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The 3 biggest benefits of Udoka Azubuike's decision to return to Kansas basketball

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Kansas center Udoka Azubuike is pictured on Media Day, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike is pictured on Media Day, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

Monday’s news that junior center Udoka Azubuike planned to return to Kansas for his senior season was the best single bit of news the Jayhawks had received in quite a while.

Until then, most of the significant offseason, April news had been about guys leaving the program or choosing not to come altogether.

But Azubuike’s return stops that in its tracks and may very well wind up being the tipping point that sends the whole thing back in a more positive direction.

Commitments will follow. They have to. KU has at least three or four scholarships to hand out still — probably more — before they put a bow on the 2019 recruiting class. And while the commitments that lie ahead, whether they come in the next week or month, might not necessarily be the result of Azubuike’s decision to come back, his news certainly makes it easier for other guys to get on board.

With Azubuike, the Jayhawks are a Top 10 team again. Many college basketball analysts had Kansas flirting with that designation for next season even without Azubuike’s future fully decided. But now that we know he’ll be back, most have sent KU flying up the rankings as they look ahead to the 2019-20 season that’s still a more than five months away.

National writer Jeff Goodman, of The Stadium, redid his early 2019-20 rankings on Tuesday morning and plugged Kansas into the No. 3 spot, behind Michigan State and Duke and just ahead of Gonzaga and Oregon.

The reason?

“There are plenty of question marks here regarding whether Quentin Grimes, Devon Dotson and even Silvio De Sousa (pending an appeal) return,” Goodman wrote. “However, Bill Self got huge news when Udoka Azubuike decided to return for his senior campaign. Ochai Agbaji, Marcus Garrett, Mitch Lightfoot and David McCormack are also all back and my guess is the Jayhawks will add a couple more players whether it’s from the transfer wire or high school kids.”

With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the three most important things about Azubuike’s decision to come back.

Sure it’s always fun to have a familiar face and high-level play stick around your school for another season. And, yeah, Dok’s decision means there are a whole bunch of dunks in KU’s future again.

But there are other, much more important benefits of this news, as well.

Here’s a look.

1 – Kansas has a game-changing player again

Even with Dedric Lawson being as good as he was and putting up the numbers he did during the 2018-19 season, the Jayhawks were missing that type of unstoppable force that others simply could not handle.

Udoka Azubuike is that. And everyone knows it.

Forget about his well-documented struggles at the free throw line. There’s enough reason to believe that will get better — at least a little bit — and even if it doesn’t, Azubuike’s propensity for simply forcing other teams to foul — intentionally or otherwise — can put opponents in a tough spot.

Beyond that, Azubuike is the type of player who KU’s offensive players can throw the ball to whenever they’re in trouble.

Drive gets cut off and you’ve got nowhere to go? Toss it up to Azubuike and see if he can save the play.

Shot clock’s winding down and you haven’t been able to run anything that works? Force feed a pass to Udoka and see if he can bail out the bad possession.

Turn the corner and find an open path to the rim? Throw it high when the help defense comes and let Azubuike punish the rim and pump up the crowd.

All of that, and more, is now a regular part of game night again for the Jayhawks, who will benefit from the big man’s return in immeasurable ways during the next 11 months.

2 – The big man's presence makes life easier for others

In the first factor listed above, we went over a few ways that Azubuike’s teammates could get him the ball and make themselves — and the team — look good even when things weren’t going well.

But there are so many other ways that Azubuike’s mere presence on the floor makes life easier for his teammates, as well.

By far the biggest is how the attention that teams have to pay to Azubuike down low can open up space and shots for his teammates on the perimeter.

No team took better advantage of that the 2016-17 team that went to the Final Four and featured four elite shooters playing around the 7-foot Nigerian inside. And, no, the 2019-20 Kansas roster will not have the likes of Svi Mykhailiuk, Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman and Lagerald Vick waiting to catch passes on the perimeter.

But Azubuike’s presence can give the players Kansas does have more time to get their shots off. And more time to shoot means better fundamentals, less stress and a higher percentage.

I can’t help but picture Devon Dotson in this scenario. Not exactly known as a great outside shooter — Dotson shot 36.3 percent (33 of 91) during his freshman season — Dotson’s percentage seemed to go up dramatically when he shot open 3-pointers and had time to set his feet, square his shoulders and release at the top of his jump.

