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KU will have to adapt quickly to playing without Udoka Azubuike

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Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) delivers on a lob from Kansas guard Charlie Moore (2) during overtime on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) delivers on a lob from Kansas guard Charlie Moore (2) during overtime on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

When the Kansas Jayhawks left Ames, Iowa, on Saturday it seemed more likely center Udoka Azubuike would play Wednesday versus TCU than miss a second game in a row.

Bill Self described holding the 7-footer out at Iowa State as “precautionary,” until Azubuike had an MRI on his injured right wrist. The results, though, presented a worst-case scenario for both the big man and KU, and by Sunday evening Azubuike’s season was officially over, due to torn ligaments that require season-ending surgery.

Prior to that news coming out, this was supposed to be a post about how much KU needed Azubuike on offense — and in a way it still is — but the original idea was that we would soon see how much the Jayhawks benefit from his presence and how essential the center would be for their success.

It’s no coincidence that KU looked worse than it has at any point this season when Azubuike was in too much discomfort to suit up against the Cyclones.

What do both of KU’s losses so far this season have in common, other than that each happened inside an opponent’s arena? For one, both defeats came with Azubuike taking on the role of spectator instead of enforcer. Now the same will be true for KU’s final 17 regular-season games, as well as the postseason.

The Jayhawks went 9-0 with their big man from Delta, Nigeria, in the starting lineup. Some of KU’s best victories to date — over Michigan State, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Marquette — featured Azubuike. And even though the starting center didn’t dominate in every one of those wins, his presence was always felt by opposing frontcourts.

Explosive around the basket, despite his hulking, 270-pound frame, Azubuike is a special kind of post player, who can make an impact even on days when he doesn’t turn into an unstoppable scorer in the paint. Just the energy exerted trying to body up against Azubuike or deny him in the post wears on rival bigs. His value to KU (12-2 overall, 1-1 Big 12) can’t be overstated.

Azubuike’s season reached a premature conclusion — 14 games in for KU and only nine games played for the junior — with him averaging 13.4 points on 70.5 percent shooting to go with his 6.8 rebounds per game in just 20.4 minutes. Azubuike, per sports-reference.com, led Kansas in player efficiency rating (29.9), true shooting percentage (64.9 percent), effective field goal percentage (70.5) and usage percentage (29.1 percent).

The 19-year-old is an offensive force at the college level. Without Azubuike Saturday at Iowa State, KU fell into its largest hole of the season (19 points with 2:46 to play) and finished with its smallest scoring total of the season (60) — the only other game in which the offense looked nearly as bad came in a 63-60 win over New Mexico State; another game Azubuike missed (ankle).

None of this, of course, bodes well for KU’s immediate future.

Unless this injury misfortune galvanizes the Jayhawks, this KU team won’t win many Big 12 games very easily. They needed Azubuike subduing defenders in the paint and catching lobs for emphatic jams. According to kenpom.com, KU (ranked No. 10) is one of six Big 12 teams ranked in the top 26 in the nation, joining No. 9 Texas Tech, No. 13 Iowa State, No. 21 Oklahoma, No. 25 Texas and No. 26 TCU. What’s more, most of those teams are ranked among the top 20 in the country defensively, per kenpom, with TCU being the lone outlier at No. 39.

Kansas doesn’t have the 3-point shooting (34.1 percent on the season) or multiple steady scoring options to roll in conference play without Azubuike. So a four-guard lineup surrounding redshirt junior forward Dedric Lawson is now a must — as is Lawson playing at an All-American level if KU wants to live up to its own standards of winning the Big 12 and making a deep March Madness run.

There is no automatic substitute for what Azubuike provided this team.

One can’t take the utopian jump to a conclusion that somehow KU will soon learn from the NCAA that 6-9 sophomore Silvio De Sousa has been cleared to play and the Jayhawks won’t miss a beat. We know as little about the likelihood of a De Sousa return now as we did the day KU announced it would hold him out of competition.

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) turns for a shot over Oklahoma forward Matt Freeman (5) during the first half, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) turns for a shot over Oklahoma forward Matt Freeman (5) during the first half, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

Let’s assume KU will have to keep on working with the roster it has been, minus Azubuike. Though freshman David McCormack clearly possesses talent and potential, the 6-10 big man from Oak Hill Academy can’t easily step into and fill Azubuike’s adidas.

Self rarely has played McCormack (2.5 points and 2.4 rebounds in 7.2 minutes per game) so far this season. The move would be to gradually change that. Now that Azubuike is gone, McCormack’s opportunities should increase. And because he won’t be thrown into the starting lineup and asked to do what Azubuike did, McCormack shouldn’t feel too much pressure to live up to some unreasonable expectations.

Spend January and February grooming McCormack for a larger role and he’s likely to show far more during the season’s stretch run than he has to date. McCormack is a strong, athletic, high-energy big capable of running the floor. He just needs to get comfortable so when Lawson needs a breather or gets in foul trouble the offense doesn’t nosedive.

All of the sudden, this Big 12 title defense for KU won’t be nearly as straightforward as many assumed. Losing Azubuike may even prove to be the plot twist that wrecks the Jayhawks’ streak. How Self and his players handle this midseason disruption — and how quickly they adapt — will determine just how attainable that 15th Big 12 title in a row will be.

