Kansas City, Mo. — This season’s Kansas basketball team is no stranger to getting beat on the glass. So the top-seeded Jayhawks should feel right at home this week at Sprint Center, where they will try and navigate the Big 12 tournament without injured 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike.
Without question, KU’s offense will miss the high-percentage shots Azubuike, out with a medial collateral ligament sprain, provides with regularity. But the Jayhawks also will look like a lesser version of themselves on the boards, because the sophomore big is the best rebounder on a team that oftentimes struggles to finish stops by securing an opponent’s missed shot.
A massive presence in the paint, Azubuike started every game for Kansas (24-7) this season up to this point, and led the team in rebounding 18 times.
KU won the rebound margin in three of its final four regular-season games — +13 versus Oklahoma, +7 vs. Texas and +7 at Oklahoma State. But the Jayhawks lost that battle in 15 of the 16 games that preceded their more successful stretch.
Against Power 5 competition this season (25 games), KU out-rebounded its opponent five times — the other two came against Arizona State and Kansas State.
So what does the team that finished 9th in the Big 12 in rebound margin (-2.9 a game) look like without its best rebounder? To try and get a sense of what to expect at the conference tournament, let’s look at a few of Azubuike’s less impactful games this season on the glass.
Occasionally, Azubuike, who averaged 7.1 boards on the year and 6.6 a game in league action, finished with 4 or fewer rebounds. That occurred four times during Big 12 play:
at TCU: 1 rebound in 13 minutes (fouled out); TCU scored 14 second-chance points — KU won 88-84
at Kansas State: 3 rebounds in 18 minutes; K-State scored 9 second-chance points — KU won 70-56
at Baylor: 4 rebounds in 19 minutes; BU scored 14 second-chance points — KU lost 80-64
at Iowa State: 3 rebounds in 22 minutes; ISU scored 10 second-chance points — KU won 83-77
At TCU, Mitch Lightfoot (7 rebounds) and Marcus Garrett (6 boards) helped carry the load. At K-State, Malik Newman came through with 10 rebounds and Svi Mykhailiuk grabbed 7 more. At ISU, Newman and Devonte’ Graham tied for the team lead (6 apiece).
The Jayhawks lost at Baylor when no one stepped up to fill the void. Mykhailiuk, Newman and Lagerald Vick each finished with 4 boards.
KU’s rebounding numbers — and chances of advancing in the Big 12 tournament — will look a lot worse unless Azubuike’s teammates use his absence as incentive to really attack the glass.
“We’ve been a poor rebounding team by good rebounding team standards all year long,” KU coach Bill Self said Wednesday at Sprint Center.
It doesn’t sound as if Self is expecting Lightfoot and De Sousa to suddenly start rebounding like Cole Aldrich and Thomas Robinson.
“So we’re just going to have to have our guards rebound more,” Self said. “You know, Malik’s done a good job. Svi and Lagerald have got to become better rebounders probably as much as anyone.”
The numbers indicate Kansas should be able to count on Newman to get inside and clear some defensive rebounds. The 6-3 guard, per sports-reference.com, is KU’s second-most consistent rebounder on that end, gathering an estimated 15.6% of available defensive rebounds (Azubuike leads the team with a 20.2% defensive rebound percentage.)
Newman can look for some help on that end from Garrett (15.6%). Lightfoot enters the postseason with a 12.4% mark, while De Sousa, with far fewer minutes to give a better sense of his ceiling, owns a 12.3% defensive rebound percentage.
It’s unrealistic to expect any Jayhawks to match Azubuike’s offensive impact. But, chipping in as a committee of rebounders at Sprint Center will be necessary for them to get by without their game-changing center.
— Udoka Azubuike 2017-18 season game log —
It only took 21 minutes Monday against Texas for center Udoka Azubuike to supply Kansas with one of the most productive games of his young career.
The 7-foot sophomore yielded 20 points and often seemed invincible in his domination of the Longhorns’ front line. Defenders have looked overmatched versus Azubuike before, but the big man from Nigeria completely crushed the Longhorns, succeeding on 10 of his 11 attempts in the paint, a foray that included six dunks.
The Jayhawks’ colossus shot 90.9% from the field, the highest mark for KU since Perry Ellis made 11 of 12 (91.7%) versus Iowa State in the 2014 Big 12 Tournament. Azubuike’s 10-for-11 shooting also represented the best outing in a conference game by a Jayhawk since Julian Wright posted the same line against Baylor, in 2006.
