David McCormack shows Jayhawks how to play with free mind in crucial win over Tech
photo by: Mike Gunnoe
The most imposing player on the floor, Kansas big man David McCormack did much more than outmuscle the Red Raiders in the paint Saturday afternoon in a top 25 battle at Allen Fieldhouse.
And with McCormack as a game-changing focal point on both ends of the court at Allen Fieldhouse, the Jayhawks delivered their first marquee victory since December, a 67-61 win over No. 15 Texas Tech that signaled they actually are turning a corner before February turns to March and the postseason arrives.
Scoring at will early on versus the Red Raiders, McCormack not only avoided one of his infamous slow starts, he set the tone for the No. 23 Jayhawks.
The powerful junior said after his 17 points and eight rebounds in KU’s fifth consecutive win that everything worked so well for him because he played with a free mind, not overthinking the various tasks at hand.
“Just playing to my strengths, knowing the scouting report, knowing that I can play over both their bigs,” McCormack said of his approach. “Just playing to my size. Doing the simple things.”
He certainly made it all look effortless in the first half, and not just when he was scoring. The offense had some flow and watchability to it, even when shots weren’t falling for his teammates, because McCormack didn’t take his scoring success as a green light to force up shots. The big man often kicked the ball outside from the low block just to see a great 3-point look for a fellow Jayhawk rim out. And that didn’t discourage him either.
No thinking necessary. Just keep making the right play. That was McCormack on Saturday.
And his teammates eventually caught up with him in that department after he went 5-for-5 in the first half and everybody else in a KU uniform shot a combined 6-for-23.
Persistence from all involved eventually helped KU’s offensive balance, and in the second half Jalen Wilson and Ochai Agbaji each scored 10 points. It didn’t matter that McCormack shot 2-for-5 in his 18 second half minutes, because the Red Raiders were so concerned about him as both a scoring and passing threat that it worked in KU’s favor.
“He was the reason,” Wilson said, “why everybody was getting so open from the 3-point line. His ability to suck the defense in once he was attacking the rim.”
McCormack opened the game by finishing every one of his first seven shot attempts. Wilson said it seemed as if KU’s veteran big couldn’t be stopped.
“When he plays like that it opens up the floor for everybody else,” Wilson said. “And it just gets it all going.”
The offense, in the first half especially, looked so flawless when KU (17-7 overall, 11-5 Big 12) played through its big man that it was astonishing he finished the game with only two assists. It wasn’t for a lack of unselfish passes out of the post.
KU head coach Bill Self, who called McCormack’s passing “great,” said the 6-foot-10 big read Tech’s defense well when the Red Raiders dove in to collapse around him.
“That’s one thing I think he does very well,” Self noted.
Coming off a not so productive individual showing at Kansas State earlier in the week, McCormack left KU’s far more impressive win against Tech most pleased about his approach to the day and how it worked for him. He spoke of playing with a “free heart” and “free mind.”
“Just having patience. I made sure just to have fun,” McCormack said. “Played for others. Tried to get my teammates as much open looks as I could out on the perimeter or if they were cutting, whatever it may be in order to get the ball moving.”
His considerate tendencies showed up on defense, too, even though, as Self noted afterward, McCormack wasn’t “unbelievable” as a post defender.
That’s never been his strength. But McCormack isn’t a defensive liability, either. When he subbed out, Tech noticeably found it much easier to get to the rim and score. The Red Raiders outscored KU, 8-4, during the 5:02 in total he spent on the bench.
What McCormack has become is a smart defender who eats up space in the paint and finds ways to get his arms in the sight lines of shooters, even if he isn’t a shot blocker.
“When he helped, he helped on balance and challenged shots,” Self said, crediting McCormack’s position defense.
“That’s one thing, if you’re a five-man and the guy you’re guarding isn’t a 3-point shooter, you can kind of be like a free safety, kind of help everybody, direct everybody,” Self added. “And he did a good job of that today.”
The only thing lacking from a signature performance by McCormack was a double-double, as he came up just two rebounds shy.
When asked about the work some of his teammates put in on the glass, McCormack joked that they were stealing his boards.
Actually, it was just another case of his willingness to make the right play and help the Jayhawks win.
“I may box out the opponent’s big man, but it opens up a crashing lane for (Christian Braun) or Jalen and we’re active on the glass,” McCormack said. “We know what we have to do in order for us to win.”
That’s becoming more clear than ever with these Jayhawks, who back in January seemed baffled by quality opponents.
This latest victory should be a mind-freeing one for them. They’ve proven they can beat an upper tier Big 12 team again. They just had to follow McCormack’s lead.