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Udoka Azubuike in early stages of getting back to his dominating ways

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike comes in for a dunk past former Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor and current forward Tristan Enaruna during a scrimmage on Tuesday, June 18, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike comes in for a dunk past former Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor and current forward Tristan Enaruna during a scrimmage on Tuesday, June 18, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

Cleared to play basketball again just a few weeks back, University of Kansas center Udoka Azubuike isn’t quite back to his rim wrecking ways.

That’s not to say one of the leading candidates for Big 12 Player of the Year next season has much to worry about regarding his future on the court. It was just obvious Tuesday afternoon inside Allen Fieldhouse that Azubuike can’t yet dominate inside the way he’s used to doing.

The 7-footer from from Nigeria still dunked with ease during a low key scrimmage designed to entertain the kids attending Bill Self’s basketball camp. Azubuike simply wasn’t wholly vicious in doing so like you know a 100% recovered “Dok” would be.

That’s no criticism of the Jayhawks’ 280-ish pound pivot, either. The big man hasn’t played in a real basketball game — this scrimmage existed on the opposite end of the competitive and intense spectrum — in more than six months, after suffering a wrist injury that ended his junior season.

The four dunks Azubuike completed with ease, while tamer than the ones that comprise the center’s career highlight reel, because no one had to fear whether the stanchion could handle the aftershock, were a sign he’s easing his way back into form, and back into commanding the paint.

Azubuike didn’t spend the first-to-80 scrimmage outrunning any of KU’s other bigs, either, but that’s never been his game. He at least was able to get up and down the floor without looking overwhelmingly plodding for most of the affair, while fellow bigs David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot (Silvio De Sousa was absent on this particular afternoon) obviously benefited from being in far better condition — see: Azubuike’s aforementioned long non-basketball rehab and recovery process.

While the two free throws Azubuike knocked down late in the scrimmage had to be a nice little confidence booster for the career 39.4% foul shooter, the good news for KU’s frontcourt is that Azubuike still has another four-plus months to get back to tyrannizing opponents who have the misfortune of trying to defend him in the low post.

And by then Azubuike surely will feel more comfortable relying on his strength inside than he does at this juncture. At the height of his powers the center would have scored far more than the 23 points he put up in his Blue team’s narrow loss at Self’s camp. And he would not have been so quick to settle for and take lower-percentage jumpers when he’s better off prevailing through and over interior defenders above and around the rim.

Azubuike no doubt benefited psychologically from taking jump shots that he clearly has spent some time on in hopes of adding to his repertoire. And the massive Jayhawk even had a little fun in front of the campers, trying to show off his handles with some length of the floor low dribbling displays. The youth were so inspired that by the time the game was on the line they serenaded the big with chants of “Dok for 3,” a request that not even Azubuike wanted to grant.

But we know where his shots will come from when the games mean something again. Azubuike’s dunks and jump hooks will be a staple of KU’s offense in 2019-20. By the time the season gets here, he’ll be back to his authoritative, intimidating attacks in the post.

Reply 3 comments from Dmudd Robert  Brock Surrealku

Silvio De Sousa and David McCormack ready to battle for playing time

Red Team forward Silvio De Sousa (22) soars in for a dunk during a scrimmage on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, at the Horejsi Athletic Center.

Red Team forward Silvio De Sousa (22) soars in for a dunk during a scrimmage on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, at the Horejsi Athletic Center. by Nick Krug

Both have just one season of college basketball experience on their résumés. In terms of height, one of them has just one inch on the other. And when it comes to fit, either of the two University of Kansas big men have the ability to partner effectively inside with 7-footer Udoka Azubuike.

So which sturdy forward is the man for the frontcourt supporting role next to Azubuiike when KU plays big? Silvio De Sousa or David McCormack?

Head coach Bill Self and his staff, of course, have much of the offseason, preseason practices, scrimmages and even exhibitions to navigate before they really have to figure that part out.

In the meantime, the rest of the Jayhawks should get to witness quite a competition between the 6-foot-10, 260-pound McCormack, who became a more impactful player for KU late in his freshman season, and the 6-9, 245-pound De Sousa, whose first year of college basketball followed a similar path before the NCAA ruled him ineligible for what would have been his sophomore season.

“It could be,” McCormack said recently, when asked whether his battles with De Sousa in the weeks and months ahead could determine which of them enters the 2019-20 season as a starter. “But, I mean, I see it as friendly competition, pushing us to get better. And I know either way it’s going to benefit us both.”

As a freshman this past season, McCormack played in 34 games, averaging 3.9 points and 3.1 rebounds in 10.7 minutes a game. The big man who played at Oak Hill Academy (Va.) as a prep finished his debut college year shooting 62.5% from the floor, and proved to be far more effective toward the end of the schedule, after growing more comfortable at the collegiate level.

