Kansas center David McCormack battled through a slow start last season to become an All-Big 12 candidate by year's end. And if No. 9 Kansas' 85-59 victory over West Virginia on Saturday was any indication, the latter version of McCormack is still available to the Jayhawks.
McCormack set season-highs in points (19) and rebounds (15, 10 offensive), giving Kansas (14-2 3-1 Big 12) a glimpse of the player who ended last season on a high note.
Playing its second consecutive game without point guard Remy Martin, the Jayhawks struggled out of the gate offensively, but were able to turn up the heat in transition in the second half.
Both teams needed their benches in the first half. Malik Curry helped to add charge to a West Virginia team that struggled to score, putting in 10 first-half points and adding an assist. And when Kansas' Dajuan Harris picked up his second foul and backup Bobby Pettiford committed two quick turnovers and was whistled for a foul, the Jayhawks found a temporary steadying presence in Joseph Yesufu. He helped steer the ship as Kansas overcame an eight-point first-half deficit to take a 33-31 halftime lead.
That lead became a 42-31 Kansas advantage early in the second half on a 3-pointer from Ochai Agbaji, and the Jayhawks were off, building a 20-point edge by starting the half on a 29-11 run. The Mountaineers (13-3, 2-2) never pulled closer than 14 points afterward.
West Virginia star Taz Sherman, who entered the game ranked second in the Big 12 in scoring at 19.9 points per game, didn't make his first field goal until the 5:06 mark of the second half and finished with five points. It marked a strong defensive showing for a Kansas team that has vacillated between playable and indifferent on that end this season.
Jalen Wilson scored 16 of his 23 points in the second half, while Agbaji chipped in 20. Curry paced West Virginia with 23.
Here are three takeaways from the Jayhawks' victory:
Kansas' frontcourt shines
The Jayhawks' strength resides in their backcourt, and particularly in wings Agbaji and Christian Braun. But with both players off to slow starts against West Virginia, McCormack and Wilson looked like the best versions of themselves.
Wilson started off last year strong and earned some early season All-America mention, averaging 16.3 points and nine rebounds per game through the first second contests. But he faded as the season went on, ironically as McCormack began to take off.
McCormack averaged 14.2 points per conference game last year and rescued the Jayhawks in their NCAA Tournament win over Eastern Washington, returning from a COVID-19 absence to score 22 points and grab nine rebounds off the bench.
Neither player excelled to start 2021-22, though Wilson has now scored at least 20 in two of his last three games, and McCormack backed up Kansas coach Bill Self's praise late this week by producing on the court. If the Jayhawks are going to continue to play shorthanded, getting those kinds of performances from Wilson and McCormack become vital.
Martin out again
It sounds strange to say after a 26-point win over a team sitting just outside the AP Top 25 — the Mountaineers are fourth in the 'others receiving votes' category — but the Jayhawks miss the guard transfer out of Arizona State, who missed the game with a knee injury. Martin gasses the Jayhawks up in transition thanks to his own quickness and his ability to get the ball upcourt with a timely pass ahead, but he's also Kansas' most creative player in the halfcourt and one of the Jayhawks' few options to break down a set defense.
Self referred Friday to Martin's injury as, "Day-to-day or week-to-week," and he's played 20 or more minutes just once in the five games since New Year's Day. He continued to answer questions about Martin's status after Saturday's win, calling it a bone bruise and noting that, "On this particular situation, I actually know a helluva-f---ing lot more than — excuse my language — some other people out there."
"If it feels good he'll go. If it doesn't he won't," Self added. "And it didn't today."
Kansas didn't need Martin against West Virginia, but the longer his injury absence lasts, the bigger a question Martin's status becomes heading into March. Kansas' positioning as a potential national title contender could depend on the answer.
West Virginia gets down big again
Facing double-digit deficits has been the name of the Mountaineers' season so far—each of West Virginia's three losses have come by at least 11 points, and the Mountaineers have come back from at least 10 points down to win on four other occasions.
Those deficits happen when a team lacks consistency offensively, and West Virginia, which now ranks 104th in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency, is prone to droughts on that end. Saturday's game was more than a drought—the Mountaineers shot 27% from the floor, 22.2% from 3-point range and had 12 turnovers against 17 made field goals.
The Mountaineers are 13-3 this season, but must clear a large offensive stability hurdle to finish in the Big 12's top half.
On the positive side, Curry added offensive pop off the bench against Kansas. If Curry can provide a more consistent weapon moving forward, perhaps the Mountaineers can start limiting those gaps in scoring. After all, Sherman isn't typically going to be a non-factor offensively himself.