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Path to a top 4 seed in NCAA Tournament still in play for Jayhawks

Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) fends off Oklahoma guard De'Vion Harmon (11) during the first half, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) fends off Oklahoma guard De'Vion Harmon (11) during the first half, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

This year’s Kansas basketball team might do something that hasn’t happened since Bill Self took over the program in 2003. Not that it would be advisable.

The Jayhawks certainly aren’t chasing the distinction of becoming the first KU team coached by Self to fail to achieve an NCAA Tournament seed between Nos. 1-4. But it’s very much in play.

In the most recent edition of Bracketology from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, KU (15-7 overall, 9-5 Big 12) landed as a six seed, on the same line as the likes of Colorado, Virginia Tech and Purdue — a group of meh teams in an underwhelming season for college hoops.

The good news for the Jayhawks is they have one last stretch still in front of them that could make up for all of that blah that got them in this position in the first place.

Up to this point in the season, KU doesn’t deserve to be a top four seed. No one was aghast this past weekend when the NCAA rolled out its bracket sneak peek of the top 16 overall seeds and the Jayhawks were nowhere in sight.

None by NCAA March Madness

While KU, no doubt, is on an uptick of late, most years people who follow the Jayhawks closely wouldn’t call the past five results — three combined wins over the two worst teams in the Big 12 (Iowa State and Kansas State), a victory against fringe AP top 25 team Oklahoma State and giving up 91 points in a road loss at West Virginia — an uptick. They would call that mostly handling your business in February. Or they would still be fretting about KU’s setback at WVU. This isn’t a one seed or bust kind of year, though. Far from it.

To the Jayhawks’ credit, they have beaten the teams they’re supposed to beat all season long. Per the NCAA’s NET Rankings, KU is 3-0 versus Quadrant 2 opponents, 2-0 against Quad 3 and 5-0 when facing the lowest tier of opposition, in Quad 4. They don’t have any bad losses, as head coach Bill Self repeatedly has made sure to allude to recently when his team’s defeats or struggles come up.

It’s in those pesky Quad 1 games where KU has yet to differentiate itself amid the muck. Behind Gonzaga and Baylor exists an array of generally competitive teams that are nowhere close to touching those two national championship favorites. It wouldn’t take a meteoric rise for KU between now and Selection Sunday for the Jayhawks to cement a spot on a top four seed line.

Partly because as of Tuesday they were tied with Ohio State and West Virginia for the most Quad 1 games played so far (11) among teams in the top 35 of the Net Rankings, the Jayhawks’ 4-7 record in that category also tied them for the most Quad 1 losses in the top 35, with Purdue at 3-7.

Of course, those losses (six since Jan. 2) are why KU’s status kept falling in recent weeks. Sure, the Jayhawks were facing some quality teams, but they repeatedly lost those games. KU’s best victory in its past 10 outings came on Feb. 8 against Oklahoma State, a team ranked No. 43 in the NET and No. 44 at KenPom.com.

KU hasn’t defeated a legit top 20 team since Oklahoma (No. 9 AP, No. 17 NET, No. 21 KenPom) visited Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 9. But the Jayhawks, who actually appear to be settling in defensively and rediscovering some of that mojo that made them a top 10 team back in December, are about to embark on what could turn into a résumé building run.

Kansas has three more Quad 1 games on the horizon, following Wednesday’s game at K-State (No. 226 in the NET and 0-11 in Quad 1). Arguably, just going 2-1 in the final three games of the regular season could catapult the Jayhawks into a top four seed line.

Given the Jayhawks’ erratic season, neither of the first two matchups — Texas Tech in Lawrence on Saturday and at Texas on Feb. 23 — is anywhere close to a foregone conclusion. But with Jalen Wilson’s resurgence and Bryce Thompson back as the sixth man, KU winning both of those games no longer feels farfetched.

Nothing we’ve seen thus far from the fluctuating play of the Jayhawks tells us they should beat Baylor at the fieldhouse on Feb. 27. Even with their improved ball screen and help defense, could they score enough to beat the Bears? It’s not impossible, but it remains unlikely for now.

So cast that mirage aside, and let’s say the Jayhawks find ways to handle business at K-State and grind out wins over Tech and the Longhorns. A loss to Baylor isn’t going to hurt their seeding at that point, and they should still have opportunities to further lay claim to a No. 4 or — let’s get crazy — a No. 3 seed by padding their résumé at the Big 12 tournament.

Remember those seven quality losses on KU’s résumé? Ten teams ahead of the Jayhawks in the NET top 20 — through games played on Monday, KU ranked No. 21 — haven’t even played seven Quad 1 games yet: Baylor (6-0), Michigan (4-1), Houston (2-0), Virginia (3-3), Loyola Chicago (1-2), Colgate (0-0), Villanova (2-3), USC (3-1), Florida State (3-2) and Colorado (2-3).

The Jayhawks could have as many as six more Quad 1 games on their record by Selection Sunday, further beefing up their case. It will take an impressive turnaround to make it happen, but keeping the streak of attaining a top four seed alive remains a realistic and attainable goal.

(KU last fell below that line in 2000, when Roy Williams coached a lineup featuring freshmen Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich and Drew Gooden to a No. 8 seed and a second-round exit.)

Reply 2 comments from Dirk Medema Robert  Brock Njjayhawk

KU’s ugly road win had entertainment value — if you were watching Jalen Wilson

Kansas forward Jalen Wilson celebrates after making a 3-point basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, in Ames, Iowa. Kansas won 64-50. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Kansas forward Jalen Wilson celebrates after making a 3-point basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, in Ames, Iowa. Kansas won 64-50. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) by Associated Press

In a game filled with ugly basketball, one man in a Kansas uniform helped keep the Jayhawks’ Saturday road win at Iowa State at least relatively watchable.