He, along with Ochai Agbaji, Marcus Garrett, Christian Braun, Issac McBride and whatever other shooters Bill Self and company add to the roster in the coming weeks, should get a lot of shots where they can do just that next season.

3 – Azubuike’s return represents stability

Finally, more of a non-basketball benefit of Azubuike’s decision comes in the form of stability in the program.

And I’m not talking about Self and company knowing they have an anchor inside when they’re making up their lineups or brainstorming how they want to play.

I’m talking about perception, vibe and feel.

It’s no secret that the cloud surrounding the Kansas basketball program from the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball has had an affect on KU’s recruiting. Furthermore, the rumors of KU coach Bill Self leaving — which he squashed multiple times in the past few weeks — also have brought uncertainty to the program.

While concerns about the future or what’s ahead might not have been the primary reason for some of KU’s top targets picking other programs, there’s little doubt that they played a role in one way or another.

This could and should put an end to all of that.

If Azubuike were worried at all about what’s going to happen to the program or his head coach in the immediate future, would he be sticking around? Similarly, if suspended sophomore Silvio De Sousa were worried at all about KU’s immediate future, would he want to fight for his return to the program?

Yet, there they are; Azubuike already fully back in the fold and De Sousa promising to return if he wins his appeal with the NCAA.

That’s good news for Kansas, both in terms of the potential gains of having those two players in the lineup — I still can’t quite get over how dominant having those two out there could be — and the message it sends all other players who are considering signing with the program.

Comments

Doug Longstaff 1 month ago

He's just the one guy that no one else can match. Teams could take Lawson out of the game for long stretches with length, or quickness or whatever. You can neutralize shooting by limiting outside looks, if that's what you want to do. There just isn't a thing in the world you can do to take Dok out of the game without dedicating more than one resource to it. He is the country's biggest game changer. He will be bigger, stronger, longer and more explosive than your best big, and if you don't want him to dunk on you 15 times, you have to prepare to defend Kansas like you defend no one else, and hope he only dunks on you 5 or 6 times. He takes you out of your game, which really makes him the perfect Bill Self player. He's said it many times--his teams are at their best when they make the other team play poorly, and you cannot be at your best if you have to prepare for something you won't see from anyone else.

John Strayer 1 month ago

Sure you can...put 5 shooters out on the floor ala Villanova and Auburn...and watch Dok struggle to defend anyone.

Doug Longstaff 1 month ago

Well, nobody's going to go undefeated. You hope the bad days come at the right time. He didn't play in that Auburn game, but there's no way the lead swells to what it was if he's there, because KU would have had at least one guy to throw it to that could put it in the bucket.

As for Villanova....if we lose again in the Final Four, it'll have been a nice year.

Danny Hernandez 1 month ago

Nova and Auburn shot out of their proverbial ass, outliers

Dale Rogers 1 month ago

I think the Adidas/NCAA thing is hanging over our recruiting head, big time. Think about it. Opposing coaches not only point, correctly or erroneously, to potential post-season sanctions and also can point to the NCAA ruling on Silvio to say that the NCAA is looking to come down hard on KU. Whether that's true or not doesn't matter to those who are recruiting against us.

Matt Lindaman 1 month ago

The shoe issue is of larger picture concern as it is bringing about an uneven distribution of access/resources/application or non-application of rules as three companies vie for the market share. For recruiting, I believe and equal, if not greater issue is what I would call acceleration of expectations. I will throw this out for debate--in the recruiting rankings, how far do you think it goes where an incoming first year expects immediate playing time? 50 deep? 100? Next, how deep does it go where the first year is considered a "failure" if they don't make "League?" 30 deep, even though the numbers don't add up? Thus, I think recruiting whiffs are more due to others being able to offer assured playing time and even starring roles. Duke is of envy, but there are nearly clearing the deck every year with only one or two support player types returning. This allows a full complement of 3 to 5 top ranked players to come in every year. In the local papers here, Matthew Hurt noted he would be disappointed if he was not one-and-done. Good player, yes, but dominant for a one year stint? That is another thing entirely. For added fun, graduate transfers are in the same boat. They have a one shot deal to join a top ranked or Power 5 program. Who has the spots open? Blackshear and Holyfield look like outstanding additions/options, but will KU have three returning bigs (no Silvio) or four heading into next year. If they choose elsewhere, it might not have anything to do with Adidas or Nike.