In early March, McCormack put up double-digit points in three consecutive games. In his season finale he provided 11 points and 6 boards against Auburn. McCormack projects as an overall more effective player for KU as a sophomore, particularly with the positive individual momentum that led into his offseason.

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) pulls away an offensive rebound from Auburn guard Samir Doughty (10) during the second half on Saturday, March 23, 2019 at Vivint Smart Homes Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) pulls away an offensive rebound from Auburn guard Samir Doughty (10) during the second half on Saturday, March 23, 2019 at Vivint Smart Homes Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. by Nick Krug

De Sousa’s a lock to blow away his previous season’s numbers, as well. Before breaking through late in KU’s 2018 Final Four season, De Sousa often played sparse minutes when asked to prove his merits to Self. Four minutes there, two minutes here. De Sousa played one minute three times in his 20 appearances off the bench for KU. In half of those 20 games he played four or fewer minutes.

It’s already been more than a year and two months since De Sousa proved in an Elite Eight matchup versus Duke (4 points, 10 rebounds and 1 block) that his presence can change a game for the better for KU. The big man never got the chance the following year to show off how much he had added to his repertoire since putting up 4.0 points and 3.7 rebounds in 8.8 minutes as a freshman, when he shot 68.1% from the floor.

Ahead of his junior year with the Jayhawks, the forward from Angola expects his clashes inside with McCormack will be intense.

“Oh, yeah,” De Sousa began, before making it clear that didn’t mean any animosity existed between the two KU bigs. “Battles are on every team. Everybody who wants to play, they must earn it.”

After watching closely as McCormack developed into a more forceful presence inside, De Sousa assessed that his teammate had a good freshman season.

“So I’m going to have to battle and fight every single day and just kind of earn the spot,” De Sousa added.

These two will be tussling in the paint and around the rim on KU’s practice courts, but how they handle various other parts of the job is likely to dictate who plays more.

If Self wants to start two big men, rather than four guards around Azubuike, ultimately, the forward who emerges as the starting 4-man will be the one who is the best fit for the lineup overall. And that might come down to which of them is more comfortable operating from the high post and/or playing some on the perimeter in order to better balance the floor.

Neither has proven in live action what he can do in that role, and neither is likely to look as natural doing so as Dedric Lawson, for example.

Both could kill it on the offensive glass playing next to Azubuike and both burly forwards possess the potential to make the paint a treacherous place to visit for KU opponents.

However, unless one of De Sousa and McCormack unexpectedly dominates the other, making the victor a no-brainer of a decision for Self, it could come down to other intangibles. Who is more versatile defensively? Which one can keep the ball moving offensively and feed Azubuike in the post? Who can drive the ball not just to score but to help keep the offense flowing?

They’ll have all summer long and then some to fine tune those aspects of the game that might not come as naturally as a jump hook off a post up.

De Sousa seems to have the more natural jumper between the two, and not because of that, but due to the tenacity that characterizes much of his game and his bounce, the sure to be fan favorite inside Allen Fieldhouse who won his appeal after the NCAA robbed him of a year of his basketball career would be my pick to win the available staring job up front.

And McCormack would be a terror of a first big off the bench.

Reply 8 comments from Jaylark Barry Weiss Eric Dawson Shannon Gustafson Jessej421 Tony Bandle Brett McCabe Karen Mansfield-Stewart

Udoka Azubuike’s presence elevates KU’s ceiling

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) dunks in front of Tennessee forward Kyle Alexander (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) dunks in front of Tennessee forward Kyle Alexander (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger) by Associated Press

With so many rotation players from the Kansas basketball team transferring, declaring for the draft or testing the NBA waters it seemed a safe bet that Udoka Azubuike, who dipped his sizable toes into the pre-draft process a year ago, might not be around for the 2019-20 season, either.

Unfortunately for the center from Delta, Nigeria, his still mending right wrist led him to stick around.

This is, of course, also quite the fortunate development for head coach Bill Self and every player who gets a chance to team up with Azubuike at KU next season, because his presence equates to more victories.

As a junior, the largest man on KU’s campus averaged 13.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, while shooting 70.5% from the floor in Kansas victories.

Here’s what Azubuike’s numbers looked like in KU losses: …

Just a second. Still looking. …

Hold on. …

Oh, here we are. There aren’t any of those stats.

When the big man played KU won. Would the Jayhawks have gone undefeated with a healthy Azubuike? Obviously not. But, let’s be honest, they would have finished with a better overall record than their 26-10 mark, would have had a much better chance of extending the program’s Big 12 title streak and would have ended up with a better seed in the NCAA Tournament — and, theoretically at least, an easier March Madness path.

True, Azubuike missed 75% of the season — a four-game stretch in December, followed by the wrist injury in early January that sidelined him for the remainder of the schedule. But in the games in which the 7-footer played, the Jayhawks didn’t lose.

