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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Starting center Udoka Azubuike’s impact could fluctuate from game to game

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) fights for position over Davidson forward Nathan Ekwu (1) during the second half, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016 at Sprint Center.

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) fights for position over Davidson forward Nathan Ekwu (1) during the second half, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016 at Sprint Center.

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At times Kansas center Udoka Azubuike, who started his sixth consecutive game for the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks on Saturday night at Sprint Center, looks more like an unstoppable post presence than a 17-year-old adolescent still learning the demands of playing for one of the nation’s elite college basketball programs.

When, less than two minutes in against Davidson, Azubuike launched his 7-foot, 280-pound frame skyward in order to finish a lob pass from Frank Mason III by crushing a two-handed slam, the young big appeared on his way to another promising night.

However, he committed two personal fouls before the first media timeout, prompting coach Bill Self to invite him to the bench for the remainder of the half. By the conclusion of KU’s 89-71 victory, Azubuike had barely spent any more time on the court. Self elected to start senior Landen Lucas to open the second half, and Azubuike only logged seven total minutes, contributing five points and no rebounds.

Even so, his coach didn’t fume while discussing the freshman center’s mostly forgettable evening.

“You know what? Dok didn’t play bad,” Self offered, shortly after Kansas improved to 10-1 on the season. “He just got two fouls early. And if you start Dok the second half, he gets his third, he’s done for a while. I just thought we’d at least delay him getting his third foul, at least a couple minutes. And of course it only took two minutes after he got in there to get the third one.”

As the smirking 14th-year KU coach referenced, Azubuike, after spending more than 20 game minutes on the bench, didn’t return to the court until 14:36 remained in the second half. The gargantuan teenager made one of two free throws, turned the ball over and committed his third foul in his two second-half minutes, before sitting for the final 12:20.

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Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) comes down from a dunk against Davidson during the first half, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016 at Sprint Center.

The same player who finished two dunks in the first five minutes turned into a non-factor.

“You know, it’s tough,” junior guard Devonte’ Graham said of Azubuike’s evening. “As a freshman you really don’t know how to take that and stuff like that. But coach is talking to him. He understands why he wasn’t playing, didn’t start the second half because we didn’t want to get him in quick foul trouble. But Landen started playing real good, so we just had to keep Landen in.”

Asked if Azubuike needs to do something in particular to see extended minutes — more along the lines of the 23 he played against UNC Asheville and Long Beach State, or the 16 he spent on the floor against Nebraska — Self said he wasn’t opposed to using his starter against Davidson (5-4). The game just led him in another direction.

“We could’ve played him some the first half (with two fouls),” Self said. “But if we’re gonna play four guards, which we knew we were going to this game because of matchups and what (the Wildcats) like to do offensively, then to me there was really no reason to put him back in there unless Landen and Carlton (Bragg) got in foul trouble.”

Therein lies the tricky part of Kansas utilizing what have proven to be effective perimeter-oriented lineups, featuring just one traditional frontcourt player. When Self scanned the box score after the victory, he didn’t see Azubuike’s stat line of 2-for-2 field goals, 1-for-2 free throws, no rebounds, three fouls, five points and one turnover in seven minutes. The coach lumped that output together with the numbers produced by Lucas, Bragg and Mitch Lightfoot, and arrived at 22 points and 16 rebounds in 50 minutes.

“We’re gonna be pretty good if we can get that production,” Self said, while crediting Lucas and Bragg for doing most of the damage — combining for 15 points and 16 boards in 39 minutes.

The reality for KU post players such as Azubuike is they likely will have to live with their productivity and overall impact fluctuating from game to game, as Graham explained.

“It’s tough on the bigs, ’cause if all four of us (guards) are on the court, there’s really only one other spot for another two or three guys who play that spot. But their attitudes are great,” Graham added, “and when they get into the game they just try to contribute as best they can.”