Andy Tweedy 1 month ago

I can't say you're wrong, but if this were the overriding factor, please explain Arizona's recruiting class.

Dale Rogers 1 month ago

Andy, I wasn't trying to say it's the "overriding factor," just that it's likely more of a factor than most years. As for Arizona, well, Sean Miller is on tape about money for Andre Layton, so how many more players did he pay for? I'm not wanting to start a debate, just trying to answer your question.

Shannon Gustafson 1 month ago

I wish people would quit being idiots about Arizona. Their scandal broke during the previous recruiting cycle. Go look at last year's class for them (or Louisville) and see how they did when the scandal was fresh on everyone's mind. Same thing applies to KU this year since our scandal broke later than theirs.

Craig Carson 1 month ago

@Dale..then explain how Arizona was able to recruit such a good class? they are way more involved then KU..even having lost a assistant coach to the FBI case as well as the HC being implicated...the FBI fiasco may have been why no top talent choose KU, but its not why they have a measly 2 man recruiting class with 2 very low rated players..

Doug Horn 1 month ago

Arizona and Auburn both had assistance arrested by the FBI, but it doesn't seem to hurt their recruiting. And Auburn has suspended or fired a second assistant for what has been uncovered by the FBI that he did at his previous school or should I say what he supposedly did? KU is the only school that suspended the two players that ended up being named in the first FBI trial. Hind sight is always 20/20 but based on what has happened so far, we might have been better off playing De Sousa. During the first trial Zion's demands from KU were read during the trill and yet Duke played him the entire season after saying that they investigated and found nothing. So by suspending our players we admitted that there were violations. Some schools suspended players for a game while they did an internal investigation, but the ultimately ended up being cleared.

But back to Arizona, Sean Miller and the Will Wade, LSU Basketball Coach are not going to have to testify at the trial that is about to begin. How Mr. Wade still has a job after refusing to answer questions from his employer I have no idea. But maybe during this second trial more information will come out about Nike.

Shannon Gustafson 1 month ago

All you've got to do is use your brain for a minute and look back a year to get the answer. Their scandal broke during the previous recruiting cycle. Go look at last year's class for them (or Louisville) and see how they did when the scandal was fresh on everyone's mind. Same thing applies to KU this year since our scandal broke later than theirs.

Steve Grimm 1 month ago

First: I am quite happy to have Dok back, Second: He is INDEED a load for the other team to contend with. Teams are forced to game-plan around him - potentially giving up lockdown defense on other jayhawks.... BUT At the same time, I certainly noticed how much more fluid our offense was without Dok on the floor. When he is there, we seem to be much more predictable in our execution. He takes up so much space that our guards did less to create their own shots. The #4 player seemed to give up their space for him.

Like I said: I would rather have him than not. No doubt.

But I hope that the hawks can work out an attack that can still leverage the creativity and speed that we played with last year without Dok but keep his presence and threat very real at the same time.

I have all the faith in the world in Bill Self and his coaching staff to find the right approach to this "good" problem.

Karen Mansfield-Stewart 1 month ago

I like the optimistic view that Dok coming back represents a parting of the NCAA investigation clouds. I find that hard to accept however. IF Silvio were to be granted a reduced or, better yet, time served appeal judgement that would do more to ease my concerns. However, I think that getting a final action or penalty related to the investigation would be the best outcome (even a fairly stiff penalty). It's the uncertainty of the situation that scares people.

Art Jefferson 1 month ago

"Punish the rim." I don't think Dok would get hurt as much if he would just dunk and stop trying to break the rim off. He also needs to stop hanging on the rim and bringing his feet way up. He's setting himself up for injury when he does that. Play hard but don't take unnecessary chances. As for recruiting, we may have missed out on Hurt, Earl and other bigs because of the possibility of Dok and De Sousa coming back, along with the presence of Lightfoot and McCormick. That may also be why we didn't get any guards. We most likely have one starter coming back, plus two guards who played significant minutes and have starting potential. We have two recruits coming in who aren't ranked too awful far behind Cassius Stanley, and though not likely but still the possibility of Grimes coming back.

Shannon Gustafson 1 month ago

Interesting opinion considering he's never been hurt while dunking.

Also interesting to think we missed on Hurt or Stanley because of playing time concerns while we've got a handful of open scholarships and Duke had 2 (Hurt) and 1 (Stanley) and who they've got are higher rated than our players. It had nothing to do with playing time. Playing style, FBI stuff, Nike influence (or $$$), Duke currently being the "cool" school (like Kentucky was 5 years ago), etc. all influenced it.

