Kansas was booted from the Big 12 Tournament by COVID-19. It entered the NCAA Tournament shorthanded, with leading-rebounder Jalen Wilson and reserve Tristan Enaruna ineligible to return for the team’s first round game.
Fortunately, David McCormack was cleared just in time.
After being sidelined the past two weeks by a positive COVID test and first joining his team in Indianapolis on Friday, the 6-foot-10 junior came off the bench to finish with 22 points and nine rebounds and help No. 3 seed Kansas overcome a 10-point, second-half deficit to advance past No. 14 Eastern Washington, 93-84, on Saturday.
The Jayhawks (21-8) will face UCLA in the second round. Without McCormack — the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounds, as well as the Big 12’s Most Improved Player — convincing Bill Self to ignore his plan to limit the key big man’s minutes, his coach could have suffered his first opening round loss since 2006.
McCormack, who hadn’t played since March 4, made 9 of 15 shots from the field, adding two steals, two assists and a block.
“It was pretty impressive how he played, his conditioning, considering all the stuff he’s come off of,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “He played great. It was good to see. … I didn’t think he was going to give us much offensively, or defensively, just give us five fouls.
“The guys that contracted COVID, they’ve handled it well. Their maturity level has been really high. Wasn’t a ‘woe is me.’ We told all our guys we need to play as hard as we can to make sure your teammates get a chance to experience the tournament.”
Eastern Washington (16-8) scored the game’s first nine points and took a 46-38 lead into halftime, fueled by brothers Tanner and Jacob Groves. Tanner scored a career-high 35 points, while his younger brother added 23 points and nine rebounds.
“It feels really cool that we were able to keep it pretty close here with Kansas and make it a game, give them a little bit of a scare,” Tanner said. “[Self] said he had a lot of respect for my brother and I, said we had a heck of a game. It’s really surreal that Coach Self came up to me and said he respected my performance.”
The Eagles held a 52-42 lead early in the second half, but McCormack answered with back-to-back jumpers, scoring the Jayhawks’ first eight points after the break. Soon, Marcus Garrett (20 points, eight rebounds) and Ochai Agbaji (21 points, seven rebounds) also began reminding the Big Sky Champion of their place in college basketball’s hierarchy.
“I think the staff was probably more panicked than the players were,” Self said. “This had the makings of a real pressure game. It’s good to get that one out of our system. Hopefully we’re going to have a few more of these if we’re able to play well.”
The teams were tied at 66 with less than nine minutes remaining, when McCormack scored back-to-back baskets, followed by a Garrett 3-pointer. Kansas would stretch the lead to 12 and remain comfortably ahead in the closing minutes.
“We got outplayed for the majority of the game. They were better than us,” Self said. “Somehow or another we kind of hung in there and made some plays at the right time.”
Originally published at https://nypost.com/2021/03/20/march-madness-kansas-dashes-eastern-washingtons-upset-bid/ on .