Even better for No. 6 Kansas (24-6 overall, 13-4 Big 12), Azubuike looked lively on the defensive end of the court, as well, tying his career high with 5 blocked shots.
The commanding performance left KU’s senior point guard, Devonte’ Graham, wanting more.
“That’s exactly how he should play,” Graham said, noting assistant coach Norm Roberts went up to Azubuike at shoot-around the day of the game and conveyed the absence of Longhorns star center Mo Bamba (injured) didn’t mean KU’s center could take the day off.
“You should want to go even harder because you’ve got a mismatch now,” Graham related of Roberts’ directive. “So he played exactly how Coach Rob wanted him to play.”
After watching his 18-year-old center’s thrashing of UT bigs Jericho Sims and Dylan Osetkowski, KU coach Bill Self, of course, appreciated not just the point production, but Azubuike’s overall effort, which Self agreed is becoming more consistent late in the season.
“I think he’s playing with a lot more energy and a lot more oomph, probably, than what he was earlier,” Self appraised, calling Azubuike as active as he has seen him this season.
What’s more, the massive sophomore pulled down 8 rebounds for Kansas, the sixth time in 17 Big 12 games he gathered at least that many.
But there was one aspect where Azubuike, Self was quick to point out, seemed to regress. An 18-for-31 free-throw shooter in the nine games following his infamous 1-for-8 night at Oklahoma, in February, KU’s big man missed all four of his attempts at the foul line versus Texas.
“I hadn’t seen him shoot like that in a while,” Self said, after Azubuike even air-balled one try. “So we’ve got to get back in the gym and do a lot (of work) on that.”
In order to maximize Azubuike’s impact in March, Self indicated he and his staff might need to start more closely monitoring how long KU leaves the 285-pound center on the floor.
“He gets his second foul because he’s tired,” Self said of a defensive play on the perimeter, when Azubuike didn’t move his feet quickly enough while trying to hedge against Matt Coleman on a ball screen. The whistle kept Azubuike, a game-altering talent, on the bench the final 6:55 of the first half.
“That worries me a little bit,” Self said. “I probably need to not let him play as long of stretches.”
Azubuike had been on the floor for 5:03 worth of game clock when he showed fatigue and picked up his second foul.
He didn’t get called for any fouls while playing 12 second-half minutes, a stretch during which Azubuike made 6 of 7 shots, swatted 3 UT attempts and gathered 5 rebounds.
The mightiest presence on the KU roster played for stretches of 6:33 and 4:04 during the second half, as well as a brief 0:20 stint late in the win.
No one else in a Kansas uniform possesses the same potential as Azubuike to influence outcomes on both ends of the floor. As critical as Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk are for Kansas, a “turned-up,” as Self likes to say, Azubuike will be equally paramount in the weeks ahead in order for the Jayhawks to reach their ceiling.
The No. 6-ranked team in the nation, Kansas sent seniors Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk out in style on Big Monday, with an 80-70 win over Texas in the Jayhawks’ Allen Fieldhouse finale.
KU (24-6 overall, 13-4 Big 12) at times overwhelmed the undermanned Longhorns, even out-rebounding the visitors 37-30 — just the Jayhawks’ third positive margin in that category during league play.
Here are five more statistics that stood out for Kansas, on a night the program wrapped up an 18th outright Big 12 championship and finished the home portion of the schedule with a victory for the 35th consecutive season.
So many quality shots
A game that in the first half felt as if a blowout was just a spurt or two away never got there because Kansas didn’t play particularly well down the final stretch, with 9 turnovers after halftime.
Still, the Jayhawks had little reason to feel threatened — even when Texas cut the lead to 6 early in the second half — because KU’s players kept searching for the high-percentage shots the Longhorns’ defense would allow them.
Kansas, a team that entered the night shooting a respectable 46.9% from the field in Big 12 play, made 60.6% of its shots in the first half and an even 60% in the second.
This game didn’t have the drubbing factor of KU’s win over Oklahoma a week earlier, but the Jayhawks showed the same offensive persistence.
Points in the paint
A direct result of their determination, the Jayhawks always felt comfortable because they kept finishing possessions with dunks (9) and layups (13).
The Jayhawks achieved 50 paint points for just the second time this season, putting up 52 inside against a Mo Bamba-less Texas team. Previously in conference play, KU had only reached 40 points in the category three times — twice against Oklahoma and once versus Iowa State — doing so against two of the Big 12’s worst defenses.
Udoka Azubuike proved uncontrollable for UT, shooting 10 of 11 and coming through with rim-shaking dunks six different times.