If you happened to zero in on Jalen Wilson and all that he did in a 64-50 victory at Hilton Coliseum it distracted from the other unpleasantness.

The Jayhawks needed every bit of Wilson’s 22 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in 39 minutes, too, because none of the other starters had it rolling on this day in Ames, Iowa.

Asked what he liked about Wilson’s performance, KU head coach Bill Self’s response began with one word: “Everything.”

Self called Wilson, the 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman from Denton, Texas, KU’s best offensive player and rebounder, and lauded Jayhawks’ starting 4-man for knocking down four “big” 3-pointers. Twice in the second half Wilson buried a 3 to extend KU’s lead from single to double figures.

“He picked his spots wisely,” Self said. “He played with pace, poise. I thought he was really, really good.”

Wilson played all but 58 seconds of the Jayhawks’ first road win since Jan. 5 at TCU. And in during less than a minute rest he took, ISU went on a 6-1 run (anything that involved more than three points amounted to a run in that unsightly first half, which ended in a 24-all tie).

When Wilson was on the court, KU outscored Iowa State, 63-44. A month ago, when Wilson’s struggles coincided with the team’s worst basketball of the season, the idea of him delivering again the way he did in December seemed a long ways off.

Turns out it was. And Wilson didn’t turn a corner overnight. He’s been trending this direction of late, culminating with his fourth consecutive double-double.

Once he began focusing his attention and energy on the glass, he got headed back in the right direction.

“I think that’s something that definitely gets me going and helps my team, me starting on the defensive end rebounding and being aggressive on that,” Wilson said. “And then my offense will come naturally. I don’t really worry about every single game. I just approach every single time I get on the court to defensive rebound and be aggressive on that end and everything else will come.”

When David McCormak is subpar offensively inside, like he was in the first half at ISU, it’s imperative for another Jayhawk to step up and produce. Otherwise this team has no chance.

The game actually could’ve been even uglier for KU had Wilson not scored 10 points in the first half, when he also grabbed five rebounds and was the only starter to hit a 3-pointer, making two.

McCormack improved in the second half, but he appreciated how Wilson made an impact throughout the road win.

“Jalen played to his strengths,” McCormack said. “Driving downhill, getting and-ones, shooting the ball, playing with confidence, playing with energy. That’s what he does best. And that’s what he did today.”

As Wilson has regained his consistency — he’s averaging 16.3 points and 11.5 boards in KU’s past four games — he said his teammates’ continued confidence in him helped him get back to this point.

The Jayhawks (15-7 overall, 9-5 Big 12) have needed Wilson all season. When he exploded onto the scene in December, KU lived up to its top-five ranking. While he couldn’t maintain that level of consistency throughout the schedule, a late season resurgence would be perfect for this mercurial team.

“I think he had so much success early,” Self said of Wilson, “it got him a little bit to the point where he was trying to force the success when he wasn’t having the same opportunities.”

Whether it’s Wilson picking his spots better or just him getting used to playing as the 4-man with one of KU’s bigs (the Jayhawks spent much more time in five-guard lineups featuring Wilson early in the season), the redshirt freshman seems past his rough patch.

“He’s just kind of figuring it out,” Self said. “But he’s been really good. He’s playing the right way.”

That “right way” line, one former KU head coach Larry Brown made popular, is the ultimate compliment. And Self wouldn’t have been able to say it about Wilson just a few weeks back, when the young player’s struggles came across in his body language, too.

Now Wilson’s not forcing the issue or worrying about his scoring. He’s just pounding the glass and making his team better — even on days when KU isn’t aesthetically pleasing as a whole.

“My teammates were looking for me, as we all look for each other,” Wilson said after standing out. “The ball just found me in good places, to shoot the ball in open spots, and I was able to hit them.”

These Jayhawks should take a win wherever they can find one. And if it comes against an Iowa State team that turns the ball over 23 times and is winless in Big 12 play, then so be it.

The viewers don’t have to be entertained for a Kansas basketball victory to benefit the team. Especially this season.

At least observers who were watching Wilson found enough entertainment value to keep tuned in.

Reply 5 comments from Layne Pierce Bryce Landon Dirk Medema Garry Wright Robert  Brock Njjayhawk

Bryce Thompson exceeds expectations in return, raising KU’s ceiling for stretch run

Kansas guard Bryce Thompson (24) comes in to reject a shot from Iowa State guard Tre Jackson (3) during the second half on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Bryce Thompson (24) comes in to reject a shot from Iowa State guard Tre Jackson (3) during the second half on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

Though he only logged 19 minutes in his return to the Kansas lineup Thursday night, freshman Bryce Thompson played a starring role in making basketball look easy again for the Jayhawks in a 97-64 dismantling of Iowa State.

With Thompson out due to a broken right finger since Jan. 12, KU hadn’t blown anyone out in even longer. And after missing the 6-foot-5 guard with play-making skills and strong defensive instincts for seven games, the Jayhawks’ first chance to play with him again proved promising for the stretch run ahead.

This didn’t look like a freshman who had only played one game out of the previous 11 due to a couple of injuries. Thompson came out not tentative, but craving the chance to reintroduce himself to the Big 12. 

His eight-point, three-assist night off the bench began with Thompson seeking opportunities to attack off the dribble from the perimeter. In his first game action since hearing something “pop” in his hand at Oklahoma State more than four weeks back, Thompson put up four quick points in the first half, but also slid over as a help defender to smack a Tre Jackson layup try out of the air.

Said teammate Jalen Wilson of Thompson’s return: “He gave us great energy. We’ve been missing him.”

Thompson even acted as the primary ball handler late in the first half, when senior Marcus Garrett was on the bench. That led to him feeding Mitch Lightfoot inside for a bucket, but the stretch also included Thompson trying to take on all of the Cyclones by himself, dribbling into a forced turnaround jumper when there were still 15 seconds on the shot clock. It was a decision head coach Bill Self didn’t care for,  and Thompson heard about it at the next timeout.

