KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Midway through the second half, you could see a season’s worth of playing through injuries wearing on Kansas forward David McCormack.
It was just after he scored a basket. He started favoring his leg as he jogged down the floor. It was subtle. But it was there.
And, yet, he kept going.
McCormack scored a team-high 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the 74-65 victory over Texas Tech in the Big 12 Championship game. He played 29 minutes, more minutes than he played in the Jayhawks’ fist two Big 12 Tournament games combined.
That was the plan, though. Kansas head coach Bill Self wanted to limit McCormack’s minutes as much as he could, especially early in the tournament. Because Kansas had two relatively easy wins in the quarterfinals against West Virginia and in the semifinals against TCU, he was able to insulate the wear and tear on McCormack.
McCormack played a combined 23 minutes in those two games and scored a combined 14 points.
Self needed to “catch a break,” as he put it. And the Jayhawks did.
But, in the championship game, Self had to lean hard on McCormack. The matchup demanded it. Tech’s tall, physical and interchangeable front line meant McCormack had to play as much as needed, tender foot and all.
“He was terrific today,” Self said. “He put us on his back when we beat Texas last Saturday in a brawl and today was he kind of did the same thing in a pretty physical game.”
In that game against the Longhorns he had 22 points and 10 rebounds in 36 minutes in a 70-63 overtime victory.
Then another injury on Saturday demanded more from the senior. Mitch Lightfoot came up with a knee injury in the second half, one that required him to leave the game. At one point, Lightfoot couldn’t bend his leg while trying to get up off the floor.
Self said after the game that Lightfoot was ruled out of the game with a sprained knee. McCormack had to come back. The Jayhawks needed him again.
All season, McCormack has been an enigma. A great game here. A poor game there. The consistent beast that was the Big 12’s Most Improved Player last season didn’t build on that season.
In February, Self said that McCormack would not be 100 percent the rest of the season. That was the result of a broken bone McCormack had surgery for last year. He bounced back a little bit after that declaration, but then reaggravated it down the stretch of the season.
Hence Self’s plan to manage McCormack’s minutes.
He’s the X-factor for Kansas. McCormack is the only player on the roster that can do the things he can do. There’s no true backup plan if he can’t play.
Kansas knows it. The opponents know it, too.
“He’s a big load down there in the post and he can go over both shoulders, and that’s really hard to guard, especially in tournament play,” said Texas Tech’s Bryson Williams.
McCormack wasn’t on the dias with Self and his teammates, Christian Braun and Ochai Agbaji. But Agbaji remembers the bitter taste of that 2019 Big 12 Tournament title game loss to Iowa State when he and McCormack were freshmen. Both were big parts of Saturday’s win.
Agbaji knew how hard McCormack worked Saturday night. The gratitude could be felt in his voice.
“Being in that position again today, we both felt that, and it was special to win today,” Agbaji said. “He was great tonight.”
You can find Matthew Postins on Twitter @PostinsPostcard.