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.”
Almost nothing went right for Kansas on Saturday, in an 80-64 loss at Baylor.
From a pre-game black eye for senior Svi Mykhailiuk to failing to match the Bears’ energy, Bill Self’s team had far more problems than solutions during its trip to Waco, Texas.
And a 40-percent shooting performance for the offense was just one cause for concern for the Jayhawks.
Here are five stats that stood out from a defeat that Kansas will have to find a way to put behind it quickly.
No stops to be found
As poorly as Kansas played offensively in the first half (20 points), the defensive end proved even more costly for the Jayhawks during the final 20 minutes.
The Bears converted on 17 of 26 field goal attempts (65.4%) in the second half to drop another 50 points on a faltering Kansas defense.
Both Manu Lecomte and Nuni Omot hit KU with 4-for-5 shooting in the closing half.
The Bears made 14 of their final 20 attempts from the floor. Although they turned the ball over 8 times in the second half, at no point did Kansas manage to make Baylor miss consecutive shots.
BU’s 57%-shooting in the victory was the best marksmanship by a KU opponent this season.
No easy points
While the free-throw line hasn’t always been kind to Kansas (69.3 percent in Big 12 play), getting there with regularity had at least become a strength for the Jayhawks, who struggled to do so during much of the non-conference schedule.
KU, which came in averaging 21.4 free-throw attempts in league games, took a step backward against Baylor, with only 9 shots taken at the foul line.
The Bears’ zone defense often flummoxed the Jayhawks, and they didn’t attack enough to consistently draw fouls.
Though Kansas made 8 of 9 free throws, it marked the team’s fewest attempts in a league game (previously 13 against Iowa State).
Speaking of easy points, KU didn’t get any in transition. The general lack of quick-change opportunities off steals (3) and blocks (3), certainly didn’t help.
Mr. 40 Minutes
For the eighth consecutive game, Kansas senior point guard Devonte’ Graham never subbed out.
Easily KU’s best and most important player, Graham put in 8 of 17 shot attempts (4-for-10 shooting on 3-pointers) to lead Kansas with 23 points.
The Jayhawks had such an off-kilter offense against BU, though, that even Graham could only come up with 4 assists, a season-low for the floor general. His 3 turnovers were only slightly above Graham’s season average of 2.8.
As awry as Kansas looked offensively with Graham playing the entire way, it’s kind of frightening to think about how poorly things would have gone had he come out of the game even for a minute or two in either half.
Dreaded double-digit deficit
Once Baylor achieved a 10-point lead just before halftime you figured the Jayhawks might be in trouble. Unlike last year’s KU team, which routinely climbed out of holes, this group hasn’t been so fortunate.
The Bears built their lead as large as 16 points in the final minute, and became the seventh KU opponent this season to lead by double figures. As was the case for Kansas against Washington, Arizona State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, the Jayhawks (19-6 overall, 8-4 Big 12) came up short.
This season, only West Virginia, which led by 16, has taken a double-digit lead against Kansas and lost.
The Jayhawks are now 1-6 when trailing by 10 or more points in a game.
Another fruitless De Sousa cameo
When both Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot had 4 personal fouls on their stat lines with more than 11 minutes left in the game, Self decided to give first-semester freshman big Silvio De Sousa another look.
Earlier in the week, in KU’s home win over TCU, the 6-foot-9 freshman never got off the bench. The foul trouble and situation —KU down six points on the road in the second half — almost forced Self to at least give De Sousa a chance.
Upon checking in, De Sousa started off positively enough, deflecting an inbound pass underneath the hoop. But that proved to be the apex of his brief appearance. On the ensuing defensive sequence, De Sousa was manning the paint but failed to step up and effectively contest a successful King McClure floater.
When KU headed to the other end of the floor on offense, Lagerald Vick hit De Sousa with an entry pass on the right block but the young big man used a blatant extended left forearm to try and fend off Jo Lual-Acuil as he went in for a layup, that was called off due to an offensive foul.
The stoppage allowed Self to re-insert Azubuike, and De Sousa checked out having played 28 seconds and contributed nothing statistically, other than a foul and a turnover.
In each of De Sousa’s previous six appearances he has played 2 or fewer minutes. The Jayhawks actually needed him on this occasion, but Self didn’t trust the freshman to do anything other than hurt his team’s chances.
In six of his eight games for KU, De Sousa has come away with 0’s in both points and rebounds.