The next time the freshman touched the ball, though, coming off a screen, he went straight to the paint for a floater to score, an example of him remembering the brief shot selection lesson sent his direction during the recent stoppage.

Thompson came through with more unselfish plays for KU (14-7 overall, 8-5 Big 12) in the second half, including a drive where he looked to kick the ball out to Christian Braun for an open 3-pointer instead of trying to go one-one-one himself in the paint. He also dished an assist to David McCormack on another break when his own foray into the paint nearly got knocked away at first. Never lacking confidence, the next trip up the floor Thompson went end to end off a defensive rebound to get to the hoop for his own layup.

His passion for the game came through with every big play he delivered.

“It felt amazing,” a beaming Thompson said about finally returning, during his postgame video interview. “Being away from the game for so long, to get back out there and just compete and to win and hear the crowd — all the little things you kind of take for granted.”

Plenty of KU looking better than it had in weeks had to do with the opponent — ISU fell to 2-13 on the year and 0-10 in Big 12 games. But Thompson’s return played a noticeable factor, as well.

It would’ve been reasonable to have low expectations for what a freshman guard coming back off of so much missed time and playing with a fingerless protective glove on his shooting hand could provide.

But the outlook for how much he can help this KU team changed immediately shortly after he stepped onto the court versus ISU.

And according to Self, Thompson set himself up for success in recent weeks, allowing him to play assertively and with poise. 

“He’s a student. He studies. He watches,” Self said. “When he came on his official visit (as a high school recruit from Tulsa, Okla.) and we were practicing, he was walking up the sideline, up and down, to make sure he heard every word that every coach was saying to everybody as we practiced that day.” 

That’s when Self first learned how much Thompson “cares” and wants to learn.

“He’s been that way also since he’s been out,” Self said of Thompson’s approach while sidelined during recent weeks. “He was not a thinker tonight. He was more (reactive). Most guys that had been out that long would’ve been a thinker.”

Thompson thought he was “pretty good” in his return. But he also quickly brought up some botched defensive assignments he wanted to go back and review, to prep for the rematch at ISU on Saturday.

This week and next will be crucial for Thompson to get himself totally reacclimated for KU’s stretch run of the season, with games at ISU and Kansas State followed by matchups with Texas Tech, Texas and Baylor.

“Games like (Thursday’s) where we’re a lot better than the (opponent), it helps me to be able to stay out there, get my flow, get everything good,” Thompson said, adding the first thing he needed to do following the win was take an ice bath and get his body “back right.”

The Jayhawks, who went 5-5 without Thompson, could actually turn this season around with him. It won’t be easy like it was against the Cyclones, but his cerebral approach and love for the game will inject some life into a rotation that has missed him more than many onlookers probably realized.

“I see Bryce playing an integral role in our success the rest of the season,” Self said, sharing Thompson may also be the team’s best passer off of ball screens. “Bryce plays with a smile on his face. He’s got personality. He plays with energy.”

Thompson set the bar high for himself in his return. And that’s just the type of player KU needs heading toward the close of the regular season.  

Reply 5 comments from Dirk Medema Bob Thompson Jim Stauffer Surrealku Mallory Briggans

Jayhawks will go as far as David McCormack can carry them this postseason

Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham (2) loses his grip on the ball while defended by Kansas forward David McCormack (33), Kansas forward Jalen Wilson (10) and Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) during the second half on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham (2) loses his grip on the ball while defended by Kansas forward David McCormack (33), Kansas forward Jalen Wilson (10) and Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) during the second half on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

Twenty games into a strange, at times hard to watch, Kansas basketball season, a Big Monday victory over Oklahoma State shined a spotlight on David McCormack, as well as the entire KU team’s trajectory. As the regular season winds down and February soon turns into March, these Jayhawks will only go as far as McCormack’s broad shoulders can take them.

That much was evident in a 78-66 Kansas win, even when McCormack’s offense was dead in the water in the first half, ahead of his second half vindication and a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double.

As KU once again toiled on offense — a recurring theme since the start of January in particular — throughout the opening 20 minutes, it became easy to wonder if the Jayhawks were about to drop another game to a quality opponent. What was it going to take for them to get their heads above water and show some promise before the postseason gets here?

The answer had to be at least a little disconcerting for KU fans who have grown wary of the team’s volatility. But the big man who has himself been chastised for his own inconsistencies throughout his junior season truly is the one player on the roster who could play well enough in the weeks to come to be the driving force behind the Jayhawks (13-7 overall, 7-5 Big 12) turning their season around.

Squint hard enough and you can see McCormack playing to his size and strength on a neutral court somewhere in Indiana next month, and the Jayhawks complementing his interior play with balanced contributions across the perimeter.

That’s how it all came together in the second half for KU versus the Cowboys, and that’s part of the blueprint for the Jayhawks from here on out. (Offensively, they also will need better 3-point shooting than the 5-for-15 they put up against OSU.)

There is no other player on the KU roster capable of putting the team on his back. Ochai Agbaji is the Jayhawks’ most effective scorer, with his now pure 3-point stroke and the ability to use his athleticism to finish above the rim both in transition and in set plays out of timeouts. But Agbaji is more of a steady contributor than someone to expect to suddenly become a 20 points per game scorer. Jalen Wilson is still a redshirt freshman, and probably at least a year away from producing at a consistent enough level to be a focal point of the game plan night in and night out.

The 6-foot-10, 250-pound McCormack isn’t without his flaws. But when he runs into issues, he often only has himself to blame. The offensive mistakes he makes — whether that’s playing too sped up, not gathering himself for a strong take inside or settling for a long 2-point jumper — are easy to fix.

And while McCormack obviously doesn’t fit the mold of vintage one-Jayhawk wrecking machines such as Danny Manning or Thomas Robinson, with his scoring, passing and defense in the second half against OSU, McCormack actually made KU entertaining to watch again, as he produced 21 of the Jayhawks’ 50 second-half points.

