LAWRENCE — As Silvio De Sousa and Ochai Agbaji helped an agonized Udoka Azubuike off the court midway through the first half of Tuesday night’s game against Wofford, two questions likely permeated throughout an eerily-quiet Allen Fieldhouse:
Not if, but for how long will Kansas basketball’s 7-foot junior center be joining his street clothes-clad teammates on the bench, and how will he — and the No. 2-ranked Jayhawks, for that matter — recover from this?
Azubuike suffered what appeared to be a significant right ankle injury about 12 minutes into the Jayhawks’ 72-47 victory over the Terriers, landing awkwardly on an unsuccessful shot-block attempt. Writhing in pain under the north basket for about three minutes, Azubuike was eventually helped to the locker room by trainers, De Sousa and Agbaji.
Addressing the situation in a postgame news conference, KU coach Bill Self provided an update about as good as anyone who saw the frightening replay of Azubuike’s injury could’ve hoped for — Azubuike has a “significant ankle sprain” with “a lot of swelling,” but subsequent X-rays were negative, meaning no break and, as far as KU trainers could tell Tuesday night, no high ankle sprain as was originally feared.
Self said he’s “hopeful” for a return by Christmas for the 7-footer, though he labeled Azubuike’s status as more of an indefinite absence than a day-to-day situation.
“It’s probably going to be a while,” Self acknowledged.
Azubuike, whose right ankle twisted at an unnatural angle, was held scoreless but had four rebounds in his four minutes on the floor Tuesday. He didn’t return to the KU bench.
“It’s very tough seeing Udoka go down,” junior forward Dedric Lawson said. “He’s a big part of our team, and hopefully we’ll get him back as soon as possible.”
The nation’s most accurate shooter last season with a 77-percent field goal percentage, Azubuike entered the Wofford contest averaging 15 points on a 69.5-percent shooting clip while bringing in 6.5 rebounds per contest. He suffered a season-ending wrist injury midway through his freshman campaign of 2016-17.
Overshadowed by the loss of Azubuike, Tuesday night’s contest itself wasn’t a slam-dunk outcome until the Jayhawks (7-0) rode a prolific run to the finish line.
Out of sync offensively for most of the contest, KU led by just one basket, 43-41, with just over 10 minutes left in the contest. That’s when the Jayhawks started to play to their second-ranked status, scoring 27 straight points in a stretch that for the first time since Azubuike’s injury breathed energy into Allen Fieldhouse. Freshman guard Quentin Grimes scored 10 points in the rally, including nine straight at one point, to set the pace against the giant killer Terriers (6-3).
Self later declared Marcus Garrett (7 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals) “without question” the player of the game for his second-half defensive work, adding the sophomore guard will start at the four-spot for the Jayhawks in Azubuike’s absence.
“The whole game changed when (Garrett) started guarding their big, the whole game did” Self said. “It may not have been right when he checked in, but soon after he checked in is when we went on our run. I thought all those little guards, all those young kids played well.
“Who would’ve thought Doke would’ve gotten a goose egg because injury, Lagerald (Vick) would get a goose egg, and we’d go 3 of 23 from 3 and win by 25 against that team? There were a lot of good things that happened defensively tonight for us.”
Lawson finished with team-highs of 20 points and eight rebounds, while Grimes (14 points) and fellow freshman guard Devon Dotson (16 points) rounded out the Jayhawks’ double-figure scorers. Vick, the Big 12′s leading scorer entering play Tuesday at 20.8 points per game, notably didn’t score in his 22 minutes off the bench — the senior guard was late to shootaround and lost his starting role for the contest.
Self said Vick showed a good attitude and was thankful he wasn’t out for the entire game, a punishment the KU coach said would’ve been too severe for the infraction.
“I think it’s a pretty good lesson though,” Self said. “He’s been on a roll lately and when your head’s not quite right and you’re probably thinking about some other things, you (can) kind of have a hard game, but I thought it was great. When things are right and your thoughts are pure and that kind of stuff, you plays lights-out, and when it gets a little bit congested up there, you don’t play maybe quite as well.”
KU continues its nonconference slate with a 7:30 p.m. Saturday contest against New Mexico State at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. While forwards Mitch Lightfoot and David McCormack and combo guard K.J. Lawson are likely to see an uptick in responsibilities with Azubuike out, Self is intrigued by what his offense will look like with a return to a four-guard look around Dedric Lawson.
“I’d rather have Doke, but yeah, I think (I’m interested), I think so,” Self said. “There’s no question our best offensive team will be if Doke’s not in the game, playing small — I believe that if Dedric’s in the game, because you have to have somebody we can throw it to. So yeah, we can practice that way more and hopefully get better at it before we play Saturday.”