fortunate enough to totally regroup from the UTEP scare, impress at the Big 12 tournament and land a No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, approaching a March Madness game in similar fashion, like winning is a given and operating on autopilot will get it done, they’ll make an immediate first-round exit.

There will be much more tension in that first-round game for KU in Indiana, too, regardless of the Jayhawks’ seed. Every player and coach in the field would love to say he was involved with knocking out Kansas, and any team the Jayhawks run into in the tourney will be much more capable than UTEP.

“It’s a good lesson to learn that we are so average — at best — when we don’t play a certain way,” Self said. “And when we play a certain way we can get pretty good. But our energy level defensively and rebounding the ball was very poor the first half and certainly very good there late.”

Perhaps the odd regular season finale, which at least prevented the Jayhawks from getting rusty, also will end up helping them in another way, serving as a wakeup call that saves them an embarrassing exit from Indy when the whole country — not just diehards with an ESPN+ subscription — will be watching.

KU isn’t good enough this year to rely on flipping a switch with the season on the line. Figuring that out now might keep the Jayhawks from falling into a more perilous trap when the real March Madness arrives.

Reply 1 comment from Surrealku

How the Jayhawks’ February resurgence compares with nation’s best teams

Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) pops the ball away from Baylor guard Mark Vital (11) during the second half on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) pops the ball away from Baylor guard Mark Vital (11) during the second half on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

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

Losses: none

No. 2 Michigan — 5-0

Best wins: at Wisconsin, at Ohio State, at Indiana, Rutgers, Iowa

Losses: none

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

Losses: none

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

Losses: none

Reply 2 comments from Armen Kurdian Njjayhawk Dirk Medema

Mitch Lightfoot a surprise star late in KU’s marquee win over No. 2 Baylor

Kansas forward Mitch Lightfoot (44) gets up for a bucket over Baylor guard Mark Vital (11) during the second half on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse. At right is Baylor guard Jared Butler (12).

Kansas forward Mitch Lightfoot (44) gets up for a bucket over Baylor guard Mark Vital (11) during the second half on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse. At right is Baylor guard Jared Butler (12). by Nick Krug

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.

Reply 3 comments from West_virginia_hawk David Robinett Surrealku

Jayhawks might be catching No. 2 Baylor at perfect time to pull off an upset

Baylor guard Jared Butler (12) and Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) reach for the ball in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Jerry Larson)

Baylor guard Jared Butler (12) and Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) reach for the ball in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Jerry Larson) by Associated Press

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.

Reply 6 comments from Surrealku Dirk Medema Dale Rogers Njjayhawk West_virginia_hawk Robert  Brock

With postseason just ahead, David McCormack needs to put inconsistencies behind him

Kansas forward David McCormack, left, fights for a rebound with Texas forward Jericho Sims during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Kansas forward David McCormack, left, fights for a rebound with Texas forward Jericho Sims during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

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.

Reply 5 comments from Bobsarobot Surrealku Blake Brown Glen Robert  Brock Njjayhawk

Kansas only Big 12 team to enter week on target to play full league schedule on time

Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji and Oklahoma State guard Avery Anderson III (0) compete for a loose ball during the second half on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji and Oklahoma State guard Avery Anderson III (0) compete for a loose ball during the second half on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

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.”

Reply 4 comments from Scott MacWilliams Adam Bengtson Robert  Brock Njjayhawk Dirk Medema Dale Rogers

David McCormack shows Jayhawks how to play with free mind in crucial win over Tech

Kansas big man David McCormack shoots over a Texas Tech defender during a game against Texas Tech Saturday afternoon in Allen Fieldhouse on Feb. 20, 2021. Photo by Mike Gunnoe.

Kansas big man David McCormack shoots over a Texas Tech defender during a game against Texas Tech Saturday afternoon in Allen Fieldhouse on Feb. 20, 2021. Photo by Mike Gunnoe. by Mike Gunnoe

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.

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Jayhawks are about to find out if they can beat a quality team again

Kansas senior Marcus Garrett helps rip the ball away during a game against K-State at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Kansas on February 17, 2021.

Kansas senior Marcus Garrett helps rip the ball away during a game against K-State at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Kansas on February 17, 2021. by Scott Weaver

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.”

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