His teammates who don’t have the size and frame to slam so effortlessly settled for an array of layups, as well as a few wide-open dunks.
Freshman Marcus Garrett scored 6 of his 11 points off layups. Sophomore backup big Mitch Lightfoot scored all 6 of his points at the rim, via two dunks and a lay-in. Malik Newman, on a 4-for-9 shooting night, picked up one layup and one jam. Mykhailiuk scored two lay-ins on the way to 17 points. Graham spent most of the night distributing 11 assists but scored a layup, too. Junior Lagerald Vick made two shots all night, both in the paint. Freshman Silvio De Sousa scored his one basket on a putback.
Kansas scored 56% of its points off layups and dunks, winning points in the paint, 52-38.
Scouting report defense
At times the Jayhawks had issues with trying to stop two of the Longhorns’ most athletic finishers, big man Jericho Sims (6-for-9 shooting) and Kerwin Roach II (7 of 15).
Playing minus Bamba and Eric Davis Jr., the Longhorns only had so many options on offense.
Kansas welcomed two of UT’s least effective scorers to take a bulk of the shots and defended them appropriately to come away with stops. Longhorns big Dylan Osetkowski made just 5 of 14 shots, while Jacob Young finished 6 of 13.
Outside of Sims and Roach, the rest of the Longhorns combined to hit 16 of 44 shots (36.4%).
40 Minutes Double-Double
Look out, Azubuike. Mr. 40 Minutes is coming for your double-double crown.
For the 15th time this season, Graham played every minute for Kansas. In his fieldhouse finale, the senior point guard put up 10 points and 11 assists, his fourth double-double of the season.
Sophomore 7-footer Azubuike leads the team with five double-doubles this year.
With one game left in the regular season and the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments to follow, who would you expect to finish the season as KU’s double-double leader? It’s hard to bet against Graham.
On the season, Graham is averaging 17.7 points and 7.2 assists, while Azubuike is contributing 13.9 points and 7.1 rebounds.
Mykhailiuk is making a habit of igniting KU’s offense early in games.
With 14 first-half points on 6-for-9 shooting during the first 20 minutes, the senior from Ukraine scored 13 or more points before intermission for the eighth time this season.
Whether driving in to finish inside or showing off his smooth 3-point stroke (45% accuracy as a senior), Mykhailiuk’s offense so often is just what Kansas needs to get rolling.
After making 3 of 5 from 3-point distance in the win, Mykhailiuk has drained 95 from long range this season, the fourth-most in KU history.
More news and notes from Kansas vs. Texas
- Senior Night Special: Jayhawks cruise to win over Texas, clinch outright Big 12 title
- Tom Keegan: Jayhawks sidestep several obstacles to 14th straight Big 12 title
- Notebook: Graham, Newman earn Big 12 weekly awards; Texas guard Andrew Jones leaves hospital
- KU basketball’s red uniforms a request of “Number 4”
- The Keegan Ratings: Sophomore Udoka Azubuike tops ratings on Senior Night in victory vs. Texas
- KU seniors shut down fieldhouse for season with 80-70 win over Texas
The No. 8-ranked Kansas Jayhawks headed to No. 6 Texas Tech this weekend armed with the knowledge it would take a complete performance to win on the road and accomplish something special.
And then they went out and made it happen.
KU secured at least a share of an unprecedented 14th consecutive conference championship, edging the Red Raiders, 74-72, on Saturday .
The Jayhawks (23-6 overall, 12-4 Big 12) shot 50% from the field in an opponent’s arena for just the second time this year to take a two-game lead on Tech (22-7, 10-6) with two games to play.
Here are five statistics that fueled KU’s title-securing road victory.
Graham steals the show
Devonte’ Graham went to Lubbock, Texas, to win a Big 12 title and cement his case for conference player of the year. The senior point guard didn’t state his intentions ahead of the anticipated showdown with Texas Tech, but he sure showed them in the decisive half.
The Jayhawks converted 10 field goals over the game’s final 20 minutes and Graham provided 7 of them. Not done there, Graham also assisted on 2 other KU baskets, with passes to Mitch Lightfoot and Malik Newman.
Graham’s pair of second-half 3-pointers — one at the 8:30 mark and another with 4:40 left — both pushed KU’s lead to 8, the largest margins of the final half.
The Jayhawks’ floor general and team leader scored 18 of KU’s 33 second-half points off 7-for-13 shooting, while the rest of the Jayhawks were a combined 3 of 12.
No deficit for Kansas
Let’s be honest. Who would have predicted the Jayhawks would play on Texas Tech’s home floor and not trail for a single second?