KU went 9-0 with Azubuike manning the paint and finishing possessions with his backboard-vibrating dunks. What’s more, three of KU’s best wins of the season came with Azubuike in the lineup: neutral court victories over Michigan State, Marquette and Tennessee.

Outside of a surefire top-three draft pick, Azubuike is as big a difference-maker as any college basketball coach could dream to have on a roster.

Per sports-reference.com’s advanced stats, KU’s colossus in a No. 35 jersey led all Jayhawks during the 2018-19 season in player efficiency rating (31.5), true shooting percentage (64.9%), effective field goal percentage (70.5%), total rebounding percentage (18.3%), defensive rebounding percentage (23.4%) and usage percentage (30%).

The man is so massive inside that KU opponents know he can’t be stopped and still can’t do much about keeping the ball out of his hands. In his previous two seasons, a span of 45 games, Azubuike shot 266-for-352 (75.6%) from the floor, because he doesn’t take shots outside of his comfort zone and knows his limitations on offense.

The big man isn’t perfect, far from it. Good thing for KU, because if he was he would have already left for the NBA, either last year or this year.

Even when facing teams better equipped to deal with him, Azubuike’s presence alone makes KU a better offensive team. His minutes are still impactful ones when foul trouble limits how long he can be on the floor, as his 270-pound frame wears out the opponents who have to do their best to guard him.

When facing double teams from larger front lines that make it more difficult for him to catch and get to the rim, the fact that Azubuike’s out there at the very least makes it easier for KU perimeter players to find open shots and/or driving lanes. The attention he demands can open up offensive rebound opportunities for his teammates, too. Congratulations, David McCormack, you’ve just been gifted some easy putbacks and follow jams for your sophomore highlight reel.

We all know about Azubuike’s free throw issues — 41.3% as a sophomore and 11-for-32 as a junior (34.4%). That’s a discussion for another day. For now, head coach Bill Self and his Jayhawks can focus on how much easier it will be to win games next season, with their overpowering senior center on the floor.

If Azubuike can stay healthy during what will be his final year in Lawrence, it’s hard to envision the Jayhawks having another turbulent on-court season, such as the one they just went through, mostly without him.

And should the NCAA happen to clear Silvio De Sousa for takeoff, by granting KU’s appeal of his suspension, assuming Devon Dotson returns, KU should have one of the best lineups in the country.

Unless the NCAA hits Kansas where it hurts in the form of a postseason ban as a result of the federal investigation into college basketball corruption, the Jayhawks look like a team that will pick up plenty of 2020 Final Four buzz between now and next March.

Reply 8 comments from Chad Smith Shannon Gustafson Jim Stauffer Mlbenn35 Barry Weiss Jaylark Layne Pierce

Down a go-to dunker, Jayhawks need to actively attack paint for more below-the-rim points

Kansas forward Dedric Lawson (1) gets in for a bucket during the second half on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas forward Dedric Lawson (1) gets in for a bucket during the second half on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

Bill Self could not care much less about how many electrifying highlights his players deliver during any given game. Dunks and layups, after all, carry the same two-point value on the scoreboard.

Be that as it may, the Kansas basketball coach has, on his own accord, referenced the slams — or lack thereof — from his Jayhawks following two of their past three games.

After KU defeated TCU at Allen Fieldhouse just more than a week ago, Self was discussing freshman Ochai Agbaji finishing an alley-oop for his first college basket, when the coach introduced the subject.

“I thought it might be something to energize the crowd a little bit, because we have been so boring playing above the rim,” Self said at the time. “At least we had some activity.”

That was two games into KU’s new layup-laden reality, also known as life without Udoka Azubuike. The high-percentage and opposition-demoralizing dunks the 7-footer provided before suffering a season-ending wrist injury are irreplaceable.

That fact was hammered home like a vintage Azubuike throwdown after KU defeated Texas on Big Monday earlier this week.

“We didn’t get a dunk tonight,” Self pointed out, while answering a question about Marcus Garrett’s potential to score in the paint. “So we don’t have guys that finish around the rim like past teams do. But I thought Dedric (Lawson) had a couple of great finishes late, and I certainly thought Marcus had some good finishes in there. But the whole team, you know, we need everybody to be in there.”

Indeed, it’s liveliness and a desire to go make plays in the paint that Self is seeking out of his players at this point, because if you combine all the dunks provided by Jayhawks not named Udoka Azubuike this season, it adds up to 24 — a bakers dozen shy of the 37 slams Azubuike racked up over the course of nine games.

In the four games since its starting center was lost for the season, KU (15-2 overall, 4-1 Big 12) has only been outscored in the paint once, 32-24 at Baylor. In defeating the Longhorns two days later, UT scored on three dunks in each half for 12 total points, but slam-less KU still prevailed in points in the paint, 34-28.

When Azubuike missed four games in December with an ankle injury, the Jayhawks were outscored in the paint by both New Mexico State and Villanova, but scored more inside than both South Dakota and Arizona State.