Stanley is ranked in the 30's/40's. Both of our recruits are over 100. How does that make them ranked similarly?

Daniel Parker 1 month ago

While this is certainly great news for the program, I can't see any possible explanation for someone ranking them 3rd just because Dok is back. Last year's team struggled to score and Dedric Lawson was often a one man team. Agbaji, Grimes and Dotson all had flashes and Mitch did what Mitch does...disrupts, scores a bit here and there. Moore was a washout, KJ didn't play enough and DMac came on strong at the end. BUT, until they can put someone out on the perimeter who can score consistently, the chuck it down low to Dok plan won't carry this team into a top 10...never mind a top 3. Regardless of who may return after delcaring, I don't see a valid "go to" scoring threat on the horizon. Dok will foul out multiple times and Poke-a-Dok will always be in play until he learns to shoot at least 60% from the line. Hoping we add a couple of more prospects soon...ones that can draw defenders and open up the rest of the court.

Craig Carson 1 month ago

I said the same thing..even with Dok back, I only see KU as a fringe top 25 team...they will need Dotson, Abaji and DM to have really good seasons

Brad Avery 1 month ago

Three benefits:

1) Rebounding 2) Inside scoring 3) He helped beat Duke his freshman season.

Pius Waldman 1 month ago

First Coach K can and does recruit top rated recruits and nobody can override his picks. Kentucky used to have that ability but now are 2nd in command. The rest including KU get the leftovers. Coach K only recruited Hurt for 2 months and completely changed plans for Hurt. Maybe we don't like that but that is how it is now. As for style of play for our Jayhawks today with the 3 pointers need outside shooters as passes inside can be guarded if outside shots are not flushing the nets. Dok hopefully will develop making shots other than dunks. I'm hoping De Sousa gets OKed to play next year his penalty is so unfair hard to believe it won't be granted. Grimes although missed isn't a major loss but Dotson is strongly needed. With others that are coming back should be looking for a great season.

Len Shaffer 1 month ago

It's great that Dok is coming back, but I agree with a couple of Daniel's points: (1) there's no way that just the fact that Dok is back means we're number 3 (or close to it), and (2) Dok's FT shooting will always be a problem at the end of close games unless he drastically improves. I've posted multiple times that he should work on the Rick Barry method, as he couldn't possibly do worse than he has been doing and it could mean a huge improvement. But of course he'll continue to do the same thing and I doubt that his FT shooting will improve much.

Don't get me wrong, I'm still glad he's back; I just think we still need a lot more for next year.

Danny Hernandez 1 month ago

We were top ranked until Dok got hurt, take it for what it's worth but his presence made a difference

Barry Weiss 1 month ago

well, with Dok, Mac, and Mitch we will have 3 experienced bigs. In the very long shot that we get Silvio, we will be in optimum position with bigs.

Jeff Kallmeyer 1 month ago

I hope I'm wrong, but what are the odds of Dok putting in a full injury-free season? Not very good with five big injuries in his three years. I don't see Doke being a reliable factor in our success.

Dane Pratt 1 month ago

I think that is in the back of the mind of every KU fan. For his own sake I hope he can stay healthy. Playing one season without injury could be a bigger factor than his performance when it comes to improving his NBA stock.

Steve Zimmerman 1 month ago

"Drive gets cut off and you’ve got nowhere to go?" - That's a bad play. Dotson will learn from his fresh year. I would rather see someone drive to create opportunity to score, drive for a purpose. A great PG won't pass a desperation pass. And one thing we need to realize is how long will it take for Dok to get comfortable with his wrist? His broken wrist is not going to be the same anymore even if it's healed. How is his stamina? What's the plan to get him back into shape? He's been out for a while.

Danny Hernandez 1 month ago

Dotson's a much better pg that Tre Jones at dook

Steve Zimmerman 1 month ago

No doubt 'the Jet' Dotson is much better. He still needs to develop that court vision and involve his teammates more. But the problem is, if he is always asked to drive all the way, he won't develop PG skills: dishing and creating shots for others (court vision), quick decision making. Unless he already has skills like Kyrie.

Jim Stauffer 1 month ago

Good article, Matt. Should have written, "has had an effect" on the program.

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