This year’s NCAA Tournament will be remembered for years to come by those who live and die with March Madness outcomes. And around Lawrence, where the absence of brackets and a potential national championship run in 2020 still stings for some, it will be impossible to look back on the 2021 tourney without thinking of Jalen Wilson.
An essential member of KU’s lineup in his first full season of competing at the college level, Wilson contracted COVID-19 just as the postseason got underway. And when the Jayhawks had to withdraw from the Big 12 tournament as a result, no one was immediately sure how long the redshirt freshman would be away from the team or whether he would be able to return and rejoin his teammates at all in their pursuit of a memorable March run.
Remarkably, similar to what the Jayhawks experienced with David McCormack in the first round, Wilson not only reunited with his teammates in Indianapolis following a bout with COVID, the 6-foot-8 wing from Denton, Texas, actually was able to play and contribute, too.
Wilson didn’t need to play like he was in midseason form on Monday night against USC to give KU valuable minutes. No one anticipated the young wing to be able to totally change the game against the Trojans the way McCormack did two days earlier versus a lesser foe, Eastern Washington.
As head coach Bill Self said during a pregame radio interview, all the Jayhawks wanted from their typical starter was for Wilson to come off the bench and play solid defense and compete on the boards.
Self finally called upon Wilson nearly nine minutes into the first half against the Trojans, as the team’s best rebounder and one of its most reliable 3-point shooters took the floor for the first time in 11 days, dating back to when KU beat Oklahoma in Kansas City, Mo.
It didn’t take long for Wilson to at least give the Jayhawks some needed energy. After watching his teammates struggle to score over the length of USC’s defense, Wilson put his head down and got inside to try and give the team a lift on the scoreboard. His well defended layup wouldn’t drop, but his willingness to go make something happen instead of playing with hesitancy was welcome, given how things were going for KU offensively.
He kept it up, too, with a steal and a much needed assist on a rare successful KU 3-pointer in the first half. But a couple of quick whistles on Wilson made his first stint a quick one, even for a player on a minutes restriction.
And while Wilson is a lot of things for KU, he isn’t a miracle worker. He played eight minutes and scored two points via free throws in an 85-51 USC rout.
Again, no one expected for Wilson to be some kind of one man conqueror. As much as KU struggled against Evan and Isaiah Mobley and the wiry, long-armed men of Troy, the Jayhawks would’ve been even worse off without Wilson.
His presence was nothing but a bonus after spending more than a week in isolation, away from his teammates and undoubtedly wishing he could change what transpired over the past couple of weeks.
Wilson is a competitor, and was going to give KU everything he had. And because of that, just having him available to defend USC’s tall frontcourt players and put a body on the Trojans when a shot went up made him effective.
Regardless of Monday’s outcome and the what-ifs that inevitably come from KU diehards when they reminisce — or commiserate — about Marches past, Wilson and McCormack deserve credit for their efforts to make the most of an awful situation.
Imagine you’ve worked most of your life to become a Division I basketball player, and you were so successful in those endeavors that you landed a scholarship to one of college basketball’s most renowned programs, Kansas.
You watched March Madness when you were a kid, dreaming about what it would be like to get out on that court with the nation watching. You wondered what it would feel like to lead your team to a Final Four.
For Wilson, McCormack and Tristan Enaruna — who wasn’t able to return to the team as quickly — to go through quarantine in March had to be mentally exhausting.
It’s hard not to feel bad for these players who had the virus impact such a massive aspect of their lives at a time of the year that comes with such anticipation and excitement.
While neither Wilson nor McCormack were available for postgame comments after the loss, Self shed a little light on what it’s been like for two of KU’s most important players. Self said the Jayhawks got “lucky” in the first round to win when they weren’t at full strength.
“We tried to put a Band-Aid on it. But this team, down a starter or down a couple of starters,” Self said, “even if guys are actually playing in the game, but don’t have rhythm and certainly haven’t practiced and those sorts of things, that puts us in a situation where our margin of error is even smaller.”
So when you look back on the 2021 NCAA Tournament months or years from now, it’s all right to think about what might have been — the way many surely do when Joel Embiid’s injury-shortened 2013-14 season is on their minds. Just be sure to remember how incredibly hard the COVID pauses and unexpected breaks from basketball — during the height of March Madness — must have been for Wilson, McCormack and Enaruna.
