Redshirt senior guard Kevin McCullar Jr. likely wouldn’t have been the saving grace of a 76-56 loss, but if there were any outstanding questions on his value to a team looking to repeat, they were answered on Saturday.
Kansas men’s basketball played without McCullar for Saturday’s Big 12 Championship game against Texas after he pulled himself in the Iowa State contest due to back spasms. The guard had been struggling with back issues dating back to the season finale against Texas, and Saturday wasn’t even the first time in the Big 12 Tournament that he wasn’t starting.
McCullar did not start against West Virginia in the tournament’s quarterfinal but ultimately came off the bench and played a monumental role in defending West Virginia’s best shooter in fifth-year guard Erik Stevenson. Stevenson has led the Mountaineers in shooting at 43.8% and points per game at 15.5 and had been on a hot streak entering the quarterfinal to average 23.5 points per game in the last six regular-season contests.
Nonetheless, McCullar and the Jayhawks defended the guard to limit him to just 13 points on Thursday while silencing him in yet another category he excels in– Stevenson also leads West Virginia with 38.1% three-point shooting but was held to just 1-for-7 from deep in the Jayhawks’ 78-61 victory.
Following the most recent regular-season meeting against West Virginia, head coach Bill Self even went on to call McCullar one of the two best defenders in his postgame press conference, accompanied by redshirt junior guard Dajuan Harris.
No surprise — losing one of the team’s top two defenders is going to end up hurting.
The absence of McCullar also brought an overall lack of defense in the loss to the Longhorns. Three Texas starters collected at least 15 points: Senior forward Dylan Disu recorded 18, and graduate guards Marcus Carr and Sir’Jabari Rice followed closely behind with 17 each.
Disu, Carr, and Rice were all named to the Big 12 All-Tournament Team, with Disu taking home Most Outstanding Player honors.
Outside of the three All-Tournament Team members, the Longhorns' depth was showcased against a lost Kansas defense, with the bench collecting 20 points in the contest.
“We didn’t guard the way we needed to,” acting head coach Norm Roberts said. “We’re not going to make any excuses; they played the same amount of games we played. No excuses.”
Postgame comments from both Roberts and other Jayhawks reflected the impact that McCullar has on this team, including comments from redshirt junior Jalen Wilson. Wilson led the contest with 24 points as one of the two Jayhawks to score more than six points while cementing himself as another member of the All-Tournament team.
“Just kind of his overall game that we need, as far as rebounding and defending,” Wilson said when asked what the biggest issue of not having the guard on the floor. “Just the plays that he makes that can change the momentum of the game. We didn’t have that today.”
The Jayhawks were outrebounded for the second day in a row, as the Longhorns beat them 37-31 on the boards. McCullar averages 7.1 rebounds per game this season and has recorded eight double-doubles on the season, a feat that ranks second in the Big 12 behind only Wilson.
Junior guard Joseph Yesufu started in place of McCullar on Saturday and was the other Jayhawk to score more than six points in the game.
“You guys know Kevin is a great defender,” Yesufu said. “He’s the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. He was missed today, not only on the defensive end but on the rebounding end. We just really missed him today.”
Harris, who Self also called one of the best defenders on the team, highlighted Kansas’ struggles on the court. Harris had been one of the key aspects of the Jayhawks’ early tournament success, averaging 12 points and seven assists a game in the tournament before Saturday. But as the Longhorns seemed to have everything go right for them, that included shutting down Harris, as he only scored just six points.
For Harris, he credits much of Saturday’s struggles to the absence of what’s solidified McCullar as a glue guy for Kansas: the little things.
“He does the little things for us,” Harris said. “He rebounds for us, and he’s the best defensive player in the country, too. We miss him a lot.”
With the countdown to Selection Sunday ticking away, one thing remains on Kansas’ mind: Getting McCullar back to full health.
“He needed to rest, and we’re thinking about it for the long haul, given that the tournament is next week,” Roberts said.
The Jayhawks now await their fate for the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Selection Sunday kicks off at 5 p.m. on CBS.