Forget must-win. This was a “non-negotiable game,” as McCormack put it during his postgame video interview from Allen Fieldhouse. Despite an awful individual start for the big man, as he stockpiled misses around the rim, the veteran didn’t let that weigh him down.

Marcus Garrett enjoyed McCormack’s aggressive approach that put KU over the top.

“That’s what I was telling him. I told him every time we passed it to him in the second half to go up,” Garrett said of McCormack, who went 6-for-9 from the filed and 9-for-12 at the foul line while playing 17 minutes in the second half. “I feel like when we have him as a presence down there it’s kind of hard for them to guard us, and it makes it a lot easier on the guards.”

KU shot 52% from the floor, 3-for-7 on 3-pointers and 21-for-26 on free throws with McCormack playing the role of go-to big and willing passer (three assists).

His head coach, Bill Self, would’ve called McCormack the best player on the court in the second half if projected top-three NBA draft pick Cade Cunningham hadn’t been on the floor, too.

McCormack is such a good teammate, and cares so much about the guys around him, maybe it just took him some time to feel comfortable being ultra-aggressive.

“The team-first guys are doing what’s best for the team,” Self said, making it clear McCormack is that type of player. “And what’s best for the team is David looking to score and us playing through him.”

Team-first players make an impact on defense, too. And McCormack did that against OSU by playing to the scouting report, helping off of non-shooting threats and pressuring Cunningham on ball screens outside when that was the call.

“Just helping on all drives and being a paint presence,” McCormack said of what he wanted to do on that end of the court, on a night that he also swatted away a couple of OSU shot attempts.

Remember three years ago how puzzling of an up and down regular season Malik Newman had for KU? Then Newman proceeded to kill it once the postseason began, finally playing up to his potential when the Jayhawks needed him most.

McCormack won’t have the benefit of playing with talented shooters like Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk the way Newman did, but he’s just as capable of erasing a season-long narrative around him by turning it up when the outcomes matter even more.

The Jayhawks need someone to lead them on a March redemption tour. For the first time this season, McCormack finally looks like a big man capable of making that happen.

Reply 9 comments from Brian Hosfelt West_virginia_hawk Chris Kraner Len Shaffer Robert  Brock Tim Orel Bill Pitcher James Miller Njjayhawk Surrealku

Jayhawks going around in circles and running out of time

West Virginia forward Derek Culver (1) and Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji (30) go for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Kathleen Batten)

West Virginia forward Derek Culver (1) and Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji (30) go for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Kathleen Batten) by Associated Press

A top-five team a little more than a month ago, before they lost their way, the Jayhawks are going around in circles and about to lose their ranking altogether.

Throughout a tumultuous start to 2021 for the Kansas basketball team, an early February trip to West Virginia began to look like a milepost for the entire season. The Jayhawks, dealing with so many issues atypical of Bill Self’s run with the program, weren’t going to do a 180 with a single January win. But if enough tweaks were made and solutions found, the Jayhawks, by Saturday’s game in Morgantown, W.Va., would have a chance to showcase how far they had come.

Instead, they remained a team searching for the turn that will get them back on the right path in a 91-79 defeat.

Now ranked No. 23 in the country — at least until Monday, when they are expected to fall out of the top 25 for the first time since January of 2009 — the Jayhawks were an underdog at No. 17 WVU, but not by much. If Self and his players truly had left their January funk behind them, it would’ve been apparent in a winnable road game.

The litmus test for KU’s progress showed it remains off course as March gets closer by the day and the Jayhawks (12-7 overall, 6-5 Big 12) keep stalling out.

The second half epitomized the team’s vacillating play this season. The Jayhawks exploded out of intermission. Attacking offensively, finishing layups and erasing a 10-point halftime deficit. 

It was the most impressive opening to a second half for KU this season. Was this the stretch we would be referencing a few weeks from now in March as the moment the season turned around?

It wasn’t. The same group that raced back so abruptly it looked like the Jayhawks were finally fed up with failing to live up to the program’s lofty standards regressed back closer to their floor with the game in the balance late. 

After a David McCormack basket in the paint cut WVU’s lead to five with 5:31 to play, the Jayhawks’ offense disappeared when they had to have a strong finish and they couldn’t lock down on defense. 

Marcus Garrett misfired on a 3-pointer when left open early in the shot clock, McCormack was off the mark with a jump hook off an offensive rebound, Ochai Agbaji’s turnaround jumper in the paint rimmed out, KU gave up an offensive rebound that led to a WVU 3-pointer and Jalen Wilson threw a pass into the backcourt for a turnover.

KU’s defense, a problem area Self often has referenced over the past several weeks, again did it no favors.

All of it left Self, who has seemed uncharacteristically positive about his team’s tribulations during this ongoing rocky stretch, bemoaning the Jayhawks’ inability to make stops and dismissing any individual offensive advancements that were a part of the team’s fifth road loss in a row.

“If guys put up big numbers offensively and you give up 91 on the road you’re going to get your butt beat every time,” Self said after WVU reached 90 for the first time this season. “We’ve got to have guys put up numbers offensively, but the biggest thing is you’ve got to guard the other team. We didn’t guard.”

Even if the Jayhawks did show some defensive ability for good portions of WVU possessions, Self said the Mountaineers routinely made his team pay late in the shot clock.

“It seems to me like that basket grows when other teams shoot it in that period of time,” Self said. “And we’ve got to be able finish possessions.”

Garrett said almost the exact same thing about KU’s defense — back in the middle of January.

The Jayhawks are still hunting for a performance that would get them back on track. And they’re running out of chances to finally come across it.

“I’ll be candid with you, I didn’t see much defensively that I would consider very positive out there,” Self said.