The Red Raiders had won 17 straight inside United Supermarkets Arena. It seemed unfathomable, but Tech played the entire 40 minutes without ever taking a lead against Kansas.
Three-pointers from Svi Mykhailiuk and Graham fueled an 8-0 Kansas start. And though the Red Raiders would eventually tie the game at 68 with 2:32 left in the second half, KU’s defense forced turnovers on the home team’s next two possessions, while Graham scored twice, pushing the Jayhawks’ lead back out to 4.
Prior to that, each time Tech threatened to take momentum while making it a one-possession game, the Jayhawks had an answer. Whether it was a bucket from Graham for an old school 3-point play, a Newman 3-pointer of a Graham layup, Kansas always found a way to keep Texas Tech down, as the home team shot 36.7% from the floor in the second half.
Udoka Azubuike didn’t have one of his more memorable games, finishing with just 6 points and 7 rebounds in 29 minutes. But it’s just as important for Kansas that the 7-foot center take an active approach defensively.
Was the big man perfect? No. But a good way to measure the effort he’s exerting is by tracking his results on the defensive glass. Azubuike finished a KU stop with a defensive board 6 times. It was just the fifth time in Big 12 play this year he reached that total.
The Red Raiders challenged Azubuike, making him work for position and rebounds, and he often responded correctly. The sophomore center jumped as high as he ever has for a few rebounds.
On another occasion, he battled a Red Raider to smack a missed Tech shot into the hands of Newman, who got credit for the rebound in the box score. Early in the second half, he hustled back on defense to take away a potential Tech layup, and in doing so forced Tommy Hamilton IV into a turnover. With just more than a minute to play, Azubuike and Mykhailiuk trapped Zach Smith on the baseline, pressuring him into a pass out of bounds and an untimely giveaway.
Plus, Azubuike swatted away three Red Raiders shots, denying Smith twice and Culver another time inside.
Tech kept KU’s massive sophomore from his typical array of powerful dunks, but Azubuike didn’t let any frustrations with his lack of offense carry over to every aspect of his game. He can, and needs to be, better on the defensive glass (see: Tech’s 15 offensive rebounds), but Azubuike’s motor seems to be becoming more consistent.
Texas Tech star Keenan Evans hasn’t been himself since injuring a toe the week before Saturday’s meeting with Kansas. To Evans’ credit, the senior is attempting to play through pain. But the timing couldn’t have been worse for the Red Raiders.
For the third straight game, Evans’ hampered toe made him less effective, and for the third straight game his team lost by single digits.
Evans played 31 minutes against Kansas, the most for Tech’s primary guard since hurting his toe, but made just 1 of 6 shots from the floor and 4 of 6 free throws, finishing with 6 points and 3 assists.
In the seven games before suffering the injury during a loss to Baylor, Evans averaged 24.6 points and 3.7 assists. He hasn’t been able to play as assertively since. Would Tech have defeated BU and Oklahoma State with a healthy Evans? Would KU have been able to win on Tech’s floor with the Red Raiders’ best player at full strength? We’ll never know for sure, but KU certainly has benefited in the standings from the inconvenient timing of Evans’ setback.
Svi’s hot start
In a game between the Big 12’s two best teams, Kansas led by as many as 11 points on the road before halftime because Texas Tech couldn’t stop Mykhailiuk in the first half.
The senior guard from Ukraine helped his team build confidence early, knocking down three 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes. Mykhailiuk scored a first-half best 15 points on 5-for-10 shooting and also assisted a Graham 3-pointer, a Lightfoot basket and an Azubuike jam before intermission.
Mykhailiuk finished with 21 points, second only to Graham’s game-high 26, and tied with Graham for the game’s highest assist total, with 4. Fitting that two seniors carry Kansas to a historic accomplishment.
By the end of Saturday night, Kansas found itself once again tied with Texas Tech atop the Big 12 standings, thanks in part to a huge performance from its massive center, Udoka Azubuike.
The Jayhawks recovered from a 12-point, second-half deficit against West Virginia at Allen Fieldhouse for a 77-69 victory, while Texas Tech lost at Baylor, making the two league title contenders both 10-4 in Big 12 games.
Here are five statistics that proved to be critical components of KU’s wild home win.
Points in the paint
KU coach Bill Self said after the comeback win he and his assistants hammered home to their players the need to “drive it, drive it, drive it” against WVU’s extended defensive pressure.
By taking on the role of the aggressors, the Jayhawks were able to survive the Mountaineers’ torrent of 3-point shooting (14 of 26).