Comments

Steve Zimmerman 5 months, 2 weeks ago

McCormack shouldn’t feel too much pressure to live up to some unreasonable expectations. I'm glad you're not KU MBB coach. :) I'd motivate him to play like there's no tomorrow. I'd expect him to dunk every opportunity. I'd expect him to use lots of fakes instead of rushing shots/hooks. I'd encourage him to take 5-footers when he's open. I'd challenge him to be a rebounding machine, perhaps double-double machine like Lawson. And I'd tell him, he plays for KU, make every opportunity to play matters!

Craig Carson 5 months, 1 week ago

I agree.....he seems to make his move too quickly...he has shown himself to be a decent FT shooter..throw in some punk fakes..maybe even take those 5ft jump shots (if Self allows him to)...at some point Lawson will get into foul trouble and putting Lightfoot in for big minutes doesnt seem smart....

Andy Godwin 5 months, 2 weeks ago

I know we are to not to think that the sky is falling without Udoka, but there should be the reflection that the Big 12 might have caught up to KU. Benton mentioned the poor 3 point shooting as compared to last year when KU played one big and 4 guards. A bigger issue is 24 turnovers against ISU while playing Dedric (best passer Self has ever coached) and four purported ball handlers most of the time. When you play 4 guards, ball handling is supposed to be better, but not with this version of KU basketball. NCAA - suspend De Sousa's guardian and clear Silvio to play again.

Eliott Reeder 5 months, 1 week ago

Well, as it turns out, just because Self calls someone the best passer he ever coached in the preseason does not necessarily make it a reality. Dedric may be best "big man passer" that self has coached (maybe), but he's definitely not the best overall (that would be Aaron Miles, or perhaps Deron Williams).

Robert Brock 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Vick needs to show a bit of leadership from now on.

Ashwin Rao 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Please stop insinuating. We have enough fake news already.

Glen Miller 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Does everyone forget that Vick has started strong every year....... only to tail off for conference play. This is not a shocking development if you look at his track record. Only difference is that in years past, we could hide it with other shooters. This time around he IS our shooter, as in singular.... only 1.

Glen Miller 5 months, 2 weeks ago

We have been spoiled rotten and to some degree continue to be...... but conference title #15 in a row just took a massive hit. Without Buike in the lineup, I don't think we have enough shooting to take the crown. Vick is tailing off, just like every other season at Kansas and nobody else is reliable from outside. Dotson and Grimes are going to have to just take over games and drive the hoop as often as possible. I love Garrett, but outside of running the point when Dotson needs some rest, he is an offensive liability. Moore has terrible shot selection most of the time and isn't a great point guard when it comes to handles. Down low we are struggling outside of Lawson and Doke. Lightfoot makes good plays and then bone head plays, often times getting 2 quick fouls. McCormack shows flashes, but he's out of position wayyyyyyyy too often. KJ Lawson does things that make me want to pull my hair out and is way too careless with the ball. Dedric Lawson just isn't as strong around the hoop as he should be. I love the guy and am thankful for him being on our team, but he's not the type that can just take a game over in the paint like Buike can. He's blocked too easily and get's pushed around too much. He relies too much on angles and such and often times is timid to the hole. When they pack it in the paint against him...... ala Iowa State, he can't score as easily. We have a lot of depth, as far as bodies..... but honestly I don't think this goup of players really fits together as far as skill set very well. I'm just being real here, a fan that can understand when we might be a little overrated. Maybe this team shocks me and molds into what we thought they could be, but I haven't seen it. I was just talking the other day about how it just feels like something is off with this squad. Part of that is that I'm used to Frank and D-tae being able to take over games and control the tempo. I really really hope I am wrong, but this team seems to have more warts than teams in this 14 year run.

Chris DeWeese 5 months, 1 week ago

Necessity is the mother of invention. In Bill Self I trust as he's been thrust in these types of situations before. However, I wouldn't be surprised if we don't make it 15 straight B12 titles this season. I also wouldn't be surprised if there was a 2 or 3 way tie for first. The entire league is down, so we still have a good chance.

Steve Zimmerman 5 months, 1 week ago

What KU needs is guards that can DRIBBLE basketball. Fundamental. Only Dotson & Grimes (maybe, Moore) know how dribble. Vick always carries the ball. I'm not sure why coaching staff hasn't addressed this. The way he dribbles is just awful. He's walking, instead of bouncing his legs while dribbling. He has hops, he needs to dribble drive dunk more. But he has to develop that bounciness while dribbling. Dribble with wrist more, instead of with arms. Garrett should be able to criss-cross by simple in and out dribble and drive dunk to the basket. Bottomline, if the staff doesn't develop each player skill sets, encourage them to use in each game, they'll have a hard time adjusting any plays or strategies. I'm available if coaching staff has an opening for player development!!

Glen Miller 5 months, 1 week ago

Vick's role on the team is to catch and shoot mostly and play defense, he's never been meant to be a big time ball handler. He drives to the rack at times, but has never looked as comfortable doing that as he does spot up shooting. I'm sure he does the same drills that everyone else does. I'm sure that Self has noticed his deficiencies and tried to coach them up. Sometimes there is only so much you can do. Not every guard has handles.

Barry Weiss 5 months, 1 week ago

I'm beginning to think we need Dotson, Grimes and Moore out there at the same time to boost scoring. Vick is very streaky and Garrett struggles offensively. On the bright side, the hack a dok problem has unfortunately been solved in a way no one wanted. Get well big fella and come on strong next year! oh, fix that free throw shot!

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