These Jayhawks weren’t top recruits, but they evolved into champions


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NEW ORLEANS — David McCormack didn’t arrive at Kansas as a surefire star, but now he’ll always be one — in Lawrence and inside the mind of every Jayhawks fan who celebrated this national title. McCormack started his career four years ago, a bit overshadowed by the hype of others who joined him in that freshman class, and he gradually climbed into a key role, battling injuries along the way. And now he has risen to the mountaintop of this sport and Kansas lore.

The teammates celebrating around him understand. They’ve shared a similar ascent. These are Jayhawks who just kept getting better through their careers, becoming a title-worthy squad and one that could storm back from a massive deficit with skill and composure. Look at Ochai Agbaji, considered the 132nd-best player in his high school class, screaming into the crowd and hugging everyone in sight as blue and red confetti rained down inside the Superdome. He’s now among the best players in the country, a senior on this Kansas team that took down North Carolina, 72-69, to win the national title.

Agbaji didn’t even need to have a standout night for his team to lift the trophy, a testament to the well-roundedness of the group. Christian Braun offered a burst early in the second half that made a lopsided deficit suddenly seem manageable. Remy Martin, a fifth-year player, then took over with his own heroics in the form of three shots from beyond the arc, all of which came immediately after the Tar Heels had tied the score. And then McCormack finished the job. He made two baskets in the final 81 seconds, erasing the Tar Heels’ narrow lead and turning it into a Kansas victory.

McCormack averaged 3.9 points as a freshman, then 6.9 as a sophomore. But here on the biggest stage in his senior season, he left the court with the net around his neck. In the final two games of this tournament, he totaled 40 points with 19 rebounds. Agbaji, who was officially named the Final Four’s most outstanding player, said McCormack deserved that honor.

Jayhawks fans took to the streets of Lawerence, Kansas, on April 4 after the men’s national championship win over North Carolina. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Jayhawks needed the resilience of an experienced team filled with players waiting for this moment. McCormack smiled at halftime, when Kansas faced a 40-25 deficit, and Braun asked: “Why are you smiling, dude? We’re down 15.”

McCormack responded with confidence: “Keep your head up. Keep going. We’ll be all right. We’ve been here before.”

Braun, a junior guard, quipped back with a dose of honesty: “Man, I don’t know if I’ve ever been here before. Down 15 in a national championship game?”

A national title seemed imminent for the eighth-seeded Tar Heels. But then the Jayhawks stormed back against an injury-hampered North Carolina team. These Kansas veterans refused to relent.

“With a group of guys as experienced as this and have been around and know each other so well, it’s kind of hard to see us get rattled,” said Mitch Lightfoot, a sixth-year Jayhawk.

The Kansas program that sits on a tier among the bluest of blue bloods made it to this pinnacle not with one-and-done, NBA-ready freshmen but with upperclassmen who have improved throughout their college careers. These stars are bound for the NBA, but they’ll make it there thanks to how they’ve grown.

Though their paths to prominence shaped the personality of this group, the Jayhawks were self-aware enough to not play the underdog card: “Obviously, we’re at Kansas,” Braun said, seemingly mindful that few would look at any Jayhawks team and fall for a tale that romanticizes their unheralded pasts. But that narrative might have some merit — at least for this Kansas squad.

“We were overlooked a little bit in high school,” said Braun, the No. 130 recruit in his class as ranked by 247Sports. “And that’s fine. It’s just development. And we’re competitive.”

They proved that here in their gutsy second half. And they drew from that experience to make it to the championship game, when all the conversation and excitement around the Final Four gravitated toward the showdown between Duke and North Carolina.

Braun remembers his coach telling the group: “Nobody’s talking about us. That’s perfect.”

Agbaji said his career “shows a lot about running your own race.” He arrived at Kansas as a four-star recruit, considered just the 33rd-best player at his position in his graduating class. This season he was one of the best college players in the country.

Agbaji’s freshman class included a pair of five-star prospects in Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson. Grimes spent a year at Kansas before transferring to Houston, and Dotson played two seasons of college ball before jumping to the professional ranks.

As Coach Bill Self notes now, “The headliners were not David McCormack and Ochai Agbaji.”

But they’ll be remembered as the headliners of this title-winning crew.

Self’s rotation featured no players in the top 30 of 247Sports’ rankings of the best Kansas recruits since 2000. When Kansas won the national title in 2008, the Jayhawks did so with Darrell Arthur, Mario Chalmers and Sherron Collins — all five-star prospects. This group fits a different mold.

With a cloud hanging over the program because of an ongoing investigation related to recruiting violations, Self’s recent signing classes slipped a bit in the national rankings. The Jayhawks became more reliant on development and finding these future pros who just need a couple years in college first.

“We probably aren’t the most talented group [Self has] had, but we are very confident,” Braun said. “I think that takes us a long way.”

Analysis of the men’s national championship game

After last season, when the Jayhawks suffered a lopsided loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Self knew his team needed to change. Martin joined as a transfer from Arizona State, adding what Self described as speed, personality and explosiveness to the roster. Martin served as a spark off the bench, lifting the Jayhawks with offensive bursts throughout this tournament and in the most important game. But Self’s primary starters were all players from last year’s team. They evolved and gave Kansas the improvements it needed.

“You are connected to your one-and-dones or your two-and-dones or whatever it is,” Self said. “You care for them and love them just as much as anybody else. But there’s something about being able to see a player grow up right in front of your eyes.”

That time together — with the coaching staff and one another — leads to lessons from shared experiences. These players remember how it felt when they were bound to earn a No. 1 seed and the 2020 tournament was canceled. They remember last year, when they didn’t make it out of the tournament’s first weekend. They returned with that experience, those disappointing memories, vowing to find something more. They were adamant a Final Four berth wasn’t enough. They wanted this moment, the one with the championship trophy and confetti cluttering the court. And after years together, they finally could enjoy it all.


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