Kansas outscored WVU 30-16 in the paint. While Azubuike gets most of the credit, what with his four dunks and three layups, his teammates supplemented the center’s ultra-high-percentage shots.
Both Marcus Garrett and Lagerald Vick contributed 4 paint-points apiece in the first half. Svi Mykahiliuk made a layup in the first and took a steal for a slam in the second. Both Vick and Malik Newman came through with much-needed lay-ins during KU’s second-half revival.
The Jayhawks’ 14-point advantage inside marked the first time in Big 12 play they enjoyed a double-digit margin in the category.
Bob Huggins-coached teams are known for their pesky defenders. And West Virginia might have the best on-ball stopper in the Big 12 in Jevon Carter.
But the Jayhawks didn’t let the Mountaineers’ style speed them up into a lesser, turnover-prone version of themselves. Kansas finished with just 8 turnovers, its second-lowest total of the season, against WVU.
The Mountaineers only came away with 4 steals over the course of 40 minutes.
In total, KU had 64 possessions, and scored (56.3% of the time) far more often than it gave the ball away (12.5%).
Few sloppy offensive trips meant only 8 points off turnovers for West Virginia. In the meantime, the Jayhawks cashed in on 13 WVU giveaways to score 15 points.
Carter’s shooting woes
KU deserves some credit for properly defending Carter down the stretch, but the WVU senior point guard shoulders some blame, too, for how the final minutes of the second half played out.
Carter only connected on 3 of 10 shots in the final half, and he often forced the issue or settled down the stretch.
In the final 10 minutes, after WVU took its largest lead of the game, Carter missed six of his eight attempts, including two errant layups. One of his makes, a 3-pointer, didn’t come until KU had all but sealed the win, with six seconds remaining.
Blocks = points
Azubuike didn’t just make his presence felt on offense, he tormented WVU playing defense, as well, particularly in crunch time. Even better for the Jayhawks, two of the center’s late-game swats led directly to scores.
Carter had a layup smacked away by Azubuike with 2:19 left and within seconds Mykhailiuk secured the ball and found Devonte’ Graham, who pitched it ahead to Newman for a game-tying 3-pointer.
With West Virginia down four and less than 20 seconds left on the clock, Azubuike was at it again, blocking a Daxter Miles Jr. attempt. Graham came away with the basketball and heaved a pass ahead for a Newman layup that pushed KU’s lead to 72-66 before Huggins got T’d up twice and ejected.
Hit ’em when they count
Even before the Jayhawks got to pad their free-throw numbers in the final seconds thanks to Huggins’ technicals, they made their trips to the foul line count late in the game.
The free throws in the final minutes were challenging because Kansas had to have them. The home team got to celebrate Saturday night because its players made 12 of 14 free throws in the last 5:00 — including 7-of-8 shooting while either trailing or ahead by 2 when stepping to the line.
Azubuike made a pair with 4:58 left to cut WVU’s lead to four.
Vick went 1 of 2 with 4:14 on the clock, making it a five-point game.
Mykhailiuk nailed a pair with 1:40 remaining to put Kansas up for the first time since the opening minute of the second half.
Graham knocked in two more with 0:24 to go, extending the lead to four.
More news and notes from Kansas vs. West Virginia
- Coming up big: Udoka Azubuike helps Jayhawks rally past WVU
- Tom Keegan: Bob Huggins’ frustrations erupt in late-game ejection
- Cole Aldrich during jersey retirement ceremony: ‘It’s humbling’
- The Keegan Ratings: Dominant Udoka Azubuike tops ratings in comeback victory vs. West Virginia
- Matt Tait's Postgame Report Card
- Comeback kids: Jayhawks rally to knock off West Virginia again
As Bill Self continues to address his Kansas basketball team’s ongoing rebounding issues, the coach knows one player in particular could do all of the Jayhawks a favor by making a more vigorous impact on the glass.
On the same afternoon Self revealed a lack of effort on the part of Lagerald Vick led to the junior’s removal from the starting lineup, the 15th-year KU coach didn’t hide his displeasure for center Udoka Azubuike’s rebounding of late, either.
A 7-foot, 280-pound sophomore from Nigeria, Azubuike has secured six or fewer rebounds in each of the Jayhawks’ past four games, two of which ended as losses.
It’s the lack of defensive boards in particular that drives Self mad, though, because KU so often has failed to end opponent’s possessions after the first shot attempt. Oklahoma State destroyed Kansas with 26 second-chance points off 16 offensive rebounds on Saturday. In the Jayhawks’ past 11 games, nine opponents have reached double digits in second-chance points. During that stretch dating back to the start of Big 12 play, KU’s foes are averaging 15.4 offensive rebounds a game and scoring 14.9 points a game off those extended possessions.
