For the first time in what feels like forever, Kansas basketball is not projected to win the Big 12. That honor belongs to Baylor, which will undoubtedly begin the 2020-21 season ranked in the top three of the AP poll.
The Jayhawks will be near the top of the national polls as well (they’re likely to be inside everyone’s top 10) but there are some questions about head coach Bill Self’s squad going into the new year.
—Jubrile Belo is taking college basketball by storm
—PODCAST: Hope & Rauf’s Pac-12 preview
—Big Ten power rankings
On the court, Kansas must replace two All-Americans in Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike, who were their offensive and defensive catalysts, respectfully. Azubuike was perhaps the most dominant big man in the country so, when he got hot late in the year, it correlated with the Jayhawks hitting their peak right before what would’ve been the NCAA Tournament.
KU does have several solid returners to rely on, headlined by Marcus Garrett – the reigning National Defensive Player of the Year, mind you – and Ochai Agbaji. That duo ranked second and third, respectively, on the team in minutes played and are among the best two-way players in the country. Add in a quality recruiting class led by five-star guard Bryce Thompson, and you realize it’s just another year of re-loading for the Jayhawks.
That said, this group’s best player might end up being big man David McCormack, a former McDonald’s All-American who spent the last two years as Azubuike’s backup. The numbers from his freshman and sophomore seasons won’t exactly blow you away, but so many things point to a breakout season from the 6-10, 265-pounder.
Victim of crowded frontcourt and lack of shooting
First off, let’s start with the reason why McCormack’s impact has been relatively limited, particularly last year, other than the simple fact he was coming off the bench.
Kansas had an abundance of slashers but a lack of shooters (132nd nationally in three-point percentage). So, despite the individual effectiveness of Azubuike, McCormack, and de Sousa, the team’s offense was much more efficient when only one of them was on the court at the same time. Having two traditional bigs in the middle clogged the lane for KU’s perimeter players, giving them less and worse opportunities to attack the rim.
As the senior and best defender, Azubuike was the focal point of Self’s frontcourt rotation (as he should have been, I might add). That’s why McCormack only averaged 14.7 minutes per game despite starting on 18 occasions. A solid portion of his minutes also came in stretches playing alongside Azubuike or de Sousa, limiting his opportunities even further.
That is not expected to happen in 2020-21. Self has indicated that he plans to use four perimeter players “most of the time” with only one big on the interior. McCormack will be that one big when he’s healthy, meaning it’s now his show in the middle.
Per 40-minute stats vs. Azubuike
If you did a little deeper, his per-minute production actually almost put him on par with Azubuike. Here are their per 40-minute averages from 2019-20:
McCormack: 18.9 ppg, 11.3 rpg,1.1 bpg
Azubuike: 19.1 ppg, 15.1 rpg 3.7 bpg
McCormack isn’t the type of rim protector Azubuike was, but he’s every bit the inside presence with a different style of game. I know there’s a disparity in rebounding as well but, keep in mind, a good portion of McCormack’s minutes came alongside Azubuike where he was mostly positioned in the middle.
Offensively, the Norfolk native already has a more developed post game than his predecessor, which should cause the Jayhawks to actually *gasps* throw it down low and let McCormack go to work with his back to the basket. He also excels as a lob-catcher off pick-and-roll sets, as you can see in the first two minutes of the video below. We should see a lot of that, too, considering Garrett ranked 4th in the Big 12 in assist rate and is an excellent pick-and-roll distributor.
Bill Self’s lineage of great bigs
When looking at player comps to McCormack’s per 40-minute statistics, several past Kansas big men — Darrell Arthur, Thomas Robinson, Perry Ellis — popped up with similar numbers before their breakout seasons.
That is a leading indicator for what might be the biggest reason for McCormack’s expected breakout in Bill Self’s lineage of coaching excellent big men since he took the job in Lawrence.
Just in the past decade (2010-20), KU had six different big men earn All-American honors in Cole Aldrich, Marcus Morris, Robinson, Jeff Withey, Ellis, and Azubuike. That doesn’t even include Joel Embiid, who was drafted the highest (3rd overall) of any Bill Self-coached big and has had the most successful NBA career.
Self’s track record is even more impressive when he’s dealing with a McDonald’s All-American, which McCormack was in 2018. He was/is the 11th McDonald’s All-American frontcourt player to suit up for Bill Self at Kansas (Billy Preston never played for the Jayhawks) and of those previous 10, five were All-Americans and another was an all-conference performer. Two of the other four transferred out (David Padgett, Bragg) while the other two (Cliff Alexander, Cheick Diallo) only spent one year in college.
McCormack is a rising junior, giving him three years of tutelage under Self. Those are the kind of players that have been successful in the middle for Kansas over the last 17 seasons.
The Jayhawks have enough talent to contend for a Big 12 championship no matter what. That’s one of the perks of being Kansas and having the kind of players they do. But, if they’re going to compete for a national championship once again, they need McCormack to be an absolute star inside – and all signs point to him delivering.
Brian Rauf is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com. His content has been featured by Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, and FanSided, among other publications. Rauf is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.