Udoka Azubuike's presence elevates KU's ceiling


Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) dunks in front of Tennessee forward Kyle Alexander (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) dunks in front of Tennessee forward Kyle Alexander (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger) by Associated Press

With so many rotation players from the Kansas basketball team transferring, declaring for the draft or testing the NBA waters it seemed a safe bet that Udoka Azubuike, who dipped his sizable toes into the pre-draft process a year ago, might not be around for the 2019-20 season, either.

Unfortunately for the center from Delta, Nigeria, his still mending right wrist led him to stick around.

This is, of course, also quite the fortunate development for head coach Bill Self and every player who gets a chance to team up with Azubuike at KU next season, because his presence equates to more victories.

As a junior, the largest man on KU’s campus averaged 13.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, while shooting 70.5% from the floor in Kansas victories.

Here’s what Azubuike’s numbers looked like in KU losses: …

Just a second. Still looking. …

Hold on. …

Oh, here we are. There aren’t any of those stats.

When the big man played KU won. Would the Jayhawks have gone undefeated with a healthy Azubuike? Obviously not. But, let’s be honest, they would have finished with a better overall record than their 26-10 mark, would have had a much better chance of extending the program’s Big 12 title streak and would have ended up with a better seed in the NCAA Tournament — and, theoretically at least, an easier March Madness path.

True, Azubuike missed 75% of the season — a four-game stretch in December, followed by the wrist injury in early January that sidelined him for the remainder of the schedule. But in the games in which the 7-footer played, the Jayhawks didn’t lose.

KU went 9-0 with Azubuike manning the paint and finishing possessions with his backboard-vibrating dunks. What’s more, three of KU’s best wins of the season came with Azubuike in the lineup: neutral court victories over Michigan State, Marquette and Tennessee.

Outside of a surefire top-three draft pick, Azubuike is as big a difference-maker as any college basketball coach could dream to have on a roster.

Per’s advanced stats, KU’s colossus in a No. 35 jersey led all Jayhawks during the 2018-19 season in player efficiency rating (31.5), true shooting percentage (64.9%), effective field goal percentage (70.5%), total rebounding percentage (18.3%), defensive rebounding percentage (23.4%) and usage percentage (30%).

The man is so massive inside that KU opponents know he can’t be stopped and still can’t do much about keeping the ball out of his hands. In his previous two seasons, a span of 45 games, Azubuike shot 266-for-352 (75.6%) from the floor, because he doesn’t take shots outside of his comfort zone and knows his limitations on offense.

The big man isn’t perfect, far from it. Good thing for KU, because if he was he would have already left for the NBA, either last year or this year.

Even when facing teams better equipped to deal with him, Azubuike’s presence alone makes KU a better offensive team. His minutes are still impactful ones when foul trouble limits how long he can be on the floor, as his 270-pound frame wears out the opponents who have to do their best to guard him.

When facing double teams from larger front lines that make it more difficult for him to catch and get to the rim, the fact that Azubuike’s out there at the very least makes it easier for KU perimeter players to find open shots and/or driving lanes. The attention he demands can open up offensive rebound opportunities for his teammates, too. Congratulations, David McCormack, you’ve just been gifted some easy putbacks and follow jams for your sophomore highlight reel.

We all know about Azubuike’s free throw issues — 41.3% as a sophomore and 11-for-32 as a junior (34.4%). That’s a discussion for another day. For now, head coach Bill Self and his Jayhawks can focus on how much easier it will be to win games next season, with their overpowering senior center on the floor.

If Azubuike can stay healthy during what will be his final year in Lawrence, it’s hard to envision the Jayhawks having another turbulent on-court season, such as the one they just went through, mostly without him.

And should the NCAA happen to clear Silvio De Sousa for takeoff, by granting KU’s appeal of his suspension, assuming Devon Dotson returns, KU should have one of the best lineups in the country.

Unless the NCAA hits Kansas where it hurts in the form of a postseason ban as a result of the federal investigation into college basketball corruption, the Jayhawks look like a team that will pick up plenty of 2020 Final Four buzz between now and next March.


Layne Pierce 5 months, 3 weeks ago

Fact is Doke is big really big, as President Trump would say, and he does open up lanes. Last year I think we average 72 points per game, and we gave up an average of 70. Not much of a margin for error.

In the conference we averaged 71 we gave up an average of 70.

With Doke we averaged 80, gave up 69. Much better, granted competition was tougher also, but you get the point.

Still almost 30 points of our average came from Lawson and Grimes, so our 71 in conference is suddenly 41, which means that Dotson, Ochai and Garrett, have all got to increase their numbers and McCormack, needs to average 8 to 10. Bench with McBride and Braun, and whoever could actually be better, especially 3pt shooting.

so, even with Doke back, 3pt shooting has to improve.


Michael Sillman 5 months, 3 weeks ago

If DeSousa does win reinstatement, doesn’t that give us basically three duplicates of the same player? Will playing two of them at the same time be effective? Or will they get in each other’s way?

Shannon Gustafson 5 months, 3 weeks ago

Dok and Dave are very similar players, Silvio is more in the TRob mold where he's an elite rebounder, can dribble drive, shoot from the midrange, etc. So I'd say he's different than the other two.

Barry Weiss 5 months, 3 weeks ago

Getting Dok back is way better than the bigs we lost in recruiting.

Mike Bennett 5 months, 3 weeks ago

I don't think DeSosa is the same player as either McCormack or Doke. Much more wiggle in his hips and ability to put the ball on the floor (not great but better than Doke or McCormack).

Jim Stauffer 5 months, 3 weeks ago

DeSousa is a genuine power 4. While he has not demonstrated any ability to hit from the 3 he is a fierce rebounder and can play high post and hit the 15-17 foot jumper that Dok cannot. This opens up a drop down pass to Dok from time to time for an easy dunk.

Shannon Gustafson 5 months, 3 weeks ago

For those of you that haven't seen this from Newell, it does a really good job of explaining as a supplement to this article just how important Udoka returning is to next year's team:

With Azubuike, KU’s offense is projected 5.4 points better per 100 possessions. Another way to look at it: The Jayhawks’ offense is expected to be 11th nationally instead of 63rd.

Defensively, though, Azubuike makes just as big of a difference.

A few years ago, Ken Pomeroy studied which aspects of college basketball the defense controls most. While he came away believing that offenses have a “frightening” amount of power in a majority of facets, he also was left with this takeaway that was backed up with data: “The defense’s tools are two-point defense and influencing shot selection.”

Azubuike thrives with both. Though he’s not an elite shot-blocker, he definitely changes how teams can attack the rim against KU, making opponents hesitant there thanks to his presence and size.

The center’s small-sample defensive numbers last year were ridiculous as well. According to Synergy Sports Technology’s logs, Azubuike ranked in the 99th percentile defensively, as the man he was directly guarding attempted 33 shots ... and made 7.

Sure, KU could face some challenges limiting opponents’ three-point attempts as it did this season. There’s no question, though, that Azubuike gives the Jayhawks both an anchor in the middle and also an identity to play to on that end, with the team attempting to force action away from the basket.

Torvik’s numbers see a similar defensive bump for KU as a team, as the Jayhawks are projected 10th defensively with Azubuike and 51st without him.

Chad Smith 5 months, 3 weeks ago

Yeah Doke coming back is exactly what KU needs next season. Honestly, just please stay healthy for the entire year. If he does that, Kansas will reclaim its perch atop the Big 12 and get a high seed in the tourney next year as well.

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