FORT WORTH, Texas — Take Udoka Azubuike’s word for it: The 7-foot Kansas basketball center knows a thing or two about huge.
Azubuike, saddled to the Jayhawk bench for the final six minutes of the team’s game Saturday night at No. 16 TCU following his first career foul-out, was an onlooker in the contest for all but 13 minutes. It was from that perch Azubuike witnessed all of backup Mitch Lightfoot’s career-high six blocks, none bigger than the final swat of a would-be game-tying 3-pointer from Jaylen Fisher with 32 seconds remaining.
Essentially rendered college basketball’s biggest cheerleader, Azubuike let out a roar. The Jayhawks were well on their way to an 88-84 victory.
“Man, I was excited — I was really excited,” Azubuike said of Lightfoot’s game-securing block. “I was pumped. I was jumping up from my seat. That was a huge play for us. It was probably the game-winning block right there.
“That was huge.”
Lightfoot also finished with nine points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes, a “fabulous” performance KU coach Bill Self said the No. 10-ranked Jayhawks (12-3, 2-1 Big 12) wouldn’t have won without.
“I think Devonte’ (Graham) was the story,” Self said of his senior point guard who scored a game-high 28 points, “but Mitch was the subplot. Mitch was great — active, smart and everything else.”
It was an encouraging step forward for the 6-8, 210-pound sophomore forward, pressed into duty this season at the five position as the Jayhawks’ only frontcourt option behind Azubuike.
Prior to the TCU victory, Lightfoot had posted three straight scoreless outings, combining for four rebounds and three blocked shots in 31 total minutes. His team-high seven rebounds against the Horned Frogs (13-2, 1-2) represented 25 percent of the Jayhawks’ boards.
“He got game ball for sure,” Graham said of Lightfoot. “He was ready to come off the bench and produce. Doke got in foul trouble. All Coach asked of him is just to play hard and protect the rim and do the little things to help us win, and he definitely did that tonight.”’
“He was magnificent,” added Svi Mykhailiuk, who finished with 20 points. “That’s probably the (reason) we won.”
Of his critical block, Lightfoot said he was simply in the right place at the right time.
“We’d happened to switch that one at the top of the key,” Lightfoot said. “Then (Fisher) let it fly, so I happened to get a hand up and get a piece of it. So that was good.”
Lightfoot’s contributions didn’t end on the defensive end.
His 3-pointer with 7:31 to play stopped a 6-0 run for the Horned Frogs and extended the Jayhawk lead back to six, and while he missed a second 3-point attempt less than a minute later — “Coach said he knew as soon as the first one went in, another one was going up,” Lightfoot joked — the first make helped KU get back on track offensively.
“I don’t ever get hung up on guys making shots or missing shots if they’re good shots,” Self said, “but certainly we needed that one because we didn’t have much going.”
It wasn’t a perfect evening for Lightfoot. TCU forward Vlad Brodziansky scored 16 second-half points, running wild with Azubuike playing only six minutes in the period.
Still, it was a performance both Lightfoot and the battle-tested Jayhawks, now winners of three true road contests this season by a combined 11 points, can build upon.
“Success breeds confidence,” Lightfoot said. “I think we’re just going to take that and go forward with it.”
NO WORD ON PRESTON, DE SOUSA — Billy Preston traveled to Fort Worth but didn’t play, withheld as KU awaits word from the NCAA on the freshman forward’s eligibility.
It was word Self anticipated prior to Saturday’s game.
“I was expecting something — yeah, I thought we’d get at least a direction, even if it’s not positive, just telling us,” Self said. “… We got nothin’. We got absolutely nothin’.”
The subject of an internal review by KU’s compliance department concerning the financial picture of a vehicle he was driving on campus, the 6-10 former five-star prospect Preston has yet to make his collegiate debut. KU forwarded its findings to the NCAA in late December.
“What can you do? We’re at the mercy of other people,” Self said. “If it’s not this (upcoming) week — yeah, it’s got to be. You’d think there’d be a positive or negative thing one way or another, but there hasn’t been.”
Preston and fellow freshman forward Silvio De Sousa, who is awaiting amateurism clearance from the NCAA after joining the Jayhawks from the high school level on Dec. 27, began practicing with the team’s main rotation in the last week in anticipation of their possible clearances.
“I’ll be honest with you: It’s confusing to us as a staff and I know it’s confusing to the players because you go into it thinking, ‘Well, we’re going to play these guys,’ and they get 50-to-70 percent of the reps in practice and you don’t end up using ’em,” Self said. “So that’s frustrating, but it’s just the way it is. …
“If we knew what we were dealing with it’d be a lot better, but we don’t really know what we’re dealing with from a timing standpoint.”