The losers in five of their past seven games, the Jayhawks at some point need to beat an NCAA Tournament-level team again, mainly to remind themselves that it’s possible and perhaps rekindle what has eluded them since beating Oklahoma at home back on Jan. 9.

We all knew KU could beat TCU and Kansas State. Can the Jayhawks beat Oklahoma State on Big Monday on a quick turnaround following their latest setback against a quality opponent?

The rematch with the Cowboys, who won 75-70 in Stillwater, Okla., last month, seems crucial for these Jayhawks, who too frequently since the start of January lose their sense of direction when taking on a legit opponent.

Reply 3 comments from Blake Brown Bill Pitcher Njjayhawk Robert  Brock

Playing through David McCormack isn’t so bad now that he’s improved as passer

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) puts down a dunk before Kansas State forward Antonio Gordon during the second half on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) puts down a dunk before Kansas State forward Antonio Gordon during the second half on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

When Bill Self said ahead of his Kansas basketball team’s rivalry game against Kansas State that the struggling Jayhawks may need to put an extra emphasis on throwing the ball inside and run the offense through David McCormack more often, some may have shuddered at the thought.

That wasn’t the extent of Self’s plan, of course. And Tuesday night at Allen Fieldhouse McCormack proved he can be an offensive focal point without the Jayhawks playing muddled.

KU’s 6-foot-10, 250-pound big man at times this season has been too quick to settle for a jumper or a difficult attempt in the paint over too many defenders.

Self doesn’t want to play 1990s big man basketball, with McCormack looking to score on every touch, wherever he gets the ball. KU’s coach wants his team to play through McCormack by having him pass the ball, too, when that’s the proper read.

As he accumulated 18 points on 9-for-14 shooting in a much needed 74-51 victory over K-State, McCormack didn’t stubbornly force the issue and try to do more than was necessary, which tends to be one of his biggest issues when his play gets scrutinized.

The No. 23 Jayhawks (12-6 overall, 6-4 Big 12) actually can play through their veteran big man, despite the valleys he has traversed this season, if he doesn’t become a jump-shooting black hole.

His assist numbers (none against K-State) don’t always show it — the Jayhawks who catch his passes out of the post have to knock down their 3-pointers for McCormack to get credit — but the big man has been a more aware and willing passer when he catches the ball on the block for a post-up or along the baseline while facing up.

Sophomore guard Christian Braun said KU’s go-to post player has worked a lot with his teammates to add that dimension to his game.

“Dave, he found me with some great passes today,” Bruan said, “has been in practice (too). But we’re trying to help him out, talk to him, find the open spots.”

KU’s guards formed a bad habit this season, Braun added, by not helping the big guy out by moving without the ball when it goes to him.

“Dave’s been doing a really good job scoring with his back to the basket,” Braun said. “So you know the next step from there is when guys collapse on him we’ve got to be able to kick it out and hit the shot.”

When KU’s offense has fallen off a cliff for stretches this season, it usually has something to do with 3-pointers not falling or McCormack being overly assertive, to the point that it becomes a detriment.

There have been fewer instances of the big man becoming the scapegoat lately, though. So it comes as no surprise that he said after KU’s home win that passing out of the post has become a bit of a personal point of emphasis for him.

“Not only does it encourage my teammates to shoot and give them open looks,” McCormack began, “but it also makes my job easier, because when I pass out of the post and they hit shots it makes the defense spread out more and I get more space to work in the paint.”

Copacetic offense may yet be within this team’s reach. For the time being, the Jayhawks are still trying to recover from that staggering January, so it may yet take a few games before they win with McCormack and the shooters around him perfectly complementing each other.

But the offense at least looked a little better versus K-State with Braun going 4-for-9 from long range and both Ochai Agbaji and Jalen Wilson knocking down a pair (the Jayhawks shot 9-for-29 as a team from 3-point range).

KU was far from aesthetically pleasing from tip to finish in the Sunflower Showdown, making it another “we’ll take it” type of victory for Self’s team.

The Jayhawks might be on the road to recovery, though, if they can master the art of playing through McCormack, who is far better now at deciding when to attack and when to keep the ball moving.

“I thought tonight in the first half he took a couple of bad ones,” Self admitted of McCormack’s shot selection early versus the Wildcats. But the coach also pointed out a few of his teammates missed McCormack for what would’ve been some easy looks inside, too.

Ultimately, Self likes what he is seeing from his former McDonald’s All-American.

“I do think he’s feeling the defense and if help comes he’s become a very willing passer,” Self said. “I think he’s become a better passer. And I also believe he’s attacking a guy one-on-one much better and playing through him and over him as opposed to playing around him.”

KU playing an offense centered around McCormack isn’t as horrifying as some would make it out to be, now that his feel for the game and comfort as a ball mover have made possessions that go into the post less predictable.

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After rocky January, Jayhawks need Jalen Wilson to rediscover his ‘swagger’

Kansas forward Jalen Wilson (10) is defended against by Tennessee guard Victor Bailey Jr (12) while taking a shot during a basketball game between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Kansas Jayhawks at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee on Saturday, January 30, 2021.

Kansas forward Jalen Wilson (10) is defended against by Tennessee guard Victor Bailey Jr (12) while taking a shot during a basketball game between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Kansas Jayhawks at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee on Saturday, January 30, 2021. by Tennessee Athletics

Earlier in the season, Kansas redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson emerged as a welcome surprise for the Jayhawks. The type of player who produced so much more than was expected out of him that it looked like KU just might spend the whole year ranked in or just outside of the top five.

Now coming off their fourth loss in five games, the Jayhawks need that Jalen Wilson back.

Saturday at Tennessee, Wilson went from starter to reserve as head coach Bill Self continued looking for a refinement that could get his team trending upward again.

Turning Wilson into the sixth man didn’t do the trick, even though the long, 6-foot-8 guard’s recent struggles were at the heart of the move.

