Saturday, December 9, 2017


Tom Keegan: Basketball man-child Udoka Azubuike doing his best to catch up

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) disputes a technical foul called against him for hanging on the rim following a dunk during the first half, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) disputes a technical foul called against him for hanging on the rim following a dunk during the first half, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017 at Allen Fieldhouse.


Physically, Udoka Azubuike has all the advantages. He’s taller, wider and thicker than all of his teammates. For a man his size, he runs the floor swiftly and has impressive agility and explosiveness.

He has shown impressive discipline and work ethic in squaring into good shape.

So when he dominates at both ends for brief stretches, it doesn’t necessarily catch anyone by surprise.

At those times he fails to put his stamp on a game or makes ill-advised plays that result in him heading to the bench with foul trouble, it shouldn’t surprise anyone, either, because he’s the least experienced basketball player on the team.

At 7-feet tall and 280 pounds, he’s a man-child in many ways. Looking at him towering above the competition, it’s easy to forget that Azubuike just turned 18 in September. Watching him block a shot at one end and then soar above the rim to throw down a lob at the other, it’s only natural to overlook how he took the game up later than teammates and has spent comparatively little time sharing the court with sophisticated basketball players.

“There are times where I think he’s really gaining on it and there are times where I still think he’s a pretty substantial time away,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of his only player taller than 6-8.

As a freshman, Azubuike played in 11 games and suffered a wrist injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season.

“(Missing time) hurt him more than it would hurt most because he didn’t get much play in high school either,” Self said. “He needs those reps as much as anybody.”

Azubuike has done a much better job this season of limiting fouls, but still is a work in progress in that area. The loss to Washington in Sprint Center demonstrated how Azubuike needs to improve at eliminating careless fouls and realizing when to play without one eye on foul trouble.

“I honestly believe the foul situation has gotten in his head, but he’s not in foul trouble,” Self said.

Azubuike has committed just 20 fouls in eight games and has averaged 25.5 minutes a game. In the ideal world, his minutes would increase by not picking up quick first-half fouls, even if his total fouls increased by playing more aggressively when not in foul trouble.

Most coaches remove players in the first half with two fouls and if players pick up a third early in the second half, coaches typically will sit them.

“He’s put himself in a situation where he’s taken himself out of games early because of silly fouls,” Self said. “He got a bad call the first one (vs. Washington). Even the official said, ‘I blew that one.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but you don’t understand what that means to us.’ But (Azubuike) follows it up and fouls 94 feet from the basket, so those are hard lessons to learn but those are good lessons.”

The reason coaches remove players with two first-half fouls is so that they don’t enter the second half in foul trouble. Self pointed out that Azubuike tends to think he’s in foul trouble when starting the second half with a pair.

“So we go in the second half we don’t contest, or we don’t rim protect or we don’t go after a blocked shot because we don’t want to get our third,” Self said. “He has to get better at that.”

Once guarding his man aggressively before he catches the ball becomes an instinct and not something Azubuike has to think about, his fouls will decrease, which in turn will allow him to contest more shots.

One look at the terrific job the center has done at working his way into better condition shows it’s not a matter of effort, rather of game experience.

“He’s a young dude,” backup center Mitch Lightfoot said of Azubuike. “He’s learning how to play smart, learning how to block shots and really be a rim protector. That’s what we need him to be. He’s getting better and it’s only going to be up from here.”

I sense that cause for optimism that Billy Preston will join the team is fading because if there were a suitable explanation for the source of the money in the purchase of the vehicle he had been driving, it seems that it would have been provided by now, but that’s just conjecture on my part. Until it is announced that he won’t play for Kansas, hope remains that he could.

The stronger hope appears to be for Silvio De Sousa, a native of Angola who is attending IMG Academy in Florida, to graduate at the semester and enroll at Kansas in time for Big 12 play.

The more help Azubuike can get up front, the better. One thing Kansas can count on from Azubuike is strong effort. His numbers (14 points, 7.3 rebounds) and conditioning strides are impressive for such a big, inexperienced basketball player, but there is no fast-forward button to press to make up for a late start in acquiring a feel for the game.


Suzi Marshall 2 years, 2 months ago

Dok has a looooooonnnnnnggggg ways to go. Next season he will be facing serious compilation for pt.

Kevin Whelan 2 years, 2 months ago

Great article on Dok, and other asides. I think that Billy Preston is toast as the duration of this impasse speaks volumes.

Steve Corder 2 years, 2 months ago

You're probably right. I wonder if KU is running by the NCAA what they have learned for a definitive answer so as not to jeopardize the season.

Mike Greer 2 years, 2 months ago

One would have to assume that's what's going on. This is way too long for just an internal investigation. It's bad when your #1 recruit is sitting on the bench healthy.

Andy Godwin 2 years, 2 months ago

Clearly Self whiffed on the 2017 class if Billy Preston never becomes eligible and contributes this year (he put this team's success in jeopardy by adding much needed experience for next year with Moore and the Lawson brothers). Recruiting is a fickled business, and getting a contribution from only Garrett, who has been very good, would rate pretty low on the past year's recruiting class. Losing Coleby, then replacement Whitman, followed by Preston makes KU closer to being "average" than elite the rest of the year unless they stay 100% healthy and De Sousa can actually be eligible and can figure out how to play Self's defense (which would be a surprised). Deandre Ayton (choose Arizona) would have clearly been a welcomed addition to a depleted front line, but Self is one of the best in the business, so hopefully things begin to fall in KU's favor beginning next semester, with Newman beginning to show his promise, Sam Cunliffe contributing now and then, and De Sousa (?), and Preston (??) being eligible. Today's game should be interesting. Bit surprised KU is favored by 10.5, given ASU scores and KU is not great defensively.

Barry Weiss 2 years, 2 months ago

Ayton is a true beast, a NBA body, looks a lot like the current day Embid. He has it all and will take Arizona far.

Barry Weiss 2 years, 2 months ago

Dok will come around. I think coach yanks him too soon. I'd leave him in, even with 2 fouls in the first half. His trend is to then be a bit more tentative on defense, but even a tentative Dok on defense is better than anything on the bench.

Marius Rowlanski 2 years, 2 months ago

I hate to admit this but in many ways, I'm already looking forward to next season. We have 3 players on the bench that will be more than ready to join one of Bill Self's best recruiting classes during his tenure at Kansas. Include Sam Cunliffe and Marcus Garrett plus Newman and Azubuike, who will not be leaving for the NBA and that is a team with a serious chance at winning it all.

This season's biggest challenge was to overcome a frontcourt that was even thinner than last year's team. Preston has probably ended his college career over a $20,000 car and may have put his NBA career in jeopardy. There hasn't been many players at Kansas that have overcome ridiculously poor decisions i.e. Selby (rules to have taken nearly $6000 in improper benefits), Alexander (forced to sit most of the spring semester because of possible violations) that have gone to play at the next level.

Last I heard, Selby was playing in China and Cliff Alexander, D league, is only the 2nd top 5 recruit to go undrafted in the NBA. I hope Preston still has a career Kansas and with him and Silvio qualifying, this year's team still has a very high ceiling but if not, keeping the conference championship streak alive will be an amazing feat.

Steve Zimmerman 2 years, 2 months ago

I wonder if KU staff ever inquires future recruits these improper benefits before scholarships are granted. How do we prevent this situation in the future? Does the staff look the other way even if they know there's a violation, thus, taking big risk?? This situation hurts the kids more than anything else. Of course it hurts us fans, and the team, too. But like Marius said, they won't get drafted that high. Unless Preston is like Lebron or Kobe caliber.

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