Udoka Azubuike playing with more energy, 'oomph' as Jayhawks head into March
It only took 21 minutes Monday against Texas for center Udoka Azubuike to supply Kansas with one of the most productive games of his young career.
The 7-foot sophomore yielded 20 points and often seemed invincible in his domination of the Longhorns’ front line. Defenders have looked overmatched versus Azubuike before, but the big man from Nigeria completely crushed the Longhorns, succeeding on 10 of his 11 attempts in the paint, a foray that included six dunks.
The Jayhawks’ colossus shot 90.9% from the field, the highest mark for KU since Perry Ellis made 11 of 12 (91.7%) versus Iowa State in the 2014 Big 12 Tournament. Azubuike’s 10-for-11 shooting also represented the best outing in a conference game by a Jayhawk since Julian Wright posted the same line against Baylor, in 2006.
Even better for No. 6 Kansas (24-6 overall, 13-4 Big 12), Azubuike looked lively on the defensive end of the court, as well, tying his career high with 5 blocked shots.
The commanding performance left KU’s senior point guard, Devonte’ Graham, wanting more.
“That’s exactly how he should play,” Graham said, noting assistant coach Norm Roberts went up to Azubuike at shoot-around the day of the game and conveyed the absence of Longhorns star center Mo Bamba (injured) didn’t mean KU’s center could take the day off.
“You should want to go even harder because you’ve got a mismatch now,” Graham related of Roberts’ directive. “So he played exactly how Coach Rob wanted him to play.”
After watching his 18-year-old center’s thrashing of UT bigs Jericho Sims and Dylan Osetkowski, KU coach Bill Self, of course, appreciated not just the point production, but Azubuike’s overall effort, which Self agreed is becoming more consistent late in the season.
“I think he’s playing with a lot more energy and a lot more oomph, probably, than what he was earlier,” Self appraised, calling Azubuike as active as he has seen him this season.
What’s more, the massive sophomore pulled down 8 rebounds for Kansas, the sixth time in 17 Big 12 games he gathered at least that many.
But there was one aspect where Azubuike, Self was quick to point out, seemed to regress. An 18-for-31 free-throw shooter in the nine games following his infamous 1-for-8 night at Oklahoma, in February, KU’s big man missed all four of his attempts at the foul line versus Texas.
“I hadn’t seen him shoot like that in a while,” Self said, after Azubuike even air-balled one try. “So we’ve got to get back in the gym and do a lot (of work) on that.”
In order to maximize Azubuike’s impact in March, Self indicated he and his staff might need to start more closely monitoring how long KU leaves the 285-pound center on the floor.
“He gets his second foul because he’s tired,” Self said of a defensive play on the perimeter, when Azubuike didn’t move his feet quickly enough while trying to hedge against Matt Coleman on a ball screen. The whistle kept Azubuike, a game-altering talent, on the bench the final 6:55 of the first half.
“That worries me a little bit,” Self said. “I probably need to not let him play as long of stretches.”
Azubuike had been on the floor for 5:03 worth of game clock when he showed fatigue and picked up his second foul.
He didn’t get called for any fouls while playing 12 second-half minutes, a stretch during which Azubuike made 6 of 7 shots, swatted 3 UT attempts and gathered 5 rebounds.
The mightiest presence on the KU roster played for stretches of 6:33 and 4:04 during the second half, as well as a brief 0:20 stint late in the win.
No one else in a Kansas uniform possesses the same potential as Azubuike to influence outcomes on both ends of the floor. As critical as Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk are for Kansas, a “turned-up,” as Self likes to say, Azubuike will be equally paramount in the weeks ahead in order for the Jayhawks to reach their ceiling.