“I don’t think Jalen has been very good of late,” Self shared after KU’s 80-61 loss in Knoxville, Tenn. “That’s not a knock to him, but he needed to be put in a situation probably to reevaluate some things and play to his strengths.”

Coming off a scoreless outing in KU’s home win over TCU earlier in the week, Wilson finished with 10 points on 2-for-7 shooting, with nine rebounds (three offensive) and six assists at Tennessee.

But one of KU’s many issues in defeat was that most of Wilson’s production came too late. The Vols already led 56-35 in the second half before Wilson gave the Jayhawks eight points, six rebounds and five assists in his final 13 minutes on the floor during the blowout.

When he first subbed in for KU in the first half, the Vols only led 9-8. While there were others to blame, too, in the stretch that followed, by the time Wilson checked out roughly six minutes later, Tennessee’s lead had grown to 11.

The hope was that Wilson, who was all energy and bounce back in December when he was routinely catching KU opponents off guard, could rekindle that as an active attacker off the bench. The Jayhawks needed a burst from him from the moment he checked in. But they got in the first half more of the lukewarm Wilson that went through a bit of an up and down funk in January — not coincidentally, so did the Jayhawks, finishing the month 3-5.

There’s no doubt the vibrant, confident Wilson who keyed KU’s strong response to a season-opening loss to Gonzaga is still in there. And an injection of bravado from this team’s unexpected December star would uplift these Jayhawks.

It will be up to him to find that best version of himself if Wilson wants to help the Jayhawks (11-6) turn this season around in February.

Self laid out during his postgame video press conference exactly what they need from Wilson.

“Rebounding. Energy. Playing downhill. Being a good passer,” Self began.

They also need their biggest guard stretching the floor, which he did late against Tennessee, going 2-for-3 from long range in the second half.

“I thought he did some things tonight that were pretty positive offensively,” Self said. “Now defensively, not very good — nobody was.”

Wilson is athletic enough and smart enough to meet Self’s defensive standards, as well. And making strides on that end of the court, too, would do wonders for this KU team that can really labor offensively when 3-pointers aren’t falling (see: Saturday’s 6-for-24 woes).

Like many of KU’s guards, Self pointed out, Wilson has to play better defense before the ball reaches his man’s hands, so that shooters are catching it farther out and Wilson — or any other defender — can force a would-be shooter to drive.

As Wilson, the Jayhawks hope, works his way back to being an impact player on both ends of the floor, junior David McCormack downplayed Wilson’s recent trials.

“I don’t think anything’s going on with Jalen,” McCormack said. “I think everybody gets into their ruts — I know I’ve had mine. So he needs people in the program, coaches, teammates to help him out.”

The Jayhawks are smart to want to assist Wilson and lead him toward rediscovering his strut. When he was hitting the glass and scoring over anybody and everybody inside and out in December, KU was playing its best basketball of the season.

That now feels even longer ago after a January filled with potholes and unpredictability.

Self knows all of his players need to be better as KU returns to Big 12 play with just nine games left in the regular season, and March and the postseason just beyond the horizon.

“But with him,” Self added of Wilson, “obviously playing with the swagger that he played with early would be very beneficial.”

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Jayhawks still searching for turning point after ugly win vs. TCU

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) fights for a rebound with TCU guard RJ Nembhard (22) and TCU center Kevin Samuel (21) during the second half on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) fights for a rebound with TCU guard RJ Nembhard (22) and TCU center Kevin Samuel (21) during the second half on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

Sure, Kansas put an end to its un-blue blood like three-game losing streak Thursday night against TCU. But what transpired at Allen Fieldhouse didn’t come close to resembling the type of turning point in the season the Jayhawks needed.

Senior Marcus Garrett spoke earlier in the week of looking at the remainder of the schedule as a new season. And this matchup had all the elements to be the reboot game KU had been chasing. TCU hadn’t played in 16 days and arrived in Lawrence as one of the two worst teams in the Big 12. 

For some reason, though, what should have been an easy A for the Jayhawks played out in the first half like they showed up to a final exam having never attended a lecture nor read any of the course materials.

Misfires multiplied — they were 5-for-23 and missed 11 in a row as the two teams traded woeful droughts — and the Jayhawks just got tighter with every clank and turnover.

College basketball is supposed to be fun, but that 18-point first half was the antithesis of that.

“Doubt definitely runs through every player’s mind,” KU junior David McCormack admitted following a predominantly ugly 59-51 victory.

The possibility of KU’s losing skid going from three to four felt very real in the first half, and the No. 15 Jayhawks played at times like that was the only thing on their minds.

“I don’t know if we played tight, per se,” McCormack said of the first half. “I think some people were just thinking too much or overthinking. We just told them to relax, play the game, but still be turned up at the same time. Once we got a well balanced mindset everything came natural.”

They weren’t just bad in the opening 20 minutes. They were abysmal. It was troubling. Any of the Big 12’s top teams could’ve buried KU by halftime. If this was an NCAA Tournament game in Indianapolis in March, even against a double-digit seed, the Jayhawks would’ve been packing their bags and headed home.

But this was a late-January game against a TCU team that entered the night ranked No. 93 in the nation at KenPom.com. So the Jayhawks won.

The result doesn’t mask this team’s issues. Inconsistencies continue to plague KU. The extreme fluctuations in the effectiveness of individual players from game to game or even half to half has kept the Jayhawks from achieving their typical elite status. Jalen Wilson went scoreless in 18 minutes against TCU. Christian Braun only attempted three shots in 27 minutes. Both have proven this season they are capable of far better.

For much of the year, the volatility in how KU plays defense has been at the front of head coach Bill Self’s mind. 

After the Horned Frogs shot 35% from the floor and coughed up the ball 22 times, on this night at least, Self felt better about one of his team’s problems. 