On the year, KU is averaging 37.8 points in the paint and holding opponents to 26.7. But that margin diminishes when looking only at the games Azubuike has missed: KU 32.5, foes 29.3.

Kansas guard Devon Dotson (11) cruises in for a bucket past Oklahoma guard Jamal Bieniemy (24) during the first half, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Devon Dotson (11) cruises in for a bucket past Oklahoma guard Jamal Bieniemy (24) during the first half, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

Now that the Jayhawks don’t have the option of throwing entry passes or lobs to Azubuike, scoring around the rim isn’t quite as easy or consistent. But they still have a highly efficient option in junior forward Dedric Lawson.

True, Lawson is known for his old-man game in and around the post, and not his athleticism nor explosiveness (see: the 6-9 forward’s two made dunks in 539 minutes this season). All the same, according to hoop-math.com, Lawson has made 75% of his shots around the rim to date, converting 72 of 96, both team highs. Azubuike was 50 for 62 at the rim, for 80.6% accuracy.

Self made it clear Thursday, ahead of KU’s trip to West Virginia, that it matters not to him how his Jayhawks score inside. He hasn’t brought up dunks because he’s demanding to see more of them.

“But it just matters in general for athletic plays that are easy baskets, you know. That’s what matters,” Self said. “If you’re playing above the rim, then it probably gives you more opportunities for offensive rebounds, keeping balls alive and things like that. We don’t have a team that really does that.”

KU’s 16th-year head coach said he’s “OK” with this batch of Jayhawks spending less time in the air space above the basket. They just need to make up for that in other areas that don’t require frequent flier miles.

“We haven’t had many teams that we don’t throw the ball up,” Self said, referencing KU’s countless soaring finishers through the years. “And that’s why I was so excited about Ochai, because he’d be the best candidate for that. But, still, those are plays that happen randomly. Those aren’t set plays near as much.”

While one might assume KU should be able to play faster without Azubuike, fast break chances haven’t exactly spiked in his absence. The Jayhawks scored four transition points at Iowa State, eight versus TCU, two at Baylor and six against Texas.

If Devon Dotson and KU’s athletic guards can push the ball in the open court more going forward, that could help the Jayhawks at least experience an uptick in paint points and dunks.

“Transition, two-on-one, you just naturally throw it up,” Self said of fast breaks. “And we haven’t been very good at that.”

KU dunks on the season, through 17 games

— Shots made and attempted at the rim, per hoop-math.com, listed in parentheses for each player

Udoka Azubuike — 37 dunks (50 for 62, 80.6%)

Lagerald Vick — 6 dunks (21 for 32, 65.6%)

David McCormack — 4 dunks (10 for 18, 55.6%)

Marcus Garrett — 4 dunks (23 for 43, 53.5%)

Ochai Agbaji — 3 dunks (5 for 5, 100%)

Mitch Lightfoot — 3 dunks (9 for 15, 60%)

Dedric Lawson — 2 dunks (72 for 96, 75%)

Quentin Grimes — 2 dunks (21 for 32, 65.6%)

Devon Dotson — 0 dunks (44 for 68, 64.7%)

K.J. Lawson — 0 dunks (4 for 5, 80%)

Charlie Moore — 0 dunks (4 for 15, 26.7%)

Reply 6 comments from Carsonc30 Surrealku Barry Weiss Karen Mansfield-Stewart

KU will have to adapt quickly to playing without Udoka Azubuike

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.

Reply 13 comments from Carsonc30 Glen Koolkeithfreeze Barry Weiss Surrealku Chrisdeweese Ashwingrao Kall3742 Robert  Brock Andy Godwin

KU bigs Lawson and Azubuike more than capable of playing together

Kansas forward Dedric Lawson (1) puts a shot over Oklahoma forward Brady Manek (35) during the first half, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas forward Dedric Lawson (1) puts a shot over Oklahoma forward Brady Manek (35) during the first half, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

Thirteen games into the season the Kansas basketball team still hasn’t come close to reaching its ceiling, particularly on offense.

The latest evidence of how much better the No. 5 Jayhawks (12-1) could become over the course of the next couple of months materialized during the second half of their Big 12 opener versus No. 23 Oklahoma.

KU’s two most effective offensive players, center Udoka Azubuike and forward Dedric Lawson, didn’t live up to that billing after halftime and the offense flatlined as a result.

“When Dok and Dedric both were in the game, neither one was scoring in the second half,” head coach Bill Self lamented after his team’s 70-63 victory.

While Self attributed some of Azubuike’s issues to conditioning, what with the 7-footer playing in just his second game since missing close to four weeks with a right ankle sprain, Lawson, particularly early in the second half, seemed to be adjusting to playing alongside the massive post player again.

“If we were going to play them both together, we should’ve thrown it inside every possession, and we didn’t do that or take advantage of that,” Self said.