They will remember this March much more than any observers will. And both McCormack and Wilson did as best they could for KU when they weren’t at 100%.
“It’s been difficult,” Self said. “I’m proud of our guys that we made it to the tournament. I’m proud of the guys that we were a three seed. I’m proud of the guys that we won a game in the tournament. I’m just not leaving out of here, nor are they, remotely proud about how we performed or prepared or how we got them ready tonight.”
Entering the NCAA Tournament without their best rebounder, Jalen Wilson, and not expecting a whole lot from their top big man, David McCormack, the Jayhawks have a rebounding problem on their hands at quite an inconvenient time.
At full strength, No. 3 seed Kansas wouldn’t have to devote an inordinate amount of attention to the battle of the boards against No. 14 Eastern Washington. But with Bill Self expecting his team to have to play “extremely, extremely small” during Saturday’s first-round game in Indianapolis, how the shorthanded Jayhawks handle themselves on the glass could determine their postseason fate.
Throughout his redshirt freshman season, Wilson has easily been the Jayhawks’ strongest rebounder, averaging 8.2 boards a game. In KU’s past 10 games, the 6-foot-8 guard (also the team’s small-ball 5-man) was even better, pulling down 10.4 rebounds a game. Wilson had 14 rebounds at West Virginia and against Baylor during that stretch and 13 at Texas.
According to sports-reference.com, Wilson’s total rebound percentage — an estimate of the percentage of available rebounds a player secured when he was in the game — was 15.7%, the highest of any rotation player for KU.
As you’d expect, McCormack ranks second in total rebound percentage at 14.7%. The problem facing KU is that not even Self knows what McCormack will be able to give the team versus Eastern Washington.
The Jayhawks (20-8) are actually preparing most of their game plan around playing without their 6-foot-10 junior post player. McCormack isn’t expected to join the team in Indianapolis until Friday, roughly 24 hours before the matchup with Eastern Washington (16-7) at Indiana Farmers Coliseum (Saturday, 12:15 p.m., TBS). The expectation is that he will practice Friday for the first time in more than a week, dating back to when he tested positive for COVID-19.
Whatever McCormack can give KU on Saturday, Self said, will be considered “a bonus.”
That leaves most of the rebounding duties to senior forward Mitch Lightfoot, as well as KU’s best rebounding guards, Christian Braun and Marcus Garrett. Lightfoot is a likely starter, considering that Eastern Washington’s best player is 6-foot-9 forward Tanner Groves, the Big Sky’s regular-season and tournament MVP.
The wild card on the KU roster will be reserve guard Tyon Grant-Foster. An athletic 6-foot-7 junior college transfer in his first year with the Jayhawks, Grant-Foster hasn’t played in a game since Feb. 17 — not because of injuries or ailments, but because he just wasn’t a part of the rotation.
If Grant-Foster can manage to not look rusty or out of place and generally avoid the types of mistakes that would lead Self to keep him on the bench, the numbers say he could make an impact on the glass. The seldom-used guard actually has a higher total rebound percentage (14.5%) than Lightfoot (13.3%), Braun (9.5%) and Garrett (7.4%), as well as Tristan Enaruna (9.7%), who will miss the Eastern Washington game after testing positive for COVID-19.
Can Grant-Foster rebound in the NCAA Tournament like he did in his most productive games of the regular season? The Jayhawks certainly need him to replicate those outings — six rebounds against Washburn, eight against North Dakota State, seven against Omaha and five vs. TCU.
It’s been nearly two months since someone other than Wilson or McCormack was KU’s leading rebounder in a game — that happened when Garrett led the Jayhawks on Jan. 28 with seven boards. But the run of 12 consecutive games in which Wilson or McCormack led the way is about to end, unless McCormack is able to play far more than expected.
It will likely take a total team effort, rather than one herculean performance from Lightfoot, Braun or Garrett, for KU to make sure the Eagles don’t dominate on the glass. The Jayhawks will have their work cut out for them, too, especially when they’re dealing with Eastern Washington’s junior glass cleaners, Groves (8.1 rebounds per game) and 6-foot-7 wing Kim Aiken Jr. (8.5 per game).
Both Groves (17.3%) and Aiken (15.9%) enter the tournament with better total rebound percentages than anyone in KU’s rotation. In particular, it could be extremely difficult for the Jayhawks to come up with many offensive rebounds. According to KenPom.com, Groves’ defensive rebounding percentage of 26.8% ranks 27th among all Division I players, and Aiken ranks 87th at 23.4%.
