KU big man Udoka Azubuike's free throw fix still a work in progress
After hitting rock bottom via a 1-of-8 free throw shooting performance that contributed heavily to a Kansas loss at Oklahoma on Jan. 23, KU sophomore Udoka Azubuike got serious about his free throw woes.
The 7-foot center from Nigeria reshaped his form, obsessed over his routine and spent extra hours — with teammates, coaches and alone — trying to improve his shot.
In the six games that followed that tough night at OU, Azubuike made 18 of his next 30 free throw attempts. Sure, the improvement from 37.5 percent through the season's first 20 games to 60 percent in that six-game stretch was modest. But that 22-percent jump was enough to keep Azubuike from being an automatic target for the Hack-a-Dok strategy employed by Oklahoma and brought him closer to a respectable number for a man his size.
Fast forwarded to the most recent four games and Azubuike has once again encountered a problem.
The KU starter who enters the postseason as a 41.6 percent free throw shooter has not made a free throw in four games, going 0-of-7 at the charity stripe in that time. Worse than that, the form he worked so hard to overhaul and improve has broken down and Azubuike has looked like a man with very little confidence at the line during those four games.
For what it's worth, Kansas went 3-1 in those four games. And Azubuike's free throw shooting had nothing to do with the lone loss. What's more, he did not even attempt a free throw in KU's victory over Texas Tech on Feb. 24 and made eight of 10 free throw attempts in the two games leading up to this latest slump. So perhaps not all hope is lost.
But there's no question that Azubuike is still a bit of a liability at the free throw line for this team and KU coach Bill Self on Monday said he hoped his big man would use the early part of this week working overtime on finding his groove again at the free throw line.
“We can talk all we want to,” Self said. “He's got to put in some reps, too. But, yeah, it should be a time where he can get a little bit more comfortable. So much of it is repetition.”
Self said the Jayhawks do shoot plenty of free throws in practices throughout the year. But he added that a player like Azubuike, who spends longer at the line before the shot than most players, needs to find more time to shoot on his own to make sure he's getting the necessary reps.
“His routine is so damned long,” Self said. “Have you guys noticed how long his routine is? So even in practice, if he's shooting for 30 minutes, you're going to shoot half as many as what everybody else shoots. So it takes a concerted effort to spend a lot of time on it because he can shoot 25 when everybody else shoots 50. If you say a kid shoots 100 free throws in a day after practice or before or during practice, you say he shot a lot. Well, he can't do that based on how long his routine is. There's nothing wrong with having a long routine, but he's got to really make a conscious effort to put in some time.”
While noting that Azubuike's long routine cut into Azubuike's free throw shooting with the team, Self said it was important that he keep it and find extra time to get shots up between classes, weight room sessions and treatment, because of one thing.
“That's all we talk about every day is his routine,” Self said. “He needs to do what's most comfortable to him. I mean, I'm fine with that, but he's just got to do the same thing every time. If he wants to shoot free throws differently or speed it up, it totally negates practice. I mean, why do something that you're not going to do in a game. So you've got to do it the same way every time, and so it takes some time on his part to be able to put that much time in on it.”
Despite this latest mini-slump, Self remains confident that Azubuike will figure it out and help the team immensely this postseason, be it in the post, as a rim protector or even at the free throw line.
“He's tried hard and everything,” Self said. “And he was actually getting better, and I thought the second one he shot at Oklahoma State was really soft and just in and out, but I believe he'll make them, and he's trying, but he's got to stay focused on what his routine is and do it repeatedly for hundreds and hundreds of times as opposed to 50 here, 50 there. I mean, that's not going to get it.”