Four shots in 30 minutes for the Big 12 Conference’s preseason player of the year is not the recipe the third-ranked Kansas men’s basketball team wanted to follow heading into Tuesday’s 68-66 loss to Duke in New York.
And there was plenty of blame to go around for why 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike’s shot attempts were so low.
“I think we missed a whole lot of passes to Dok where he was wide open,” junior guard Marcus Garrett said after Tuesday’s game. “Like coach said, ‘Every time he’s open, give it to him.’”
Don’t mistake Azubuike’s 3-of-4 shooting performance in the opener for a lack of touches. Despite Garrett’s claim that the Kansas guards missed Azubuike at times, there were plenty of other moments where the senior caught the ball on the block but did not do anything with it.
Whether that led to labored possessions, shot clock violations or those 28 Kansas turnovers, the lack of rhythm in the Kansas offense was one of several issues the Jayhawks (0-1) encountered in their loss to the Blue Devils.
“I actually practiced it quite a bit and I was disappointed because he made some single coverages double teams by being slow with the move,” said KU coach Bill Self when asked how Azubuike could be better against double teams. “If you catch it and shoot it, there’s no double team. But if you catch it and bounce it and think, that allows them to trap down. He’ll get better at that.”
One area Azubuike did improve was his free throw shooting. After making just one of nine attempts in KU's two exhibition victories, the 7-foot center hit 2 of 3 from the free-throw line in the high-stakes game against Duke. But those two makes, though both crucial, registered as little more than a footnote to an otherwise rough night that ended with Azubuike tallying 8 points and eight rebounds in 30 minutes.
No. 3 Kansas drops 68-66 decision to No. 4 Duke
Self attributed some of Azubuike’s lack of feel to the rust of having played just nine games a season ago.
“I don’t want to make excuses,” Self began. “But I think (for) he and Silvio (De Sousa), it was a little bit different than probably what it would’ve been if they had been playing last year. They basically both had the year off and I thought that it felt a little different for them out there than it will moving forward.”
With the Jayhawks struggling to get Azubuike going in the paint, 3-point looks being virtually non-existent and turnovers interrupting any rhythm they did have, KU’s best offense became obvious — get the ball to Garrett or point guard Devon Dotson and let them attack the rim.
“I remember when we played Kentucky one year (2011-12), the year they won it and we ended up meeting them in the finals, our only offense was just get the ball to Tyshawn (Taylor) and drive it downhill,” Self said. “And that was basically what we resorted to tonight with Devon and Marcus.”
That was in half-court sets. In transition, where the they outscored Duke 17-15, the Jayhawks had nearly twice as many turnovers as made buckets.
“I actually thought there were multiple times in transition where we didn’t pitch ahead,” Self said. “And if you pitch ahead, you go make a layup or put pressure on them. But we basically guarded ourselves by the ball sticking some today.”
Garrett said Self emphasized that point in the locker room after the game. And while the KU coach was talking about it at the podium, sophomore guard Ochai Agbaji, who finished with five turnovers, at least a few of them coming in transition, could be seen nodding his head.
“The biggest thing he said was we weren’t kicking up the ball. It was one man just trying to go down and make a play at the last minute and the defense was able to get their hands on the ball and things like that,” Garrett noted of Self’s postgame dissection. “In practice, we pitch the ball up the floor. I feel like we didn’t execute well. Some things that we do well in practice, we didn’t execute in the game.”
Another area the Kansas offense struggled was ball movement.
Less than a week after getting open look after open look and knocking in 17 of 37 from 3-point range in an exhibition win over Pittsburg State, Kansas took just nine 3-point attempts against Duke, making four of them.
Part of that was the fact that KU often had multiple players on the floor who do not have the all clear to shoot from distance whenever they’re open. But the other part of it was a lack of rhythm.
“I think the floor definitely shrunk from the opening tip,” Self said. “They didn’t have to guard our bigs away from the basket and our bigs and our guards didn’t really do a very good job of getting open and moving the ball and making the defense go from strong to weak back to strong and those sorts of things.
“We’ve got to figure out how we can stretch the floor with two bigs in the game because certainly that wasn’t effective tonight very much at all.”
For all of the things that didn’t work or weren’t quite right in this one, the Jayhawks remained in the game down to the wire.
Although that sliver of sunshine was not lost on anyone in crimson and blue — its specifics sounding awfully similar to words uttered by the two losing coaches at the Champions Classic year after year — Self was not ready to fully call that a blessing in disguise on his way out the door.
“I don’t ever want to say there’s good losses because it remains to be seen if something good comes from this,” he said. “But I hope we have a mindset that something good can come from this.”
KU returns to the court at 8 p.m. Friday for their home opener against UNC Greensboro at Allen Fieldhouse.