A year ago, Kansas crashed out of the Big Dance in its first weekend in embarrassing fashion, an 85–51 defeat against USC. Afterwards, Bill Self proclaimed his team needed to get more athletic, longer and bigger in order to contend for a national championship. And perhaps the most obvious matchup weakness in that game for the Jayhawks was center David McCormack, who was matched up with future No. 3 pick Evan Mobley and tallied just five points on 2-of-4 shooting.
“Coach felt that was a game of aggression, a game of bullying, of how bad you really wanted it,” McCormack said Friday. “We knew going into this tournament that we don’t want to have that same feeling and have coach say those same things so that’s why we had to be the aggressor, be dominant and that’s why I think we were more defensive this year.”
Kansas did make some additions via the transfer portal, but all five starters in Saturday’s game were on the floor for that drubbing a season ago. They looked plenty athletic enough against Villanova to win a national title, and there’s no question who the primary aggressor was today: McCormack. The Jayhawks went to their big man early and often and were rewarded, as McCormack scored nine points in the first 10 minutes as KU asserted itself early.
“Once the first fell and the second fell, I knew I could just kind of dominate the game inside,” McCormack said.
His loudest moment came with just over 10 minutes to play, when he slammed home a thunderous poster dunk in the face of Villanova’s Jermaine Samuels. But McCormack’s most important play of the night, and perhaps the most important play by anyone in the game, was a timely offensive rebound and subsequent hook shot after Villanova had trimmed the deficit to six with less than six minutes to play. It was one of the few moments in the game when it truly felt like the Wildcats had a chance to make a comeback, and the extra possession and bucket seemed to swing things back in KU’s favor. That started a decisive 11–1 run that stretched the Jayhawks’ lead to 16 to seal Villanova’s fate.
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At times throughout McCormack’s Kansas career, Self has been questioned about how much of the team’s offense runs through its big man. That has only been magnified this season with Ochai Agbaji’s emergence into one of the nation’s best scorers and McCormack’s slight regression from 2020-21, averaging fewer points and shooting a worse percentage than he did a season. Even this postseason, the center had scored in double figures in just two of seven games and shot under 40% from the field in three of those games. But Self’s confidence in his senior center never wavered, and that confidence paid off in a big way in New Orleans.
“He was our guy from the jump,” Self said. “I’ve said all along he’s the one guy on our team that can get 15 and 10 just by being a presence. Tonight he got 25 and nine. He was fabulous.”
In McCormack’s 29 minutes, the Jayhawks outscored Villanova by 25 points. The Wildcats’ biggest run of the game came in the final six minutes of the first half after Self sent McCormack to the bench with two fouls. But when he was on the floor, KU was mostly unstoppable. With Agbaji red-hot from three (he made his first six shots from beyond the arc) and McCormack dominating down low, a stout Villanova defense had no answer. Kansas scored a monstrous 1.5 points per possession, the most allowed by Villanova since Dec. 2017.
From touted top-40 recruit to following in the massive footsteps of Udoka Azubuike to dealing with multiple injuries and senior year struggles, McCormack has had the type of roundabout career no elite high school prospect would script for themselves. But in the biggest game of his college career, the veteran had perhaps his finest game. And now, he’ll get the chance to end that story with a national championship.
“It’s been a journey, it’s definitely been a time of ups and downs,” McCormack said Friday. “There’s been frustration, celebration, but I wouldn’t have gone through it with any other team, any other coaching staff.”
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