For some perspective, Wilson, at 22.5%, ranks 128th. McCormack’s defensive rebound percentage is 16.5%, Lightfoot’s is 14.7%, Braun’s is 14.5% and Garrett is at 13%. Again, Grant-Foster could be an X-factor at 19.1%.
Regardless of how they make it happen when a shot comes off the rim, the Jayhawks need to give Eastern Washington a battle on the glass. Winning on the boards could clear a path to the second round. KU is 15-2 this year when outrebounding its opponent, and just 5-6 when the other team wins the rebound margin.
What’s more, when the Jayhawks got significantly outmuscled or outworked on the glass, they went 0-5 — Gonzaga had a +9 advantage in rebounds, Texas went +9 in Lawrence and +12 in Austin, Oklahoma was +10 in Norman, and Tennessee (+15) destroyed KU on the glass in one of the Jayhawks’ worst games of the season.
Earlier this week, Braun downplayed any concerns about the Jayhawks’ ability to compete for rebounds in Wilson’s absence.
“We don’t think it will take a hit,” Braun said. “That’s something we’ve been focusing on. Everybody’s just got to step up. Everybody’s got to crash the boards and help everybody.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As good as he was for a three-game stretch leading up to the Jayhawks’ marquee Big Monday showdown at Baylor, no one really expected Kansas big man David McCormack to keep putting up 20 points a game.
But given the way he had been playing, McCormack taking an erratic turn in the opposite direction — and quickly — left the Jayhawks scrambling to rally throughout a 77-69 loss to the second-ranked Bears.
After KU effectively played through its junior big for three straight games, McCormack had a travel and two poor fouls before the top 10-ranked teams had played three whole minutes Monday night in Waco, Texas. Kansas already trailed undefeated and No. 2-ranked BU, 8-2, when playing the five spot became senior Mitch Lightfoot’s job and McCormack headed to the bench for the first time.
Even though the Jayhawks would never dog their teammate for an off night, it has to be difficult to see a veteran post player struggling to that extent when KU was going to need some breaks and solid play from everyone to beat one of the two truly elite teams in college basketball this season.
“It’s not like every night you’re going to get a perfect performance from everybody,” KU sophomore Christian Braun replied, when asked how the rest of the Jayhawks needed to respond when it wasn’t McCormack’s night.
“We’ve got guys like Mitch – Mitch played well tonight,” Braun added of Lightfoot, who chipped in eight points and four rebounds in close to 17 minutes off the bench. “He came in, got some dunks, gave us some energy. But I just think the team as a whole,” Braun went on, “we’ve got to have a better start. And that would’ve solved a lot of our problems. Not playing from behind.”
Braun was making a different point when mentioning the hole KU fell into, but the Jayhawks (10-4 overall, 4-3 Big 12) needed a better start from McCormack.
After nearly five game minutes on the bench, McCormack checked back in with the Bears leading 18-7. His next stint again started poorly, with a turnover. But an offensive rebound and a blocked shot would follow, and he wasn’t hurting KU by playing too amped up. The problem was he never could turn it up and make a larger impact after settling in.
Between foul trouble (he picked up his fourth with more than 13 minutes left) and the Bears just making his night a grind, McCormack finished with a season-low six points (3-for-6 shooting) in 20 minutes, to go with two rebounds, one assist, one steal and four turnovers.
“Everybody’s going to have ups and downs,” Lightfoot said. “As you’ve seen, Dave’s been terrific these last three games. He gives us a dimension I think I give us a little bit of, but he’s such an interior presence, gets buckets around the basket.”
The 6-foot-10, 250-pound McCormack was far from making an optical impact at BU, though.
“We need him to be playing his best ball,” Lightfoot said, “and I’m going to do everything I can as a teammate to help him and get him back to where he was these last couple of games.”
Given McCormack’s issues at Baylor, the biggest surprise of the night was that the Jayhawks stuck with playing a traditional big man up until the game’s final minutes. There was 3:44 showing on the second half clock when KU head coach Bill Self sent five guards — and neither McCormack nor Lightfoot — onto the court for the first time.
A Jalen Wilson dunk in that lineup cut Baylor’s lead to five with 3:18 left, but the answer 3-pointer from Jared Butler at the 2:56 mark seemed as demoralizing a moment as the Jayhawks experienced, and the Bears wrapped it up from there.
