Injury to Udoka Azubuike and Other Woes Not Enough to Pick Against Kansas in Big 12 Race

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 8th, 2019

Kansas was dealt a significant blow on Sunday when the program announced that center Udoka Azubuike will have season-ending surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right hand. It’s the latest trickle of bad news for a team that can never seem to avoid having something go sideways with its big men, whether it is Azubuike, Silvio De Sousa, Billy Preston, Carlton Bragg, Cliff Alexander or Cheick Diallo. There have been injuries, certain and potential NCAA violations, slow development and matches simply not working out the way both parties hoped for one reason or another. You name it and the Jayhawks have been through it, even if it can be argued that some of it the problems have been self-inflicted. But this weekend’s news was also a tough break for Azubuike directly, who over the last two years has shown tremendous dedication to improving his game and his body to the point where he was considered a possible first-round pick in last year’s NBA Draft despite an awful track record at the foul line and an inability to defend in space.

Kansas Jayhawks Basketball Big 12
The Jayhawks may be down and out, but picking against them to win the Big 12 remains a trap. (AP)

Despite losing Azubuike, the road to the Big 12 title still goes through Lawrence even though personnel issues are poised to force Bill Self into playing a smaller but more modern brand of basketball for yet another season. Skeptics may point to the team’s current three-point shooting woes (27.9 percent over its last eight games), but those struggles are not any more indicative of the team’s proficiency than its white-hot start (43.9 percent over its first six games). As tends to be the case, the answer is somewhere in the middle, and for all the deserved talk of the league’s defenses being terrific this year, just two Big 12 teams (TCU and West Virginia) rank among the top 100 in defensive 3PA/FGA, and none in the top 50. It stands to reason, then, that Kansas will be just fine once its accuracy trends back up. Freshman Quentin Grimes is already starting to bounce back, with the highly-touted guard averaging 16.3 points and shooting at a 37.5 percent clip from distance over his last three games. Even if this unit doesn’t showcase the pinpoint accuracy of last year’s group, it has a better all-around five in Dedric Lawson, who can defend away from the hoop and terrorize opposing defenses with his above-average handle, passing ability and range. When combined with a strong arsenal of post moves, the transfer forward is a walking double-double and Player of the Year candidate.

Another reason to continue believing in the Jayhawks is their head coach. While Self has been slow at times to embrace current trends, he continues to squeeze just enough of an edge out of his teams where its competitors have not. Last season, Kansas went 3-1 against Texas Tech and West Virginia, its top two challengers. In 2017, they dropped just two conference games while the three next-closest finishers dropped six games each, including several they had no business losing. Since the start of the 2015-16 season, Self has led his team to a mark of 29-7 in games decided by five or fewer points or in overtime with Allen Fieldhouse continuing to be the pressure cooker it has always been, so even if you’re down on Kansas’ talent level, their coach makes up for it by maxing out the margins where his opponents trip up.

Self will certainly have to answer the question of how to best allocate frontcourt minutes beyond simply playing a four-guard lineup since Lawson cannot play 40 minutes each night. Freshman David McCormack has played capably in spot minutes, but his inexperience creates some uncertainty on the offensive side. Mitch Lightfoot knows the playbook and has his moments, but like De Sousa has trouble when opposing offenses pull him out of the paint. Then there’s the wildcard of Silvio De Sousa, who continues to sit while the program awaits a final ruling on his eligibility. You don’t need to be a basketball lifer to know that he’ll help if he’s cleared and he won’t if he isn’t.

The pummeling that Iowa State doled out on Kansas last Saturday and Sunday’s news that Azubuike won’t suit up for the remainder of the year are instilling doubt in some pundits that the Jayhawks will once again win the league. This is a tremendous conference that figures to send no fewer than six teams to The Big Dance, but until Kansas’ top challengers demonstrate that they can avoid the pitfalls of contenders from seasons past, it will remain business as usual in the Big 12.

Brian Goodman (987 Posts)

Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *