Bill Self had a long offseason shopping list.
While sifting through recruits and transfer options, the Kansas coach was intentional. He wasn’t sure Ochai Agbaji would return … so he added transfer sharpshooter Jalen Coleman-Lands, just in case.
KU didn’t have quickness or athleticism at point guard last season. So Self added highly rated freshman Bobby Pettiford, then Drake transfer Joseph Yesufu … and then two-time All-Pac-12 first-team Remy Martin later, just for good measure.
The new immediate-eligibility rules allow this type of process. Self was calculated and picky. He could look for ingredients, and because of KU’s first-tier status in the sport, follow through by landing someone that pretty much resembled his team’s specific need.
There was one spot, though, where Self notably stood pat. He did not bring in another true big-man center, likely believing that David McCormack would only build on a dominant second half in 2020-21 that led to him earning all-Big 12 second-team honors.
It’s all an important scene-setter when describing the dilemma KU faced during Saturday night’s 80-72 victory over Stephen F. Austin at Allen Fieldhouse.
Self might have his deepest roster in his 19 seasons at KU. At most positions, he’s 3-4 deep, meaning an off night from one player might not affect this squad like it would some others in the past.
Yet, KU doesn’t have another McCormack: A big-bodied, space-taker defensively who can provide resistance in the lane and also muscle to push back against a true post player like the Jayhawks saw in SFA’s Gavin Kensmil.
KU, more than anything, needed McCormack available for this matchup, where he’d be playing a shorter version of himself.
And then the game started, and McCormack picked up two fouls in the first 2 minutes and 2 seconds and had to go to the bench immediately.
The same questions keep popping up around McCormack: Can he be relied upon? Self went public with some of his earlier frustrations following KU’s win over North Texas in Orlando, Florida, last month when he talked about McCormack being 22 years old and needing to find a way out of his own head.
What I’m about to say next will probably surprise KU fans, but it’s true: KU has played much better with McCormack on the floor this year … and perhaps even the best with him out there.
The opponent-adjusted statistics at EvanMiya.com give a good look. Before Saturday’s game, KU was 42.1 points per 100 possessions better with McCormack on the floor than without him — the top mark on the team.
Those stats indicate where McCormack has made the most impact: defense. KU’s adjusted team defensive efficiency had been 80.8 with McCormack on the floor, with no other teammate coming particularly close to that mark.
McCormack, in all honesty, is probably not getting enough credit for his work there. He’s not a natural rim-protector like Jeff Withey or Udoka Azubuike, but his block rate is still in the top 60 nationally. He also gives KU the most comfortable option defending one-on-one in the post while often not requiring riskier plays like traps that can create advantages for the opponent.
Frankly, McCormack’s absence probably threw KU the most off-course Saturday, leading to misplays and also defenders getting exposed.
Self admitted his team tried to counter Stephen F. Austin’s post play by changing his typical defensive scheme in the second half. That led to more confusion, though, when players forgot that switch after Self went to his bench to bring in new guys.
“They (SFA) got some stuff to start the second half, which was very disappointing to put them right there in the game,” Self said.
Another play late showed what KU was missing without McCormack.
Stephen F. Austin coach Kyle Keller — a former staffer under Self at KU — went to one of Self’s plays late to try to trim the Jayhawks’ lead. It called for a fake ball screen on the perimeter to give Kensmil a chance at any easy basket on a pass over the top.
KU forward Mitch Lightfoot — playing in McCormack’s spot — tried to play in front of Kensmil, which went against the scouting report that Self said in the postgame was to play from behind and force him to score over a defender.
The final result was an easy two for Kensmil, with Lightfoot forgetting his assignment on one of the game’s most significant possessions.
Lightfoot is a selfless player and has been a model teammate during his six years at KU. None of that changes the fact, though, that he’s undersized at 225 pounds to play the 5 position.
KU doesn’t have many other big-boy options. Zach Clemence is a freshman and still learning. Cam Martin has taken a redshirt and will always be an offense-first player. KJ Adams is a thought, though he wasn’t available Saturday because of illness and might face some of the same weight issues that Lightfoot has now.
Their best way out of this, then, is what Self always comes back to when thinking about the situation from a big-picture view: KU’s ceiling remains highest with McCormack on the floor.
Perhaps now is a good time for McCormack to understand his reality. This team doesn’t need bunches of points from him, nor does it require him to fill up a stat sheet Azubuike-style.
The Jayhawks need McCormack to be Landen Lucas. They need him to be consistent and reliable. They need him to be smart while avoiding fouls early while keeping the team out of an unneeded defensive scramble late.
Because while there are other players better than McCormack on this KU team, there might not be anyone as valuable.
After Self spent the summer adding backups for backups, he left McCormack’s position alone, believing the big man had done enough to be trusted.
It’s time for McCormack — consistently — to play like the man deserving of that faith.
This story was originally published December 19, 2021 12:38 AM.