Theoretically, KU could have still won this game with McCormack playing poorly for much of the night. But it would’ve taken the Jayhawks executing a level of defense they’ve yet to show this season, as well as several members of their core rotation stepping up their production.
Faults aside, it’s also important to keep in mind that even on a night when McCormack wasn’t even close to being at his best, KU was only outscored 34-32 when he was in, while the Bears had a 43-37 advantage when he was out.
Even when it’s not pretty, there’s something about having the big guy out there that is beneficial, and that, no doubt, is why Self continues to stick with McCormack and a more traditional lineup. At least for now.
The Jayhawks need a much better version of McCormack — and some more experimenting with five-guard lineups — in the weeks ahead if they’re going to reach their ceiling.
Lightfoot isn’t worried about what’s ahead for McCormack.
“If you know David, his confidence won’t dip,” Lightfoot said. “He understands that we need him to be a good team and he’ll respond.”
Raise your hand if you thought in December David McCormack would be playing at an All-Big 12 level in January. And be honest.
When the Jayhawks’ starting big man was going 1-for-9 versus Kentucky or 5-for-12 against Creighton or 3-for-10 at Texas Tech, there wasn’t much evidence that McCormack’s junior season was going to be all that different from either of his first two years in a Kansas uniform.
If you truly believed McCormack would eventually figure it out in a few weeks’ time, you’re either an eternal optimist or you believed head coach Bill Self, who repeatedly during the preseason sang McCormack’s praises and then kept on banging the “McCormack is a good player” drum all through his big man’s struggles.
(Full disclosure: I did not raise my hand.)
Self is a basketball savant, but it was becoming difficult not to wonder what he had seen out of McCormack that had him so convinced about the junior’s potential to make an impact this season — especially after KU opened its January schedule with a home beating at the hands of Texas, in which McCormack went 0-for-4 and was so ineffective he only played 14 minutes.
Who could’ve known that would be a turning point in his third college basketball season?
After shooting below 50% from the floor in each of KU’s first nine games against Division I opponents, McCormack’s career night (24 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks) in a loss at Oklahoma State marked the third game in a row that he shot 55% or better and produced 17 points or more.
Behold: the David McCormack about whom Bill Self spoke in October and November isn’t a mythical figure. He’s an actual legitimate college big man, finally ready to make the best use of his 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame inside.
“I just kind of played to my size advantage,” McCormack stated matter of factly in a postgame video interview with reporters. “Did what coach asked, posting deep, tried not to force any shots and just made some good reads. That’s about it.”
McCormack scored 12 points, pulled in six rebounds and blocked two shots during the second half at OSU, as the No. 6 Jayhawks (10-3 overall, 4-2 Big 12) rallied out of a double-digit hole.
For stretches against the Cowboys, it seemed like McCormack was the only Jayhawk who was capable of scoring.
“He was great,” teammate Ochai Agbaji said of McCormack following the 75-70 defeat. “Just throwing it in to him, and his post presence throughout the whole entire game was great. We looked for him when things weren’t going for us and he was a big part of that comeback we kind of sparked.”
To Agbaji’s point, OSU led by 16 with a little more than nine minutes to go before KU went on a 21-2 tear, during which McCormack scored eight points in a little under eight minutes.
KU’s surging big man once again made the most of his offensive potential by not often drifting outside of the paint. Among his season-high 10 successful field goals, nine came within the paint and he only hoisted two jumpers from outside of the key. McCormack shot 10-for-18 overall and went 7-for-12 around the rim. Can he do even better inside? Yes. But remember: this is the same man who only made 46.7% of his attempts around the rim through KU’s first 10 games.
Even better news for KU: McCormack isn’t limiting his interior presence to one end of the floor. Three of the best shot blocking games in his 76-game career have come in the past week-plus. He tied his career high for blocks with three at Oklahoma State after swatting two each at TCU and against Oklahoma. This from a man who blocked three total shots in KU’s first seven games.
For McCormack, just like with his offense of late, his defensive improvement is tied to feeling more comfortable and confident on the court. He said he’s more aware defensively now, because of his preparation, making sure he knows what to expect from certain opponents off of scouting reports.
“Reading their moves and timing things up,” he said.
After the OSU loss, Self said McCormack’s play was what he pictured getting from the big man this year.
