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More active than ever, Udoka Azubuike finally defensive anchor KU needs

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Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) elevates to stuff a shot by East Tennessee State guard Bo Hodges (3) during the second half on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) elevates to stuff a shot by East Tennessee State guard Bo Hodges (3) during the second half on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

This Kansas basketball team may not have a next-level human shot eraser manning the paint, but as the Jayhawks’ defense and toughness have emerged as their supreme traits this year, there’s no question Udoka Azubuike’s improvements as a defender have made that possible.

The Jayhawks’ 7-footer is averaging a career-best 2.0 blocks per game through the first 14 starts of his senior season. That’s good enough to rank him just inside the top 50 nationally. And while that statistic is a fair example of Azubuike’s effectiveness on defense there’s more to his presence than those numbers indicate.

Per hoop-math.com, KU’s opponents are only attempting 27.3% of their shots at the rim, which ranks 19th out of 353 Division I teams. So far, the Jayhawks’ foes are only converting on 51.3% (31st) of their layups and dunks.

Azubuike deserves credit for those percentages more than anyone on the roster because he’s the colossus inside that widens the eyes and quickens the heart rate of drivers and finishers.

The Jayhawks’ most physically imposing defender said Friday, on the eve of No. 3 KU’s showdown with No. 4 Baylor, that he’s “definitely” trying to block more shots this season. Even when his long arms swing and miss, his activity is making an impact. And Azubuike, in his final season at Kansas, looks far more dynamic in protecting the paint than he ever has before.

“I’m trying to do more on the defensive end,” Azubuike said. “My priority right now is mainly on defense — getting rebounds, blocking shots. I think I’ve done a pretty OK job of doing that. I’ve just got to keep working on it.”

The big man known as Dok has made similar assertions in past years, but this season he’s actually making it happen. When he was younger, Azubuike was at times more likely to watch from afar than become engaged and seek out a stop.

With those improved efforts, the Jayhawks (12-2) have benefited from better rim protection.

“He’s probably more alert defensively,” KU head coach Bill Self said, “and certainly seems to be going after the ball more. His activity level’s higher — I think conditioning plays a big role in that. And he seems more explosive to me.”

KU’s best and most versatile defender, junior guard Marcus Garrett, said Self has been on Azubuike and the rest of the bigs to better defend the paint and the area around the basket since before the season began.

“We’ve got to protect the rim, and we’ve got to rebound,” Garrett said of Self’s perpetual message.

Those words definitely resonated with Azubuike (13.1 points per game, 8.8 rebounds), who is in the best shape of his career and appears to be enjoying an improved frame of mind, too. With all of that working in his favor, the center from Nigeria turned into the anchor of one of the nation’s best defensive teams.

“I just had a mindset, like I’ve just got to go after every ball and get every rebound,” Azubuike said. “I’ve just got to be mindful of what I’m doing.”

A knowledgeable veteran now at the old age of 20, Azubuike understands KU is winning games with its defense this season, and his teammates need him doing his part. He has rarely let up in that regard, and while the defensive prowess of KU guards Garrett, Devon Dotson and Ochai Agbaji make the whole scheme fit together so well, Azubuike has played a critical role in the Jayhawks’ rise to the No. 2 spot in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, where they trail only Virginia.

Azubuike’s expanded usefulness as a stopper hasn’t been limited to the painted area of the floor, either, another example of why KU is shining defensively.

“He’s been pretty active. He’s defended ball screens better — I thought he was terrific against Iowa State in that regard,” Self said. “He’s going after the ball.”

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