After an eight-point first half, Azubuike went scoreless — and didn’t even attempt a shot from the floor — in nine second-half minutes. Lawson played all 20 minutes in the second half, but clearly was at his most impactful when KU’s starting center sat.

Within a minute of Azubuike subbing out, Lawson, who is averaging 10.5 points in KU’s two games since the 7-footer rejoined the lineup, scored a layup off a Quentin Grimes assist. That ignited a burst during which the redshirt junior forward from Memphis scored six of KU’s eight points in two minutes, pushing the Jayhawks’ lead from five to 13 in the process.

“And then after Dedric made those three baskets in a row he took about three or four bad shots in a row, or marginal shots I should say,” Self added, “which were times that we probably should’ve been more patient and made sure we got a paint touch.”

Following KU’s win, Self didn’t seem too worried about the duo’s ability to play together, however. Asked about how Lawson could get post-up opportunities when Azubuike, who scores basically all of his baskets from within a few feet from the rim, is in the game, Self pointed to the missed opportunities from Lawson in the first half as proof they can both get the touches they need.

“He got a few and didn’t take advantage of them,” Self said of Lawson missing his first seven shot attempts in the first half, with three of those misfires coming at the rim and two more attempted inside the paint. “Dedric probably missed (as many) easy shots in the first half as you can miss. The first possession of the game he gets a two-footer and he missed about three or four layups when (Brady) Manek was guarding him — of course, Manek’s length does bother him. But I didn’t think that was a problem as much tonight.”

Lawson finished 6 for 17 from the field, 0 for 3 on 3-pointers and with 13 points and 15 rebounds in KU’s conference opener. Azubuike went 4 for 5, with eight points and nine rebounds.

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) looks to throw a pass against several Oklahoma defenders during the first half, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) looks to throw a pass against several Oklahoma defenders during the first half, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

It wasn’t as if this was their first time sharing the court this season, but it was just their second game working in tandem since Azubuike’s return, and the Sooners’ defense provided a much more imposing challenge than what Eastern Michigan could offer.

There’s still a bit of a feeling out process going on for Azubuike and Lawson. And that’s OK. KU still has more than two weeks of practices to go before the start of the spring semester. Much progress can be made with the fluidity of a two-big offense in that time, especially with Lawson doubling as a superb entry passer for Azubuike, who can dominate around the rim.

“I still think that’s the best way for us to play, to get our best offensive team on the court,” Self added of playing his top two bigs together. “But certainly we were better the second half when Dok was out of the game offensively, because if Dok’s not scoring then he kind of guards Dedric.”

The spacing needed for both to thrive, of course, would come if Kansas could discover some semblance of consistency from its 3-point shooters (34.4 percent on the season and below that mark as a team in six of the previous seven games).

“It’s very important,” Lawson said of the Jayhawks finding their marks from long range. “The paint was crowded tonight and I think teams are going to start crowding it up and loading it up on me and Udoka to make it harder on me and Udoka to score easy and to get those easy baskets. So to free that up guys got to make shots.”

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Udoka Azubuike’s teammates haven’t given up on him as free throw shooter

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike puts up a shot on Friday, March 30, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike puts up a shot on Friday, March 30, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. by Nick Krug

Udoka Azubuike, considered a notorious misser of free throws by some, has not lost the trust of his Kansas basketball teammates when he steps to the foul line.

How could that be, with the burly center connecting on a lowly 34.4 percent of his freebies so far this season?

The man who starts next to Azubuike in KU’s frontcourt, Dedric Lawson, explained following KU’s victory over No. 23 Oklahoma that the 7-footer, as you so often hear about players who struggle at the free throw line, actually performs more than acceptably there during practice situations.

When asked if he was concerned about Azubuike as a shooter when the Sooners opted to foul the big man and put him on the so-called charity stripe with 4:32 left in the second half, Lawson balked at the notion.

“To be honest I wasn’t, because at practice coach did like a drill with Dok,” Lawson related of Bill Self’s instructions for the center earlier in the week. “He had to make 37 out of 50 free throws. And Dok did it the first time. If he didn’t do it, he would have to stay in the gym ’til he finished. So I thought he was going to be pretty comfortable at the free throw line tonight.”

According to Lawson, who witnessed the exchange between KU’s center and coach after Azubuike completed the exercise, Self asked the big man why he didn’t make 40.

“Because you said 37,” Lawson shared of Azubuike’s answer.

Even though the junior center’s free throws didn’t play much of a factor in KU’s 70-63 victory over OU (Azubuike only attempted one free throw the entire game, and missed it), the late-game sequence could foreshadow what awaits No. 5 KU and its least sound free throw shooter in the weeks ahead.

Self said when his OU counterpart, Lon Kruger, decided to send Azubuike to the foul line, it only surprised the KU coach that it happened at that particular juncture, with more than for minutes left.