“I think David had a great game. I thought everybody was so poor defensively the first half but I thought he had a great game,” Self said. “We threw it to him, he delivered. He made some hard shots. Defensively, he controlled the defensive glass for the most part. I think David’s certainly on an uptick.”
Self continued: “I don’t know that he can average 20 and 10 the rest of the season, but I do think he has the potential to get 20 and 10 in any game.”
Typically, KU has the 3-point shooting to complement McCormack’s play inside. And if that was the case against the Cowboys, KU would’ve survived and won on the road. But on Tuesday at Oklahoma State, Agbaji (4-for-9 from deep) was the only Jayhawk on target, as the rest of the team combined to go 1-for-12.
If Jalen Wilson was the surprise of the season in December, then this reinvigorated McCormack is bombshell 2.0.
KU might need another revelation in the weeks ahead to become one of the elite teams in the country in time for March Madness. But McCormack’s stunning turnaround looks like a key development, even though his most outstanding game to date came in a loss.
Look at where David McCormack’s shot attempts came from in his season-high scoring night at TCU earlier this week, and it’s not surprising that the Kansas veteran big man enjoyed his most productive offensive game to date.
KU’s junior pivot scored a season-best 20 points — marking the second time in his college career he put up at least that many — on 7-for-9 shooting. His 77.8% field goal percentage put him above 50% against a Division I opponent for the first time this season.
McCormack, who in the Jayhawks’ first 10 games averaged 3.0 shot attempts at the rim, while attempting 5.4 per game from farther out, made a habit of doing damage deep inside the paint versus the Horned Frogs.
Of course, McCormack helped himself out by not settling for midrange jumpers. He went 4-for-4 at the rim (another big positive, considering he entered the week shooting below 50% from point-blank range this season), and 3-for-5 away from the rim. Even better: McCormack only took two shots that were from outside the paint — three if you want to be a stickler and count an attempt from around the right block.
Earlier this week, Bill Self called McCormack’s showing at TCU “dominant.” On Friday, ahead of the No. 6-ranked Jayhawks’ home game versus Oklahoma, KU’s head coach said his starting big man played to his size in the rout of TCU.
While praising McCormack on a number of fronts, Self pointed to the junior’s low post positioning and the job he did making himself available for passes deeper in the paint than normal.
“That takes some physicality to do that. I just thought he played to who he is,” Self said, referencing the measurements of the 6-foot-10, 250-pound man, and putting an emphasis on the word man while describing his player.
Although McCormack has endured some subpar offensive games so far, Self said he rarely is disappointed in the big man’s effort.
“I think sometimes guys can try really hard and give really good effort, but it doesn’t look like they’re doing it because they’re a little out of whack in some form or fashion or their balance is off, or technique’s off some, or whatever,” Self said. “I think David for the most part has always given great effort.”
In his first couple of seasons at KU, McCormack often played sped up. As Self referenced, it wasn’t that he wasn’t trying. Now the Jayhawks need him to harness his energy on offense by carving out good position inside for himself on a regular basis.
“I do think he’s got to do some things from a technique standpoint that allow him to create opportunities to get easy baskets,” Self said. “And I thought he did that (at TCU). And when he was in position to get them the other day, I thought he did a better job of finishing or demanding the ball or put himself in positions where they had to throw it to him.”
KU’s perimeter players obviously don’t mind feeding McCormack.
“All it is is just throwing the ball in there,” sophomore guard Christian Braun said of how KU can keep finding success scoring inside. Braun said McCormack and the other bigs are “more than capable” of scoring.
McCormack now has proven an inside-focused offensive approach can boost his productivity (10.5 points per game through KU’s first 11, fourth on the roster). And making a point to take the ball up strong inside should make even better use of one of McCormack’s strengths: his free-throw shooting.
The largest man in a KU uniform has a soft touch at the foul line. McCormack heads into Saturday’s home game versus Oklahoma having made 21 free throws in a row (he went 6-for-6 at TCU). On the year, he’s 38-for-44 (86.4%). Only Jalen Wilson (36-for-55, 65.5%) has attempted more for KU.
No one’s asking McCormack to average 20 points a game. But putting a priority on taking more of his shot attempts inside will make him a more effective and efficient scorer — especially if he can increase his 4.0 free throw attempts a game in the process.
In KU’s first three Big 12 games, McCormack was trending in the wrong direction offensively, shooting 7-for-23 (30.4%) and averaging 8.3 points. He proved at TCU a different line of attack can make him far more impactful.