“We didn’t play great offensively the first half. We guarded for the most part for 40 minutes,” Self said. “Really proud of our guys for how they competed. I know they’re feeling some pressure. And they needed to enjoy this and I’m going to, too.”

It took an unexpected second half burst onto the scene from junior backup Tyon Grant-Foster (nine points and five rebounds in 17 minutes) and David McCormack playing to his potential — and even connecting on the first 3-pointer of his college career — in the final 20 minutes for the Jayhawks to recover at home and beat TCU.

But the Jayhawks have been in such a rut of late that they only focused on the positives afterward.

“A win is a win at the end of the day,” junior Ochai Agbaji replied, when asked whether the Jayhawks left less encouraged than they typically would following a victory. “Coming off of three straight losses, that’s what we just wanted to come in here and do, no matter what. You have to win games like those where things aren’t going our way offensively, and we’ve got to really lock in defensively and make them play bad. Those wins are always fun, and I think all the guys are enjoying this one, too.”

Self didn’t go as far as to call what happened fun. But he, too, surely while considering the psyches of his players, opted not to dwell on the negatives.

“It’s a good vibe,” Self said. “I’m not in any way shape or form going to leave here thinking it was an ugly --- win. I’m not going to do it.”

That’s what Self said because that’s what his Jayhawks needed to hear at this stage of a season that hasn’t lived up to his standards.

Even so, KU enters a challenging trip to Tennessee having merely survived against TCU.  The Jayhawks didn’t look like they started a new season. They’ll have to put off hitting that reboot button yet again, as they hope to eventually evolve into a team that can make a deep NCAA Tournament run.

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Everything’s different while playing during a pandemic, so Bill Self isn’t ‘coming down too hard’ on Jayhawks

Kansas head coach Bill Self talks to his players with the game close and little time remaining in regulation on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas head coach Bill Self talks to his players with the game close and little time remaining in regulation on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

Bill Self will still stare down and/or bark at a player who just blew a defensive assignment in transition in the heat of a game. But the Kansas basketball coach finds himself becoming less stern in his overall approach during his 18th season with the Jayhawks.

In normal, non-pandemic times, Self might have lit into his team and called out specific individuals as a motivating tactic with KU at 4-4 in the Big 12 after losing three straight games.

Obviously KU’s current tied for fifth status in the conference standings isn’t the only unfamiliar condition with which Self and his staff are dealing.

“The coaching, I don’t think from a tactical standpoint is different,” Self said during a Wednesday video press conference. “But maybe your approach in not coming down too hard is a little bit different this year than in years past.”

That adjustment is the result of “the crazy year this has been,” Self said of playing college basketball during a pandemic. His change of heart has everything to do with considering the psychology of the players and nothing to do with Self softening his typical stance in his 28th season as a head coach.

With the players having to spend so much of their time isolated, and playing in games where there’s “no energy” in the crowd, and all the while the 18- to 22-year-olds seeing next to no one other than their teammates and coaches, Self described the challenges of recovering from a loss or a string of losses.

“The reward for our guys is not to go back to their dorm and hang out. No, the reward for the guys is go hang out with the same guys that you just got your butt beat with,” Self said. “Eat in the room. Socially distance with your own teammates in your room. Play video games. And get it all started with ‘Groundhog Day’ the next day.”

With the Jayhawks stuck in a loop like Phil Connors in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, Self figured out he shouldn’t be compounding their issues with his typical motivational approaches.

A few years ago, Self might have jumped all over his players if they were 2-4 in January.

“I don’t know that that’s the way that you do it as much this year,” Self shared. “Because I don’t think the guys have a release, so to speak.”

Previously, a group looking to bond or get away from basketball for a couple hours could, as Self brought up, go to a movie or go out for dinner or go any number of places just to bond or unwind.

“If our guys had a team meeting they would have to do it wearing face masks and sitting 6 feet apart from each other, let alone going out to a wing place and eating a thousand wings and hanging out,” Self said.

Credit Self for adjusting accordingly upon recognizing that these aren’t normal circumstances for the young men he’s coaching.

He’s not one to a coddle players or massage their egos. But he’s flexible enough to understand the benefits of changing his style — at least a little bit.

“In years past you don’t care. You don’t care if you upset somebody, make somebody mad, who cares?” Self said. “You know they’re going to come back and fight the next day and everybody’s got a fresh attitude and all that kind of stuff. This year it’s a little bit different.”

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With No. 15 KU looking for a spark, PG Dajuan Harris is an obvious answer

Kansas guard Dajuan Harris (3) drives to the bucket past Oklahoma guard Umoja Gibson (2) during the second half, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Dajuan Harris (3) drives to the bucket past Oklahoma guard Umoja Gibson (2) during the second half, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

With his Kansas basketball team coming off an unusual stretch of three losses in a row, head coach Bill Self openly suggested it might be time to “stir it up and try something different.”

The Jayhawks’ starting five is so solidified 15 games into the season that Self isn’t going to blow it up. But a more subtle change wouldn’t be crazy. And if anyone is getting promoted to a starting role at this stage of the schedule, the obvious choice is Dajuan Harris.

Self mentioned on “Hawk Talk” Monday night that in KU’s first practice since the loss at Oklahoma he mixed the teams up and one group “was actually fun” to watch. Who knows for sure what the coach saw that piqued his interest. However, the Jayhawks’ offense definitely becomes more aesthetically pleasing when Harris, the redshirt freshman point guard from Columbia, Mo., is on the court.

For the season, Harris is only averaging 15.3 minutes a game, contributing 1.9 points and 2.3 assists. But his role already has expanded significantly in the past week, following Bryce Thompson getting sidelined due to a broken finger. Harris played 20 minutes at Baylor and 21 at Oklahoma.

The 6-foot-1, 170-pound Harris isn’t someone you turn to for his scoring, but when he’s on the floor the Jayhawks have an old school, pass-first point guard who goes out of his way to keep the ball moving and is at his best creating shots for everyone around him.