“It’s kind of a screwy deal, and it’s really not fair to Dok. But we probably should’ve played him before we were in the bonus, so that way they wouldn’t have done it, and then when we got in the bonus if you want to rest him, then rest him then,” Self said of a substitution pattern that could have avoided that situation.

Once Azubuike missed the front end of his one-and-one, Self didn’t immediately yank him from the floor. But senior guard Lagerald Vick replaced the center at the 3:47 mark, and Azubuike watched the rest of the game from the bench, as KU closed out its Big 12 opener with a victory.

“I wasn’t gonna take him out after one miss. But when it got down under the four minute timeout, I thought it was time that we should probably go ahead and sub for him,” Self said, “because I knew they were gonna do it again and we were still in the one-and-one — we weren’t in the double bonus yet.”

Based on last year’s results alone, Kruger, a respected tactician, seems to be the only Big 12 coach willing to fully embrace the hack-a-Dok strategy. While other coaches tried it a year ago, it was sporadic at best, compared to Kruger’s commitment to it in crunch time at Oklahoma in late January of 2018, when six consecutive missed Azubuike free throws in the final minutes led to a Sooners victory.

Perhaps Kruger’s colleagues around the conference will come to agree with his line of thinking in league play in 2019. We’ll soon find out.

When/if KU encounters another hack-a-Dok situation, it seems safe to assume Self will try to counter it, in part, by resting Azubuike while KU is in the bonus, if possible.

Don’t be surprised, though, if Self at least gives Azubuike (11 of 32 on free throws this season) a chance to hit some late-game free throws in a relatively tight game soon. Free throws often come down to a player’s comfort at the foul line. Self won’t want to make his center overthink them even more by just not playing the 7-footer at all in crunch time. Now, if it’s a one-possession game in the final minute, that situation may force Self to play the percentages, and take his career 39.4 percent foul shooter out of the mix.

But there is something to be said for giving Azubuike some chances late in games to at least attempt a free throw or two. If he misses a couple, Self can go ahead and sub him out. If the center makes them, there’s no reason to take him off the floor when he can help you on the glass and protect the paint, as well. Plus, showing some trust in the big man can only help his confidence moving forward.

Reply 6 comments from Jerry Walker Len Shaffer Dane Pratt Marius7782 Nick Kramer Surrealku

Postgame Report Card: Kansas 87, Eastern Michigan 63

Kansas guard Lagerald Vick throws down a two handed dunk Saturday.

Kansas guard Lagerald Vick throws down a two handed dunk Saturday. by Mike Gunnoe

Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 87-63 win over Eastern Michigan on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.

Offense: B

Keeping things efficient early, KU scored its first 14 points of the game in the paint, even getting some (all be it not too ferocious) dunks from Udoka Azubuike, who returned to the court after missing 25 days with an ankle injury.

The Jayhawks shot an insane 65.4 percent from the floor in the first half and racked up 14 assists on their 17 field goals. With 28 points in the paint, KU led big, 46-25, at intermission. KU’s 8 turnovers in the first half, most of them unforced, were the only knock on the home team.

In the second half, KU didn’t look nearly as pretty offensively. Whether the Jayhawks got too comfortable with their lead or not, EMU did take on an active defensive approach, too. This one looked every bit like a blowout win for KU before the offense slogged through much of the second half.

KU shooting percentages: 55.4% FGs, 33.3% 3s, 69.2% FTs

Defense: B+

EMU’s offense struggled mightily in the first half as Kansas kept the Eagles from finding easy baskets in the paint (6 points inside in the first 20 minutes).

Only 23.5 percent of the Eagles’ 34 shots fell in the first half, and the overmatched visitors turned the ball over 9 times. EMU needed to knock down some 3-pointers to stand a chance of keeping up but went 3 of 15 from deep before halftime.

KU closed out its win in the second half by continuing to defend the Eagles well and not allowing any of them to get in a rhythm or catch fire.

Even though the Jayhawks’ offense wasn’t impressive after halftime, their defense did more than enough to keep the game from getting close.

EMU shooting percentages: 30% FGs, 18.8% 3s,

Frontcourt: B+

After missing nearly five games with a right ankle injury he suffered during the opening minutes of KU’s win over Wofford on Dec. 4, Azubuike not only returned to the lineup but also the starting five.

The junior center looked even better than imaginable in the opening minutes, too. Azubuike scored 7 quick points, 4 of those coming off dunks no less, before checking out for the first time a little more than five minutes in.

The 7-footer racked up 14 points in the first half, when he finished five dunks for easy points. Azubuike finished his return performance with 23 points (10-for-13 shooting), 9 rebounds and 2 blocks in 20 minutes.

Much of the big man’s success had to do with how easily fellow frontcourt player Dedric Lawson operated against EMU.

