Begin again

Hoops hopes to pick up where 2020 left off

Jayhawk Sports Marcus Garrett
Photograph by Steve Puppe

When last seen, men’s basketball was on a serious roll. The Jayhawks finished their regular season 28-3 overall and, at 17-1, won their 19th Big12 regular season title, reclaiming their perennial spot atop the conference after placing third in 2019 with six losses. The ’Hawks were ranked No. 1 in the country and, with the Big 12 Tournament set to tip in Kansas City, looked to be the consensus pick as the NCAA Tournament’s top overall seed.

“We put ourselves in a position maybe to be that,”coach Bill Self said March 9, “but who knows what will happen?”

Exactly nobody.

After two high-seed games March 11, the Big 12 announced that subsequent games would be closed to fans and even bands and cheer squads; the following morning, two hours before KU’s scheduled opener against Oklahoma State, the conference first announced a delay to the first game of the day while it considered more drastic actions, then called the whole thing off.

“Everything happened so fast, and I remember like it was yesterday,” says junior forward David McCormack. “We were ready to play the game, everybody was getting dressed up, and it was just, OK, pushed back … then, no fans … then all of a sudden, it’s gone.”

The NCAA followed shortly thereafter, and, just like that, KU’s national championship dreams were done. Players left for their first spring break ever, then didn’t see each other again until August.

Bill Self insists he hasn’t allowed himself to stew over the abrupt end to his 17th season as KU’s coach—“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”—but players, facing limits to the number of opportunities they’ll have to make history, profess a different perspective.

“Guys who were on that team are still hungry,”says senior guard Marcus Garrett. “We didn’t get to finish what we wanted.”

As a unanimous selection for the Preseason All-Big 12 Team, Garrett would naturally be considered a team leader. Two complications: Self generally prefers that team leaders, especially guards, be comfortable being vocal, and Garrett is so quiet as to make Frank Mason III seem chatty; and, more crucially, leadership this season also means helping guide the team through COVID-19.

Under guidelines issued in September—and subject to change—the NCAA is asking all schools to limit full access to men’s and women’s basketball programs to 15 players and about 25 to 30 people overall; should any person within the so-called “Tier 1” inner bubble test positive for coronavirus, the team quarantines for 14 days.

“We told [players] that we need to be very smart come August and September, and now that we’re in October and November, we need to be as bright as we’ve ever been,” Self says. “Think about this: If your entire team has to quarantine for 14 days and you’re expected to play games the first week you come back, you have absolutely no chance to be successful, for the most part, as far as from a technical standpoint or a playing standpoint, because you’ll be out of shape and you’ll have no rhythm.

“One or two mishaps could set a team back for a month, and in that month’s time your regular season, or your chance to win a league, could basically be taken away.”

Which is why leadership is more valuable than ever, and why Self says he took a proactive step in asking Garrett whether he’s willing to take it on.

“To me, Marcus should make this his team, but if he makes it his team, it’s a responsibility that he owns, that he’s responsible for everybody else,”Self says. “If he’s not willing to do that then it’s not really his team.”

Garrett, in his laconic way, says he accepted the challenge, gladly. “It means a lot. I’ve learned from a lot of good leaders who have come through and been fortunate enough to play with. It’s definitely a big challenge with everything being different, but when we get on the court it’s still basketball, so I’m just going out there and try to lead the best way I know how.”

Last season’s Naismith Defensive Player of theYear and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Garrett led the Big 12 in assists, with 4.6 per game, and assist-to-turnover ratio, 2.7. He averaged 9.2 points,4.5 rebounds and 4.5 deflections, and was fifth in the conference with 1.8 steals per game.

With a backcourt that features height and length—Garrett and junior Ochai Agbaji are 6 feet 5, junior transfer Tyon Grant-Foster is 6-7, sophomore Christian Braun is 6-6, and freshman Bryce Thompson is 6-5—Garrett says that when the team “locks in,” KU “can be great defensively again.”

But the keystone is in the frontcourt, where McCormack takes over for 7-footer Udoka Azubuike, 2020 Big 12 Player of the Year and the NCAA’s all-time field goal percentage leader (79.4%). Garrett says he’s been reminding McCormack about his rim-protection responsibilities without asking him to be the next Azubuike.

“Dok was great at that, but I also feel David can protect the rim, too,” Garrett says. “That’s the biggest thing I try to tell him. If not block it, at least try to make the offense take a contested shot.”

When he appeared in KU’s online Media Day teleconference in mid-October, McCormack offered immediate visual evidence that he had prepared long and hard. His already impressive physique was noticeably altered, with a lean, muscular and thoroughly athletic appearance.

“There’s an advantage for me in isolation,” McCormack says of a summer spent away from his teammates and coaches. “Anytime I’m isolated, I’m focused and locked in. I have my racehorse blinders on. If I’m home there’s no reason to be lazy. Attack, eat right, that’s what I’ve been doing as far as changing my body, putting on muscle, leaning out, dropping weight, all those things in order to be a better player.”

A flurry of schedule changes left KU wondering when it might play the Champions Classic event with Kentucky (as Kansas Alumni went to press, the Wildcats’ new schedule had the game Dec. 1, site to be determined), but a Thanksgiving matchup with Gonzaga—broadcast by Fox Sports from Fort Myers, Florida—and Saint Joseph’s the following day, had been confirmed. KU and Gonzaga were ranked 1 and 2 in the AP’s final 2020 poll.

The Big 12 also moved up the conference season to leave wiggle room for in-season changes, so KU opens conference play Dec. 17 at Texas Tech. The first Big 12 home game is Dec. 22 against West Virginia. Reports have surfaced of KU Athletics informing season ticket holders that attendance would be limited to 1,500 fans dispersed throughout Allen Field House, although that had yet to be confirmed as of press time