Kansas Remains a Contender Even Without Udoka AzubuikePosted by Brian Goodman on December 22nd, 2016
Kansas‘ transition to small-ball this season was a product of three primary factors: 1) the Jayhawks’ surplus of quality shooters and ball-handlers; 2) Josh Jackson‘s versatility; 3) a collection of big men who each brought something different to the table but none of whom possesses a well-rounded game. The Jayhawks have been getting by inside with centers Landen Lucas and Udoka Azubuike sharing the workload, but while a season-ending wrist injury to the freshman Azubuike is a clear setback, it doesn’t dispel Kansas’ status as a legitimate national title contender.
For all of Azubuike’s upside as a five-star recruit with an NBA-ready body, he’ll end this season averaging a fairly modest 5.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in just under 13 minutes per game. That’s not to say that he’s been a disappointment in his first season, or that Kansas won’t drop a game or two that it otherwise wouldn’t have, but it is to say that a team as talented and efficient as Kansas can replace his level of production. Recall that in the preseason, Azubuike wasn’t projected to play a major role this season, but it didn’t stop many in the national media from tabbing the Jayhawks to win the national title. Yes, Azubuike miss out on chances to develop in the throes of Big 12 play, and his presence in the pain will be missed against bigger teams like Baylor and West Virginia, but his rawness also made him prone to turnovers (26.6% TO), fouls (8.7 fouls per 40 minutes) and struggles at the stripe (38% FT).
The bottom line is that while Azubuike’s loss is a temporary setback in the frontcourt, Kansas can still get it done by committee. The fifth-year senior Lucas knows the system inside and out and has looked increasingly healthy after starting the season with a sore foot and minor oblique strain. While sophomore Carlton Bragg doesn’t offer the rim protection or more refined low post game that Azubuike flashed in limited opportunities, he’s also been steadily improving. As a wing, Jackson isn’t a shot-blocker in the traditional sense, but he’s rejected at least one shot in nine of Kansas’ 11 games and has altered many more along the way. Dwight Coleby and freshman Mitch Lightfoot are both planted deeper on the bench than Azubuike was, but they could get more chances to show what they can do moving forward as well.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment we may see out of Kansas beginning with tonight’s game at UNLV could be a heightened emphasis on defensive rebounding. Now without a true shot-blocker in the rotation, sending an additional man to the defensive glass could open up more chances for the Jayhawks’ lethal transition offense. There may be a handful of games the rest of the way where Bill Self misses his freshman big man, but this news, while disappointing to everyone involved, is far from a backbreaker for one of the nation’s few legitimate title contenders.