Kansas's Big 12 Supremacy at Risk Without Udoka Azubuike
The first weekend of Big 12 play was not a kind one to 14-time reigning champion Kansas. Some 24 hours after losing by 17 at Iowa State on Saturday, the Jayhawks announced a bit of bad news whose impact will last deep into the schedule: 7-foot junior center Udoka Azubuike, who missed Saturday’s game with a hand injury, will also miss the rest of the season recovering from an upcoming surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right hand. Azubuike, who tore the same ligament two seasons ago in his left hand and also missed four games with an ankle injury last month, averaged 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds in nine starts this season, including a 23-point showing against Eastern Michigan just eight days ago. The school’s press release indicated Azubuike is expected to be healthy by summer.
In the meantime, his injury will present a challenge to the national title and Big 12 title hopes of Kansas. The team is already without 6’ 9” forward Silvio De Sousa while it awaits clearance on his eligibility status following revelations in this fall’s fraud trial of two former Adidas employees. Over the five games Azubuike has missed this season, the Jayhawks are 3-2, falling to Arizona State in addition to Iowa State; their wins came against Villanova, New Mexico State, and South Dakota. They did not lose in any of the nine games Azubuike played.
If there is any consolation to be found in the news, it is that, results aside, Kansas has at least had to consider how this roster might play without Azubuike before. During his four-game absence in December, coach Bill Self employed a smaller lineup more often than usual, using 6’ 5” sophomore Marcus Garrett as the fourth guard on the floor, although results were middling. Garrett again started Saturday’s game against the Cyclones, while 6’ 10” freshman David McCormack played 10 minutes off the bench, the fourth time in the last five games he saw the floor for that long, compared to just once in the Jayhawks’ first nine contests. McCormack too could see his playing time spike, should the small-ball approach prove unfavorable.
What this does do is solve Self’s dilemma about how to deploy Azubuike and star forward Dedric Lawson simultaneously. The two big men, though both talented and effective in their own right, could at times be an odd pairing on the floor because Azubuike’s limited shooting range meant his defender would crowd the interior and give Lawson less room to operate. Though the offense remained efficient overall when both were on the floor, it would often stifle Lawson’s individual production and flow, meaning one of the Jayhawks’—and the Big 12’s—best players was not being used to his maximum potential.
Without Azubuike, Lawson should have more room to operate, but only if Kansas is able to space the floor and draw the defense outside by knocking down some outside shots. The Jayhawks are shooting just 27.9% from three as a team over their last eight games; everyone other than Lagerald Vick has made only 28.9% of three-point attempts all season. Now that they will be without a dependable low-block scorer, correcting that will be all the more important.
Kansas’s adjustments will get their first test Wednesday, when the Jayhawks host 12-1 TCU. The Horned Frogs, like the Cyclones, are one of a handful of insurgent Big 12 squads gunning to end Kansas’s run of supremacy. With Sunday’s news, they may have already gotten closer.