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Refocused KU basketball motivated by abrupt ending to promising 2019-20 campaign

Matt Galloway
mgalloway@cjonline.com
Bill Self and the Kansas men's basketball team open their upcoming season with a high-profile contest against No. 1 Gonzaga at 12:30 p.m. Thursday in Fort Myers, Fla.

LAWRENCE — The biggest losers in the cancellation of last season’s NCAA Tournament, one could argue, were those who entered that postseason as the sport’s biggest winners.

No program exemplified that lost opportunity more than Kansas.

The Jayhawks rode a 16-game winning streak into last spring’s Big 12 Tournament, an event that represented a chance to validate a league performance that saw the group post 17 victories versus just one defeat. Led by 7-foot senior center Udoka Azubuike and sophomore point guard Devon Dotson, consensus No. 1-ranked KU had likely positioned itself as the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament regardless of what unfolded that weekend at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

Then, on March 11, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, and the sports world was turned upside down. Within 24 hours, every opportunity at the Jayhawks’ fingertips had been wiped away, with players now left to chase closure rather than a national championship.

“At first it was just a hard pill to swallow just because everything happened so fast,” said forward David McCormack, now a junior. “I remember it like it was yesterday. In the hotel we were ready to play the game (versus Oklahoma State), everybody getting dressed up, and it was just, OK, pushed back, delayed, no fans. And then all of a sudden, it’s gone.

“Our team, you know, we came together. We understood what happened. There are things bigger than basketball. So we just enjoyed the time that we had together and enjoyed the season that we had. Going forward, we use this as motivation now going into this season.”

While Azubuike and Dotson departed for the NBA, those Jayhawks remaining from last year’s team, the players the program acquired in the offseason and head coach Bill Self appear to view the upcoming campaign as an opportunity to fulfill the promise of a season ago.

“I know that we all feel like there’s unfinished business left even though our team’s not the same, but how it ended last year obviously put a taste in everyone’s mouth that we want to validate what we did last year and we didn’t get a chance to with the tournament obviously,” Self said. “So we’re excited about everything.”

KU will open its season against Gonzaga at 12:30 p.m. Thursday in Fort Myers, Fla., with other high-profile nonconference clashes including dates against Kentucky (Dec. 1), Creighton (Dec. 8) and Tennessee (Jan. 30).

"We think we’ve got a good team," Self said. "I know our guys are really enjoying each other and playing together. I think we’ve got a good group.”

Self is certainly justified in his bullish outlook on the season ahead.

McCormack, tasked with replacing the Big 12 Player of the Year in Azubuike, is said to be the team’s most-improved player from a season ago. While the 6-foot-10, 265-pounder out of Norfolk, Va., won’t be able to protect the rim quite like Azubuike — few can — McCormack’s ability to drain midrange shots out of the five-spot is a tool the Jayhawks haven’t had in their arsenal over the last several seasons, a welcome addition to what will almost exclusively be a four-guard lineup.

Self said he expects McCormack to perform at an All-Big 12 level this year, with an outside shot of the former four-star recruit challenging for a spot on an All-America team by season’s end.

“I think that he’s going to get the opportunity to put up numbers, and I think he will get numbers,” Self said. “I think he’s a much-improved scorer. He’s a good shooter. His athleticism has improved. His want-to is at an all-time high. His commitment is off the charts.

“The thing about it with David, he’s not as explosive as Doke (Azubuike) in a lot of ways, but he’s got to be able to defend the paint, be a better rim protector and he’s got to stay out of foul trouble. Because you could have a talented guy, but if he’s only playing 16 minutes a game because of foul issues, it doesn’t really help you that much. So he’s got to be much better at playing with his head and his feet and not his hands, and that’s something we’ll spend a lot of time on.”

Expect the Jayhawks’ heart and soul to be senior guard Marcus Garrett, who a season ago earned honors as the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. The 6-5, 195-pounder out of Dallas has never been a prolific scorer — he’s a career 28.1% shooter from 3-point range, though that number was a more respectable 32.7% a season ago — but Garrett does a little bit of everything else, averaging 4.6 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals as a junior.

Self believes Garrett “should make this his team,” a challenge the latter said he has embraced.

“Guys that were on that team (last year), they came back still hungry,” Garrett said. “We didn’t get to finish what we wanted.”

Self acknowledged there isn’t a surefire NBA Draft lottery-type player on this year’s roster, but depth should be a strength for the group, particularly on the wing.

Junior Ochai Agbaji and sophomore Christian Braun, who shot 33.8% and 44.4%, respectively, from beyond the arc a season ago, are candidates to lead the team in scoring. Sophomore Jalen Wilson, a former Michigan signee that as a freshman appeared in just two games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury, has transformed his body and mindset, Self said. Five-star recruit Bryce Thompson enters his first collegiate season with a noteworthy pedigree — his father, Rod, played for Self while at Tulsa in the 1990s.

“Bryce has been absolutely terrific. Incredibly bright, great feel,” Self said. “He’s not by any stretch where he needs to be, but as far as being prepared to be a freshman here, he’s probably as prepared as anybody we’ve had. So I’m very excited about him.”

Other noteworthy players among KU’s list of expected contributors include fifth-year senior forward Mitch Lightfoot, junior guard and first-year Jayhawk Tyon Grant-Foster and sophomore guard/forward Tristan Enaruna, with guards Dajuan Harris and Latrell Jossell and forward Gethro Muscadin also expected to see playing time.

Regardless of how this season unfolds, last year’s Jayhawks will remain one of college basketball’s biggest “what-ifs,” particularly given the dark cloud that looms over the program's future.

KU is embroiled in an infractions battle with the NCAA, which has accused the blue-blood power of committing five Level I violations in recruiting. At the request of KU, that case in July moved to the new Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP), a panel that is expected to rule on the tangled situation in the coming months.

Despite that uncertainty, Self insists he hasn’t been consumed by last season’s abrupt ending, with a pandemic shutting down what could’ve been the program’s first national championship since the 2007-08 campaign. While he’s confident that last year’s team had a great shot of making at least the Elite Eight, Self noted “some deficiencies offensively,” as well as the crapshoot nature of the NCAA Tournament, in explaining why it shouldn’t be assumed those Jayhawks would’ve simply cakewalked to Atlanta.

“Yeah, I’m disappointed we didn’t get a chance to validate what the guys had accomplished during the regular season, but it’s not something I’ve dwelled on at all,” Self said. “I think there’s more important things out there than that right now, as important as that is to all of us, but if I’m asking our guys to be mature about it, I think the coaching staff should be, as well.”