So what has been lacking from Azubuike, who averages 7.3 rebounds on the year and has pulled down nine or more on nine occasions?
“I’d say just quickness, intensity, athletic ability, want-to more than anything else,” Self listed. “He got a defensive rebound against Oklahoma State on the first possession the other day — and that was it. He got one to start the second half — that’s it. Got two (defensive) rebounds the whole game. He plays a lot of minutes.”
Azubuike has contributed three or fewer defensive rebounds in five straight games. He averages 4.6 boards on defense this season and 3.8 in Big 12 contests.
“It’s great for a big guy to score points, and we love that,” Self said after Azubuike, the NCAA leader in field goal percentage (76.2 percent) made 8 of 11 shots and scored 20 points in a loss to the Cowboys. “And I don’t want to take that away from him by any stretch. But, you know, for us to win, everybody’s got a role and everybody’s got to play to their role. And he knows he’s the biggest guy on our team. He knows he’s the best defensive rebounder. He knows he’s that, so it’s up to him to play to that.”
Looking at season averages, Azubuike’s 4.6 defensive rebounds a game lead Kansas (18-5 overall, 7-3 Big 12), but just barely. Malik Newman gathers 4.5 and Vick is at 4.3. In league games, Newman leads the team with 4.7 boards on the defensive end of the floor, where Vick contributes 3.5 and Svi Mykhailiuk has provided 3.2 on average.
Perhaps playing alongside new starter Lightfoot will make Azubuike a more effective rebounder as Self gives playing bigger a chance, despite a guard-heavy rotation. The move wasn’t made specifically to address KU’s shortcomings on the glass, but it certainly couldn’t hurt a team that has been out-rebounded in 11 of its lsat 12 games.
Self remains hopeful his hulking starting center will begin embracing the idea of becoming KU’s defensive closer, a player capable of ending opponents’ possessions by snatching the first miss out of the air and eliminating second — and sometimes third — attempts.
“And hopefully he will. He hasn’t done that in a while, but I don’t think he’s played poorly,” Self clarified. “I just don’t think he’s played to what he is — and that is the biggest guy on the floor most every night.”
Kansas plays host to TCU (16-7, 4-6) at 8 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN2).
Any time a shot goes up, whether it’s taken by Kansas or an opponent, the players Bill Self is coaching this year aren’t as likely to pull down a rebound as the Jayhawks who came before them.
During KU’s 13-year run of consecutive Big 12 titles under Self, cleaning the glass has been one of the program’s staples.
This season, though, with a limited frontcourt rotation and lineups built around talented perimeter players, the rebounding mastery so often displayed by past Kansas teams has faded.
This week’s loss at Oklahoma marked the ninth consecutive game the Jayhawks were out-rebounded — the longest streak in the Self era.
Kansas has won the battle of the boards in just six of its first 20 games, entering Saturday’s meeting with Texas A&M, the top rebounding team in the SEC. What’s more, most of KU’s six rebounding victories came against weaker competition: +22 vs. Tennessee State, +16 vs. Texas Southern, +11 vs. Oakland, +12 vs. Toledo, +3 vs. Arizona State and +23 vs. Omaha.
Eight games into the Big 12 schedule, the Jayhawks have an average rebounding margin of -7.1 in league play, which ranks ninth overall and is uncharacteristically off-kilter for a Self-coached team.
“I really think so much of it is effort. I think discipline,” the KU coach said when discussing his team’s shortcomings on the glass, after referencing how Oklahoma controlled it in the final minutes of an 85-80 Sooners win on Tuesday, in Norman, Okla.
Seven-foot sophomore center Udoka Azubuike easily qualifies as the Jayhawks’ best rebounder. He averages 7.7 on the season, but hasn’t registered double-digit boards since the Big 12 opener at Texas, when Azubuike gathered a career-best 13.
According to sports-reference.com, Azubuike leads Kansas with a total rebounding percentage (an estimate of the percentage of available rebounds a player secured while on the court) of 15.2% in Big 12 action. Unfortunately for Self, the only other players on the roster capable of making similar impacts on the glass are Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa, and their other limitations have impacted their playing time. Sophomore Lightfoot (12.5 TRB%) averages just 11.6 minutes in league games, while mid-year freshman arrival De Sousa (11.8 TRB%) has been given 3.5 minutes in his four appearances.