His instincts as a passer will only help KU find more opportunities to get out and score in transition, too, because Harris doesn’t overthink anything with the ball in his hands. Reading the court and reacting come simultaneously and naturally for him, whether that’s off a KU defensive rebound and outlet or in a half court set.

Even better for Harris’ case, adding him to any KU lineup isn’t disruptive. He blends in perfectly. KenPom.com breaks down every roster in college basketball by looking at each player’s percentage of possessions used (%Poss). The measure gives credit or blame to a player when he ends a possession by making a shot, missing a shot that doesn’t turn into an offensive rebound or commits a turnover. With a %Poss of 10.1%, Harris falls into the KenPom category of “nearly invisible.”

Self’s hope to “stir it up and try something different” may or may not mean a change to the Jayhawks’ starting lineup. Regardless of the specifics of the tinkering going on behind the scenes, Harris has shown in recent spurts he can make an impact for KU even as a non-shooting threat (11-for-25 from the floor, 3-for-5 on 3-pointers during his first college season).

KU actually outscored No. 2 Baylor, 37-36, when Harris played in that Jan. 18 matchup in Waco, Texas. Even his dunk attempt on a fast break that went down in the final stats as a block for Mark Vital was an instance of Harris showing his moxie. That was a young player trying to inject his squad with some life. Here’s betting next time he won’t waste any milliseconds glancing back to see who’s coming behind him; Harris will just go in for the jam.

Baylor guard Mark Vital pressures the shot of Kansas guard Dajuan Harris, left, in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in Waco, Texas. (Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald via AP)

Baylor guard Mark Vital pressures the shot of Kansas guard Dajuan Harris, left, in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in Waco, Texas. (Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald via AP) by Associated Press

In the loss at OU, two of the Jayhawks’ best lineups featured Harris, too. When he was in with Marcus Garrett, Christian Braun, Ochai Agbaji and Jalen Wilson in a five guard-lineup (7:40 in total), KU outscored the Sooners, 11-7. And during the 3:15 Harris played with Garrett, Agabji, Wilson and Mitch Lightfoot, KU had an 11-6 advantage.

Who would Harris hypothetically replace in the starting lineup? It wouldn't be Garrett or Agbaji. But you could make a case for any of the other three starters — Braun, Wilson or David McCormack — turning into a sub and still playing close to his normal minutes.

Even if Self ultimately keeps Harris as a reserve, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team’s true point guard seeing an increase in minutes with Self and his staff also pinpointing the lineups where the young and at times — depending on the opponent’s lineup — undersized Harris fits in best.

And with No. 15 KU’s next game coming Thursday versus TCU, a team KU dismantled on Jan. 5 with Harris filling in for the injured Garrett, this is the perfect time to introduce Harris to a more extensive role.

Dajuan Harris in KU’s past 5 games

(Lineup combination played at least 1:30 together in listed game)


Jan. 5 at TCU — 27 minutes, 7 points, 7 assists, 1 turnover

On court: +26 (KU 71, TCU 45) / Off court: +3 (KU 22, TCU 19)

KU lineups with Harris:

• Harris, Braun, Wilson, Agbaji, McCormack — 46-24, KU, in 15:19

• Harris, Braun, Wilson, Enaruna, Lightfoot — 6-4, TCU, in 3:24

• Harris, Wilson, Enaruna, Agbaji, Lightfoot — 5-2, TCU, in 2:37

• Harris, Grant-Foster, Braun, Wilson, McCormack — 7-6, KU, in 2:18

• Harris, Braun, Wilson, Agbaji, Lightfoot — 8-2, KU, in 1:39


Jan. 9 vs. Oklahoma — 10 minutes, 0 points, 1 assist, 2 turnovers

On court: -2 (OU 15, KU 13) / Off court: +6 (KU 50, OU 44)

KU lineups with Harris:

• Harris, Braun, Enaruna, Agbaji, Lightfoot — 9-1, KU, in 2:12

• Harris, Garrett, Braun, Agbaji, McCormack — 4-0, OU, in 2:03


Jan. 12 at Oklahoma State — 6 minutes, 0 points, 0 turnovers

On court: -10 (OSU 16, KU 6) / Off court: +5 (KU 64, OSU 59)

KU lineups with Harris:

• Harris, Garrett, Wilson, Thompson, McCormack — 11-4, OSU, in 3:39


Jan. 18 at Baylor — 20 minutes, 2 points, 1 assist, 1 turnover

On court: +1 (KU 37, BU 36) / Off court: -9 (BU 41, KU 32)

KU lineups with Harris:

• Harris, Garrett, Enaruna, Agbaji, Lightfoot — 10-8, BU, in 4:27

• Harris, Garrett, Braun, Agbaji, McCormack — 7-0, KU, in 3:36

• Harris, Garrett, Braun, Agbaji, Lightfoot — 4-2, BU, in 2:56

• Harris, Garrett, Braun, Wilson, McCormack — 6-3, KU, in 2:27


Jan. 23 at Oklahoma — 21 minutes, 5 points, 4 assists, 0 turnovers

On court: Even (KU 38, OU 38) / Off court: -7 (OU 37, KU 30)

KU lineups with Harris:

• Harris, Garrett, Braun, Wilson, Agbaji — 11-7, KU, in 7:40

• Harris, Garrett, Wilson, Agbaji, Lightfoot — 11-6, KU, in 3:15

• Harris, Braun, Wilson, Agbaji, Lightfoot — 9-4, OU, in 2:18

• Harris, Garrett, Wilson, Agbaji, McCormack — 4-2, KU, in 1:54

• Harris, Garrett, Braun, Enaruna, Lightfoot — 2-0, OU, in 1:51

• Harris, Garrett, Braun, Enaruna, Agbaji — 8-6, KU, in 1:30

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