The junior forward’s feel and passing against the Eagles’ half-court zone kept KU’s offense from turning stagnant, and often times led to easy baskets for Azubuike.

Lawson had 6 points and 4 assists by halftime and his role as a facilitator keyed KU’s easy start. The versatile big from Memphis put up 8 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds as No. 5 KU improved to 11-1 on the season.

Backcourt: B-

Freshman point guard Devon Dotson (15 points, 4 assists, 3 steals) quickly and efficiently put up 10 points in the first half, his most amazing contribution coming on an acrobatic fast-break layup. The 6-2 floor general also knocked in 4 of 5 free throws for easy points.

Dotson, like Lawson, spent much of the first half setting up teammates, with 4 assists before the break. Though it wasn’t a banner day for KU 3-point shooters, Dotson chipped in there, as well, with a corner 3-pointer early in the second half, when KU’s offense was in a bit of a lull.

It was another mostly quiet offensive outing for freshman guard Quentin Grimes until late in the game. And he didn’t stand out for piling up mistakes, either, which is a good sign.

Grimes looked confident in attempting his 3-pointers, even if he didn’t hoist a ton of them, making 2 of 4. He finished with 16 points in 29 minutes.

The at times erratic Lagerald Vick didn’t take on a starring role as he has at other points of the nonconference schedule. The senior guard from Memphis only put up 4 points on 2-for-7 shooting and went 0 for 5 on 3-pointers.

Bench: C+

KU didn’t need much production from its bench on this afternoon, so it didn’t hurt the home team that it didn’t get much until the game was basically over in the final minutes.

Mitch Lightfoot provided 4 points and 6 rebounds off the bench. Charlie Moore (6 points) knocked down a timely 3-pointer in the first half. David McCormack (4 points) put in an early dunk for a 20-9 KU lead, and converted another in transition late off a Grimes lob.

As expected, Marcus Garrett was the best off the bench overall, contributing his typically solid defense, as well as 4 rebounds and 3 assists.

EMU’s substitutes outscored KU’s 30-21.

Reply 2 comments from Dane Pratt Jerry Walker

Marcus Garrett’s defensive versatility makes it easy for KU to shift to 4-guard lineup

Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) moves to the bucket past Wofford center Matthew Pegram (50) during the second half on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) moves to the bucket past Wofford center Matthew Pegram (50) during the second half on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

Your best post player goes down. Time for another to step up, right?

Not for this Kansas basketball team.

The absence of center Udoka Azubuike, no matter how long the 7-footer’s right ankle sprain keeps him out of the lineup, doesn’t necessarily mean more minutes for the frontcourt reserves who have been backing him up.

Head coach Bill Self loved the talents of Azubuike and Dedric Lawson too much to not go big and play them together. But now that his starting center is out, Self’s ready to adapt by reviving the four-guard look that worked so well for the Jayhawks the past couple of seasons.

While Lawson, a 6-foot-9 redshirt junior, isn’t the type of low-post player Azubuike is, Self isn’t going to ask his versatile forward, who leads the No. 2 Jayhawks in scoring (19 points per game), rebounds (10.7) and assists (3.1) to try to be someone he’s not. And Self has no intention of forcing junior Mitch Lightfoot or freshman David McCormack into the lineup as a pseudo-Dok just because that’s the style KU played during its 7-0 start.

The offense will start running through Lawson even more now, as guards Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes, Lagerald Vick and Marcus Garrett play around him. If Lawson (32.7 minutes a game) needs a breather, then Self will turn to either Lightfoot (6.6 minutes) or McCormack (4.5 minutes) a little more than he has previously.

But even when KU is faced with defending a team that plays two bigs together, Self doesn’t think that will force him to match it. Garrett, a 6-5 sophomore guard, proved earlier this week in KU’s 72-47 victory over Wofford he can more than hold his own as the 4-man, the role occupied in recent four-guard lineups by Svi Mykhailiuk and Josh Jackson.

“We defended them so much better with Marcus on their big guy,” Self said of one factor that convinced KU’s coaching staff to start Garrett instead of another big in Azubuike’s spot. “I have confidence in Marcus defending the 4-man. Now we may need to trap the post or do some things like that. But I think that’s good for us.”

Ask a guard about the in-season modification to the Jayhawks’ style and he’ll think about what it will do for the offense.

“That gives us a bunch of freedom,” Grimes said of Garrett joining the starting lineup. “Really whoever gets (the ball on a defensive stop), all five can essentially bring it. So I think it’s definitely going to help us out for sure.”

Grimes envisions not only he and Vick catching more lobs but also he and Garrett throwing more of them.

“I think it’ll be really fun,” Grimes said.

Self, though, isn’t moving to a four-guard lineup because he’s concerned about anyone’s enjoyment or entertainment. He’s backing away from a two-big approach because Garrett’s defensive versatility makes it an easy decision.