Azubuike, Lightfoot and De Sousa are the only players on the roster with a TRB% of at least 10% this year. Compare that to just an average rebounding team by recent KU standards, the 2014-15 Jayhawks, and you’ll find five rotation players who eclipsed that mark: Cliff Alexander (15.8%), Landen Lucas (14.2%), Perry Ellis (13.5%), Kelly Oubre (13.3%) and Brannen Greene (10.1%).
As a team, KU currently owns a defensive rebounding percentage of 62% in Big 12 play, to go with a 27.5% offensive rebounding percentage — those rank 10th and ninth respectively in the conference. In past years, Kansas routinely finished among the top half (often in the top third) of the league in those same categories.
Self knows he is working with a limited roster as far as rebounding goes. He has said as much recently, referencing the fact he didn’t recruit Svi Mykhailiuk (5.8 TRB% in Big 12 games) or Lagerald Vick (7.0% in Big 12) to be rebounders, but that’s what he is now asking them to do. He did, of course, recruit Billy Preston to rebound and contribute in other ways, but that never came to fruition.
Still, the 15th-year KU coach will do all he can to squeeze as much rebounding as possible out of his guard-heavy rotation. Self said when it comes to defensive rebounding, success or failure often depends on positioning.
“A lot of it is physicality. A lot of it is having a good base,” Self began. “When you're not very big and you're blocking out somebody that has a stronger base than you, all it takes is one nudge to displace you and all of a sudden … you're rebounding only makes and they get the opportunity to rebound misses, because you're under the basket. There's a lot things to it.”
However, Self made it clear he won’t let his perimeter players use a size disadvantage as an excuse.
“The biggest thing, and I've heard Coach (John) Wooden say this, you want teams to block out, but it's a lot more important to have guys who go after the ball than it is to block out,” Self said. “And we don't attack the ball near as well as what we have in years past, but we're also not near as big.”
The undersized Jayhawks most likely to go compete for rebounds in the fashion described by their coach are Malik Newman (9.1 TRB% in Big 12 games) and Marcus Garrett (8.3% in Big 12). But it will take a more assertive approach by every player in a KU uniform for this team to turn around a weakness in a crucial category.
— Below is a list of KU’s rebounding success in past Big 12 title-winning seasons under Self. Note: the Big 12 didn’t begin tracking rebounding percentages until the 2009-10 season.
IN BIG 12 PLAY
|20017-18||-7.1 (9th)||.620 (8th)||.275 (9th)|
|2016-17||+2.8 (2nd)||.676 (3rd)||.349 (4th)|
|2015-16||+3.7 (3rd)||.656 (6th)||.324 (4th)|
|2014-15||+1.2 (4th)||.704 (2nd)||.326 (6th)|
|2013-14||+7.7 (1st)||.709 (1st)||.388 (3rd)|
|2012-13||+6.6 (1st)||.714 (2nd)||.356 (2nd)|
|2011-12||+5.1 (1st)||.731 (1st)||.340 (4th)|
|2010-11||+6.7 (1st)||.663 (8th)||.401 (1st)|
|2009-10||+5.6 (1st)||.741 (1st)||.342 (5th)|
During most of Saturday’s Sunflower Showdown inside Allen Fieldhouse, the Kansas defense found little success in trying to defend 6-foot-10 junior Dean Wade. The forward thrived when the Jayhawks tried to defend him one-on-one, and Wade shot 8-for-14 from the floor on his way to a team-high 22 points.
After KU dodged its third fieldhouse defeat of the season with a 73-72 victory over its rivals, head coach Bill Self described Wade’s offensive showing as “fabulous,” but also made sure to praise his sophomore center, Udoka Azubuike, for a couple “great” defensive sequences late in the game when asked to stop Wade.
The No. 12 Jayhawks (14-3 overall, 4-1 Big 12) don’t often have their 7-foot sophomore defend opposing bigs who spend much of their time operating on the perimeter. In the final minutes of a tight game, Self let his the big man and his teammates know K-State (12-5, 2-3) would look to use Wade on ball screens and then have him pop open for jumpers of face-up opportunities.
Azubuike already had blocked five Wildcats shots on the afternoon when his 280-pound frame entered the defensive spotlight for the game’s final seconds, along with sophomore guard Malik Newman, on the perimeter, far from the paint, where he is most comfortable and effective.
With the game clock ticking down, Wade came up from the left block to set a ball screen for Barry Brown Jr. The first time Wade tried to get involved, he came away from a screen on Newman to move over to the top of the key, and Azubuike stayed with him.
