The most significant number produced in Kansas’ 65-61 victory over Kentucky in the Champions Classic leapt off the box score as if it were a typo. Udoka Azubuike, a broad-shouldered 7-footer who carries 280 pounds, played 34 minutes and did it against quick Kentucky.
“He’s gotten in way better shape,” said sophomore Mitch Lightfoot, KU’s only other scholarship front-court player at the moment. “He’s kind of a guy who’s hard to stop because he’s in good shape. It’s hard to stop him as it is, but once he can go up and down and run, get out in transition, it’s real hard to stop that."
When fresh, Azubuike runs the floor swiftly, which can help him to establish position at both ends.
“I think it’s pretty good,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of his center’s conditioning. “They had three guys laying on him for 34 minutes, and most teams won’t have three guys they can put at you like that.”
As the first half wore on, Azubuike grew winded and became more passive, especially offensively. He seemed to sustain his energy level better in the second half, but Self explained why that might have been the case.
“The thing that gets a little misleading is it became a pretty slow game the second half, so there wasn’t a lot of transition, so that might have bought him a lot of time,” Self said.
Typically, the bigger the body, the longer it takes to re-establish top condition from season to season.
“I don’t know if anybody’s in the game condition this time of year as what you would be obviously in January or February, but I think it’s pretty darn good,” Self said. “It’s come a long way since the beginning of boot camp when he couldn’t make a time running two or three of our exercises. Now, I think he’d be one of the best we have.”
Limited to 11 games last season, Azubuike’s career-high in minutes was 23 as a freshman. He played 30 minutes in the season opener against Tennessee State and has committed just five personal fouls this season.
Azubuike averaged a foul every 4.6 minutes last season, one every 12.8 this season, solid proof that he’s learning the nuances of the game that he didn’t play seriously until he turned 13. He played soccer in his native Nigeria before taking up basketball.
Lightfoot offered perspective on how his teammate has managed to reduce his foul rate.
“He’s very selective on when he jumps to block shots and how aggressive he is on ball screens,” Lightfoot said. “A big part of picking up silly fouls is how you guard ball screens.”
Azubuike insisted after his heavy workload vs. Kentucky that he wasn’t tired.
“Shoot, the big fellow says he isn’t tired, the big fellow isn’t tired,” Lightfoot said. “He’s gotten in such better shape since he first came here. It’s motivating to all of us to see him working on his game.”
Azubuike’s basketball education continues tonight with a challenge of a different sort.
South Dakota State junior center Mike Daum averages 21.3 points and 10.7 rebounds a game. And has such a soft touch that he’s shooting .471 on 3-pointers and .909 from the line, which gives him nothing in common with Azubuike, a career .395 shooter from the line. Azubuike's shooting .917 from the field, all on dunks and short banks, two games into the season and likely will finish his career without attempting a 3-pointer, maybe even a 12-footer.