KU will have to adapt quickly to playing without Udoka Azubuike
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.
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.