“He’s got good size, he’s got long arms,” Self began, when asked how Garrett is able to guard both perimeter and post players. “But he is very, very smart. As far as IQ and understanding the game on the defensive side, he’s right up there with the best that we’ve ever had. And he’s tough. And he’s strong. And he pays attention to scouting reports. So he knows when to show, when not to show, when to front. … He just does a better job, I’d say, than the majority of college players out there early in his career, because he does have a great feel defensively.”

And, believe it or not, Self and his staff have long thought this year’s KU team has a chance to become “really good” defensively. Self said Thursday that may even end up becoming this group’s identity.

For much of the first six games, that didn’t look to be the case. But Self saw during Tuesday’s win over Wofford glimpses of speed and length and activity from his guards that he and his assistants first witnessed during both the summer and fall.

He’s not ready to call KU a good defensive team yet. Self remembers how his team “stunk” on that end of the floor against Stanford just five days ago. But he has observed both improvement and potential.

If that’s the vision, it may be difficult for either Lightfoot or McCormack to play huge minutes, even if they play well. KJ Lawson and Charlie Moore can step into the four-guard lineup around Dedric Lawson as needed. And Lightfoot and McCormack can sub in and still find ways to impact the game.

“We’re similar but still different,” the 6-10 McCormack said of what he and the 6-8 Lightfoot bring. “We’re both high intensity, both hustle players, both rebounders. There’s some aspects that Mitch does that I don’t. Like Mitch might step out and he’ll shoot a 3-pointer every now and then — something I may not do,” McCormack added. “Me, I’m more back to the basket. He may want to face up. So there are some differences, but there are some similarities at the same time.”

McCormack has the build and McDonald’s All-American pedigree to potentially perform his way into more playing time. And Lightfoot remains a strong help-side rim protector, as well as the best Jayhawk at taking charges.

But if neither ends up seeing a huge uptick in minutes while Azubuike is out, you won’t see either of them sulking. They’re two high character teammates, too, who will do all they can to contribute in a four-guard lineup that isn’t built to feature them.

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Postgame Report Card: Kansas 84, Vermont 68

Kansas guard Lagerald Vick (24) puts up a three over Vermont guard Ernie Duncan (20) during the first half, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Lagerald Vick (24) puts up a three over Vermont guard Ernie Duncan (20) during the first half, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 84-68 win over Vermont Monday night at Allen Fieldhouse.

Offense: B-

For most of the Jayhawks’ home opener, only two players found ways to assert themselves on offense. And, really, it was more The Lagerald Vick Show, with Udoka Azubuike co-starring than a case of equal billing.

Vick, a 6-foot-5 senior guard, was the only offense the Jayhawks had for much of the opening minutes, with 13 of KU’s first 20 points — and the No. 2 team in the country trailing, 26-20.

He went on to nail all eight of his attempts from behind the arc and lead Kansas with a career-best 32 points. You could tell he was cooking early, when he buried his fourth with a little one-on-one crossover and pull-up on the left wing after a half-court set produced nothing better.

The only other approach working for KU (to varying degrees of success) was force-feeding Azubuike inside, usually with entry passes over the top, and letting the 7-footer power through defenders for dunks, layups and shots near the rim. The massive junior hit 10 of 17 from the floor for 23 points and brought in 11 rebounds

Two first-half fouls meant Dedric Lawson only played seven minutes before the break and his slow start and off night — 0 points, seven rebounds — served as a reminder of how vital the junior forward will be for KU’s offense.

With little offensive support for Vick and Azubuike, KU couldn’t put away Vermont (1-1) until the final minutes.

Defense: B-

In the opening minutes, KU ran into trouble contesting Ernie Duncan and Stef Smith (both 2-for-2) from beyond the arc, leading to a 14-8 deficit before the first media timeout.

Vermont improved its lead to 23-17 near the midway mark of the first half on Smith’s third 3-pointer and led by as many as eight.

Azubuike, with regularity in the first half, struggled to recover when involved in ball screens, leading to quality looks both inside and out for the Catamounts.

KU eventually adjusted and/or settled in enough to keep Vermont from giving the Jayhawks a real scare, though. The Catamounts shot 41 percent form the floor and didn’t knock in enough 3-pointers (9 of 26) to set up a potential upset.

Frontcourt: C

Outside of Azubuike’s double-double and some rebounds from Dedric Lawson, the bigs weren’t effective and in some cases, were just not playable, given Vermont’s reliance on a smaller lineup.

Backcourt: B-

Freshman Quentin Grimes, with a steady floor game and 10 assists to go with his 10 points, gave Vick a little help. But Devon Dotson (seven points, six rebounds) wasn’t quite as effective.

Bench: C

Sophomore guards Charlie Moore (seven points, two assists in 21 minutes) and Marcus Garrett (four points, five rebounds and three assists in 26 minutes) were the only substitutes Bill Self trusted on this night.

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