Out-rebounded in four straight games and seven times this season, Kansas can hardly afford to lose its largest body and most important interior presence for long stretches — especially with Bill Self’s program still waiting to hear from the NCAA about the eligibility of freshmen forwards Silvio De Sousa and Billy Preston.
When discussing how TCU beat the Jayhawks by 14 on the glass (42-28), Self emphasized sophomore center Udoka Azubuike has to stay on the floor for KU’s rebounding to be at its best.
“Mitch played great,” Self said of backup big Mitch Lightfoot’s nine-point, seven-rebound, six-block showing in an 88-84 Kansas road win Saturday night, “but Dok gets one rebound, because he only plays 13 minutes. That’s a tiny team you have out there.”
The 7-foot, 280-pound starting center from Nigeria spent so much time on the bench and contributed so few boards because of the frequency of his fouls versus the Horned Frogs.
Many wondered entering the season how much Azubuike’s impact would be limited by foul trouble, because in his injury-shortened freshman season he picked up four fouls in four of his 11 appearances. To the sophomore pivot’s credit, he has been much better at avoiding foul calls in his second year of college basketball.
The five-foul disqualification at TCU was an anomaly for the developing big man. In KU’s first 14 games Azubuike only got whistled four times once — against Syracuse. He enters Tuesday night’s home matchup with Iowa State averaging 2.7 fouls a game in his 24.7 minutes.
It’s important to remember: Azubuike’s size and the physical nature of his role means fouls are going to be inevitable. Self understands that. If the center is going to assert himself, personal fouls sometimes will accompany his style of play.
For example, the first whistle on Azubuike at TCU came when he began posting up his defender, Vlad Brodziansky, at the left elbow.
“His first foul was good,” Self said. “We backed him down, ran him over.”
Azubuike determinedly going after a potential offensive rebound led to his second foul. With both hands above his head, the center leapt up hoping to come away with the ball and an extra possession for Kansas.
“The second foul was bad. I mean, he didn’t touch him going over the back — you guys probably saw that on TV,” Self assessed of the infraction.
In other cases, reckless activity caught up to Azubuike — keep in mind the 18-year-old has played in 26 college games and some impulse-fueled mistakes along the way are unavoidable.
He picked up foul No. 3 when he bulldozed a TCU defender who had clearly established position inside while crashing to follow a Devonte’ Graham shot.
An even more obvious violation turned out to be the final and most costly transgression. With more than four minutes to play, Azubuike fouled out by trying to recover and swat a Brodziansky shot from behind.
“Then the last foul was awful,” Self said. “He went and swung at it like there was no time left and it was game point. He missed the ball, but he did catch his neck, and in most cases that’s a foul.”
There were cases where Azbuike got away with unseen or uncalled fouls, though. Often those came away from the ball, as he tried to out-physical Brodziansky for position and took it too far. On one second-half possession, Azubuike put his forearm into his man’s shoulders and nearly knocked him over.
Not surprisingly, seconds later, when Azubuike played some sound post defense, a bump from his lower body on Brodziansky drew what had to be a make-up whistle.
The KU center’s fourth foul came as he raised both hands skyward to contest a shot when his man pivoted toward the paint.
“He had many more times I thought where he was laying on the guy that they could’ve called a foul and they didn’t call it,” Self said. “So I think they end up balancing out.”
Azubuike doesn’t seem far away from keeping out of foul trouble and giving KU the space-eater and rebounder it needs. Self thinks one of the bad habits his sophomore post defender needs to break is using an off hand to ride a player going into a shot attempt while contesting or going for a block with the other.
“If he can just learn to contest with both hands up, things like that, I think they’re correctable,” Self said of the center’s shortcomings.
The only legit center on KU’s active roster, Azubuike might not be the best shot-blocker — that distinction goes to Lightfoot — but he is the team’s best rebounder. Azubuike has led the Jayhawks in rebounds nine times this year and, per sports-reference.com, he leads rotation players in both defensive rebound percentage (20.6%) and offensive rebound percentage (13.5%).
A KU lineup with Azubuike isn’t a perfect one, but it’s bigger and better equipped to rebound. If he can maximize his playing time — which he has much of the season — by finding the balance between actively pursuing offensive and defensive situations, and understanding when he must rein it back, it will help the Jayhawks reach their potential in every aspect of the game.