“When I saw that he set the screen he went to the other side and I knew (Brown) was going to pass the ball to him, so I tried to deny the pass to him as fast as I can,” Azubuike said of a pass that never came.
Instead, Wade came right back to Brown for another pick. Azubuike made one quick defensive slide to his left to make sure Newman had time to recover. The center extended his long right arm upward when he saw Brown gather for a potential game-winning 3-pointer, and by the time Brown got his shot off Newman had arrived to contest it even better.
“I just tried to get a high hand,” Newman said after the dramatic ending, “and big fella did a great job of getting a high hand.”
According to Newman, Azubuike has improved as a perimeter defender in those situations.
“He’s doing great. I think every day he’s getting better and better. For him to be that big and that mobile I think that just says a lot about how much he’s been working in the weight room and things like that,” Newman said, adding the big man’s back is doing “much better,” allowing Azubuike to play with more activity than he had in previous weeks. “He’s had great energy since I saw him this morning, so I knew he was coming ready to play.”
Self didn’t consider putting Azubuike on Wade in a potential pick-and-pop situation as ideal, so the Jayhawks may have been fortunate Brown opted for the contested 3 instead of a pass to Wade on the action.
Still, Azubuike reacted appropriately under pressure out of his element. Asked whether he trusts the second-year center to defend such actions, Self’s reply showed the coach thinks Azubuike often doesn’t meet his potential when defending on the perimeter.
“When Dok’s turned up he’s a great athlete. A great athlete. He can slide his feet and guard just about anybody when he’s turned up. And he was turned up,” Self offered. “I’m not saying that’s the ideal situation, but he was turned up.”
The effort was there with the game on the line. Now Self will want to see Azubuike move swiftly and smartly every time the young big is outside of the paint, helping defend the perimeter.
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.
Kansas basketball coach Bill Self is never one to feel satisfied about his team’s defensive play. Of late, he hasn’t been thrilled with the Jayhawks’ ability to keep opponents — guards in particular — out of the paint.
When asked Thursday on the Big 12 coaches media teleconference about what KU could do to better protect the rim, Self made it clear perimeter defenders have failed to meet his expectations, so there is more to it than the Jayhawks’ current lack of front-court depth.
“That’s something that we have labored with all year and certainly that hurt us against Tech,” Self said of guards not keeping their man in front of them. “I don’t know how many straight-line drives they had. And you can’t really blame that all on rim protection; you’ve got to blame most of it on being able to guard the ball.”
A week into conference play, Kansas has surrendered 42 points in the paint (a season-high) to Texas and 32 to Texas Tech (fourth-highest through 14 games).
KU’s 39.4% field-goal percentage defense on the season, predictably, hasn’t maintained now that Big 12 play has arrived. Texas shot 43.1% against Kansas in a loss and Texas Tech made 43.3% of its shots in a road win.
Per hoop-math.com, KU opponents are attempting almost 28 percent of their shots at the rim — not a bad mark, considering it is 39th-lowest in the nation, among 351 teams. Foes have converted just above 57% (119th) of those layups, dunks and point-blank looks.
Self estimated Tech probably beat KU five to seven times with simple straight-line drives past a defender, without even making a real basketball move to find success, likening those instances to what Frank Mason III did to Kansas opponents so often a year ago: “just put your head down and go.”
The Jayhawks defending outside, Self added, have to do a better job of executing the plan laid out in scouting reports. But the coach admitted his forwards and centers also have to “play bigger.”
For now, with the status of both Billy Preston and Silviou De Sousa unresolved, that means KU needs 7-foot sophomore center Udoka Azubuike to maximize his paint-protecting potential.
“We need Udoka to be able to block and alter more,” Self said, before referencing why Azubuike might not have been as effective of late. “And there’s no excuse at all, but hopefully he’ll feel better physically, where he’s able to do that. His back is sore and he didn’t move very well against Tech — we didn’t think — at all. But it’s not from a lack of effort. I just don’t feel like he’s quite at 100 percent.”
Azubuike blocked just one shot in 57 combined minutes versus Texas and Texas Tech while dealing with back soreness. Backup forward Mitch Lightfoot blocked two shots in 18 minutes against UT and Tech.
The No. 10 Jayhawks (11-3 overall, 1-1 Big 12) will have to better protect the rim Saturday night at No. 16 TCU (13-1, 1-1). According to hoop-math.com, the Horned Frogs get 44.1% of their shots at the rim — 22nd nationally. On those attempts TCU shoots 65.4% (70th in the country).