Another one of KU’s veteran guards, Mason, said Azubuike could safeguard himself against extended time on the bench by focusing on providing the team with some big-man essentials: “Rebounding the ball, blocking shots, altering shots, just sprinting, running the floor every possession and getting angles,” the senior leader said. “We need him to do those things first.”

With the encouragement of teammates and coaches, Mason added, Azubuike picks up on those elements of the game daily and continues to improve.

While the massive freshman works to grow his repertoire, there figures to be days when he provides the Jayhawks with exactly what they need. And other days he might not.

As Self said after Azubuike played single-digit minutes for the first time as a starter: “I thought Dok did fine. I just thought the other guys were a little bit better.”

Comments

Dirk Medema 9 months, 1 week ago

It is a very similar situation as for Vick. Starting or not, you have to realize the value the teams needs you to add, and be 100% bought in to providing it. As Landen rounds back into form, and Carlton grows into his own contribution, it is hard to imagine Dok getting big minutes going forward, but he still has to be a big contributor when he is on the court.

Oh, and LOVE the photo. Great job Nick!

Barry Weiss 9 months, 1 week ago

I like Coach's decision to start Dok. It sets an early tone for the opposing team should they try to drive or get it inside. Dok's strength is his size and altering shots so to set that in the minds of the opponents early may stick with them, even if Landon has come in after several minutes and is then back there.

Dee Shaw 9 months, 1 week ago

I have had the pleasure to attend a few KU games this season and have seats close to the court. This young mans size and presence is impressive. It's hard to believe that he's only 17 years old. For as big as Dok is I was impressed with his quickness and light feet. Once the game slows down for him I think the fouls will come down. Can't imagine Dok in a few years, adding more strength, size and quickness. Seems to be a kid you want as a teammate. Keep up the hardwork Dok and you will be awarded someday.

Robert Brock 9 months, 1 week ago

It's about skills and knowledge. Azubuike is going to have to learn a lot before he is a reliable center including basic stuff like getting and maintaining position. He is beaten to position and out-rebounded by 6'7 guys. Eventually, he will get it.

Harlan Hobbs 9 months, 1 week ago

Very good insight, Barry. Fortunately, KU has so many talented players that Coach Self can afford to give Udoka more minutes to help him develop without drastically affecting the outcome. If he stays out of foul trouble (a big "if"), he is an imposing force. Furthermore, you have the experience and solid play of Landen there in crunch time. The best thing is that Udoka won't be a "one and done" due to his age.

In retrospect, I wonder if Coach doesn't wish he had given Cheick Diallo more minutes last year to help him develop. Unfortunately, we got off to a slow start in the conference season, and for the good of the team, they settled on Landen for the post, which of course was a wise decision that led to another conference championship and an Elite 8 appearance against the eventual National Champions.

Barry Weiss 9 months, 1 week ago

I always thought Cheick should have gotten more minutes, but I'm no Coach Self...lol. The NCAA deal really hurt Cheick and by the time he was allowed to play, Landon was doing great and the others were use to him. I am encouraged with Frank and Devonte really looking inside to Dok. They seem to actually be trying to get it into him, even more so than Landon. Landon has other strengths, but for down low scoring, Dok is proving to be a force. And like you say, he will be with us for at least another year, maybe more, so all the reps he gets now pays big dividends down the road.

Mike Greer 9 months, 1 week ago

A lot like Svi, Dok is essentially a HS junior playing elite college basketball. Regardless of your size, physical and mental maturity isn't the same as that of a conventional college freshman, and in the current atmosphere, many incoming freshmen are 19, not 18. I think Svi has really matured this year and Dok will do the same with time. I like his size and attitude, no question he's going to be fantastic in the future.

Humpy Helsel 9 months, 1 week ago

I guess he's 17 years old. In the picture above, I'm thinking more like 35 y.o. Dang, that is one scary looking dude captured in the photo.

Thad Daugherty 9 months, 1 week ago

I am sooo excited for this guy. I have been waiting for KU to get a bruiser like this.

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