LAWRENCE — Kevin McCullar has prepared to face Kansas before.
McCullar, who started his college basketball career at Texas Tech, detailed the scout the Red Raiders had for the Jayhawks in two parts. On the offensive end, he saw a team that moved the ball well. On the defensive end, he saw a team that played with physicality.
The last time the two sides faced off, Kansas got the better of Texas Tech in the Big 12 Conference tournament’s championship game. McCullar and the Red Raiders lost 74-65, before going on to make a run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. The Jayhawks went on to win the national title.
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But when those two sides meet again this upcoming season, McCullar will do so as a part of Kansas’ effort to defend its share of the Big 12 regular-season crown. Because McCullar, drawn in part to the Jayhawks by the way they play offensively, transferred to Kansas after the season. And McCullar, who reported to campus in Lawrence after removing his name from the NBA draft process, seems to have bought in to the plan in place for him with the Jayhawks as he tries to take the next step in his career.
“To me, he’s the perfect fit if you want to play interchangeable parts on the perimeter,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of McCullar, listed at 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds. “… He’s not a point guard, I don’t think, but he can play point. That’s obviously something that he’s done. But if you have some point-guard skills, and you’re big enough to play the 2-3-4 type deal, then you may have something special going on. And that’s what we thought all along. We thought he’d fit us as well as anybody possibly could that was in the portal from a style standpoint.”
Going through the pre-draft process, McCullar had his sights set on either Gonzaga or Kansas if he returned to college. He said he didn’t even have time to take a visit prior to choosing the Jayhawks because of everything he was trying to get done in the pre-draft process ahead of the withdrawal deadline. Now he has a chance to be coached by a two-time national champion head coach in Self, who McCullar feels can help him reach the next level while also trying to add another title in the process.
When McCullar heard about Self referring to him as a “perfect fit,” he pointed to how he can guard positions 1-through-4 and potentially even 1-through-5. McCullar expressed confidence in Self being able to bring the best out of him.
McCullar said NBA teams liked the size he had for his position and his versatility. They liked how he competes on both ends of the floor and makes winning plays. They’re looking for lockdown defenders at that level, and this past season he was a semifinalist for the Naismith defensive player of the year award.
What NBA teams are looking for him to improve upon is his ability to knock down shots and improve his offensive numbers. McCullar, who battled an injury this past season at times, shot just 40.2% from the field and 31.1% from behind the arc as a redshirt junior. At Kansas, he believes he can make that happen.
“It felt good, knowing I’m right there to my ultimate goal and my dream since I’ve been a little kid,” said McCullar, noting how if he can stay healthy he’s been told he can play in the NBA for a long time. “So, just knocking on the doorstep. But now I’m here at Kansas and ready to try to run it back.”
Should McCullar help lead the Jayhawks to back-to-back national championships, he’ll do so alongside a longtime friend. Both he and Jalen Wilson, who also withdrew from the NBA draft process to come back to college at Kansas, are from the state of Texas. The two grew up playing video games together and are now roommates.
McCullar said they’ve only ever played against each other. So this’ll be the first chance they have to play together. And McCullar, like Self and others, is confident the two of them can be leaders for this program this upcoming season.
“We’ve been in college for a while now,” said McCullar, who said the two talked with each other during the pre-draft process. “We know the ins and outs of the Big 12. Every night’s going to be a battle. Just helping the young guys come along as well, and they’re great and talented as well, and helping them get adjusted and all around just make winning plays. And I feel like we’re so versatile, it’ll be really fun and really good to play with him.”
Dajuan Harris Jr., another player set to be a leader for the Jayhawks, sees McCullar as someone who’s both a great defender and an all-around talent who can fill the role Christian Braun had. Braun is poised to be selected in the upcoming NBA draft.
KJ Adams Jr., coming off his freshman season in Lawrence, described McCullar as a wing who’s capable of providing what Kansas lost to the draft, too. Joseph Yesufu, who transferred in from Drake ahead of this past season, highlighted how he feels McCullar can score at all three levels and defend.
“I was always taught from my dad just to play on both ends of the floor,” McCullar said. “It’s about affecting winning, so doing the little things that help win games. And I definitely have a chip on my shoulder on the defensive end, for sure.”
The Jayhawks will likely need every bit of that chip when they visit Texas Tech this upcoming season. The Red Raiders were among the handful of teams to beat Kansas this past season. That loss for Self and company came in Lubbock, Texas, in a game McCullar didn’t play.
McCullar said he isn’t worried about any potential animosity from the fan base. However, he said that he knows the game will be intense.
“Nothing but love for Tech and everything, I laid my heart on the line for them,” McCullar said. “So, it’ll be good just going back there and competing. It’s basketball at the end of the day, so I’ll be looking forward to it for sure.”
Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas Athletics at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.