WACO, Texas — Saturday marked this Kansas basketball team’s second deployment of a two-big starting lineup.
When all was said and done, though, there were no frontcourt players left standing.
Foul trouble and offensive ineffectiveness plagued starters Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot from the outset of No. 10-ranked KU’s 80-64 defeat at Baylor, neutralizing an inside-out game plan the team hoped to lean on versus the Bears’ zone defense. Instead, neither were on the court for the game’s final two minutes, the Jayhawks (19-6, 8-4 Big 12) down 13 and opting for a five-guard approach.
Azubuike finished with eight points and four rebounds with four fouls in 19 minutes, while Lightfoot had two points and three rebounds before fouling out in 22 minutes.
“It’s kind of hard for us to be as aggressive when there’s more fouls, but you can’t blame it on the fouls. That one’s on us,” Lightfoot told the Jayhawk IMG Radio Network. “We’ve gotta figure out what we can do to defend better, and we’ve got to grind a game like that out and get a win.”
The Jayhawks’ well-documented depth issues in the frontcourt were on full display against the Bears, with the 7-footer Azubuike frustrated from the tip.
Azubuike committed a turnover on the team’s first possession, the first of his three giveaways down low in 10 first-half minutes. It stifled KU’s game plan and led in part to the team’s 7-for-26 shooting performance in the opening period, with Azubuike’s teammates instead going 2 for 13 from 3-point range.
“We need him to be in the game, but to be honest with you, I didn’t think he was much of a factor when he was in there,” KU coach Bill Self said. “We didn’t really get much low-post scoring when the whole game plan was to try to throw the ball inside and isolate him in the post.”
Azubuike leads the nation in field goal percentage (75.9 percent) and saw that number go up Saturday, but he finished with only four shot attempts, all makes. Self attributed that low volume to both an absence of aggressiveness and awareness from the sophomore center and a lack of touches created by teammates, but he noted Azubuike wasn’t without opportunities.
“He had the ball,” Self said. “I mean, he lost the ball twice when he was at six inches. That should’ve been more (shot attempts). He had the ball at two feet and he tried to throw the ball to Lagerald (Vick) there at the end cutting behind the backboard.”
Self said Azubuike “could’ve easily gotten up seven or eight shots” if he were more alert.
“That’s what happens,” Self said. “When you’re just a little bit off and you don’t experience any success, especially when you’re not very old, you start thinking too much, and that comes I think from preparation, to be mentally ready to play. I think that we weren’t, in the fact that they caught us off guard by letting Doke catch it and not knowing what to do after he caught it.”
Self called Azubuike’s first foul a “pretty soft call,” but acknowledged the center opened himself up for that whistle by lowering his shoulder into his defender, who flopped.
The second foul, with five minutes left in the first period, was indefensible — Azubuike barreled into the back of a BU player who clearly had the angle on a loose ball.
Azubuike missed the rest of the first half, but he wasn’t out of the woods after the break. He committed his third and fourth fouls in the first 126 seconds of the second period and exited again. He returned at the 11-minute mark with the Jayhawks down eight and desperate for an inside presence, and while he pulled the team within two with back-to-back dunks, he was mostly silent the rest of the way. He checked out for good with four minutes left.
Self called Azubuike’s second, third and fourth fouls “pretty obvious calls.” The Delta, Nigeria, native now has one double-digit rebounding effort in KU’s last 12 contests and has averaged 8.2 points over the team’s last six games.
Lightfoot, meanwhile, picked up two of his fouls on failed attempts to draw charges and finished with one successful drawn charge in his three tries. He fouled out on a three-point play by Manu Lecomte that gave the Bears a 13-point lead with 2:18 remaining, all but finishing the Jayhawks off. Lightfoot finished 1 for 6 from the field.
“Mitch caught it at the high post like three times in the first five possessions and never squared up,” Self said. “I mean, those are things that we worked on, but certainly it’s a little bit different when the pressure’s on and with guys that aren’t very old and haven’t had a chance to play much.”
The Jayhawks’ frontcourt issues were exacerbated by another nonfactor outing from freshman forward Silvio De Sousa, who had a 28-second appearance Saturday. He checked in at the 11:29 mark, surrendered a jumper to King McClure and committed a turnover on an offensive foul on the other end, a stretch which ended his day.
De Sousa has played a combined eight minutes in the Jayhawks’ last seven games and has committed seven fouls and five turnovers in those appearances.
“It’s hard,” said KU guard Devonte’ Graham of playing through the frontcourt players’ struggles. “We’re not playing with a big man, so we went zone and that kind of helped us cut the lead a little bit, but we definitely need Doke (Azubuike) and/or Mitch in there to help us. It’s what we’re used to playing with.”
MYKHAILIUK SUFFERS SHINER, STRUGGLES — Senior guard Svi Mykhailiuk had a second straight rough outing, finishing with two points on 1-for-8 shooting. He missed all six of his 3-point attempts.
His afternoon got off to a rocky start when freshman guard Marcus Garrett whacked him in the face while following through on a missed layup in pregame shootaround. The incident gave Mykhailiuk a black right eye, which he played through. While he said it didn’t affect his shooting, Self wasn’t so sure.
“He was messed up,” Self said. ”... He kept saying his vision was OK, but you could tell. He shied away from all contact and everything because of his eye. Not an excuse, but certainly that didn’t help matters at all.”
JAYHAWKS A TWO-SEED IN BRACKET PREVIEW — Despite defeats in two of their last three contests, the Jayhawks were a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament’s bracket preview revealed during a Sunday afternoon telecast on WIBW (13.1).
KU was slotted in the West Region with No. 1 seed Purdue, alongside projected No. 3 seed North Carolina and No. 4 Arizona. The West Region’s Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games will be played in Los Angeles.
Other projected No. 1 seeds included Virginia (South Region), Villanova (East) and Xavier (Midwest). Selection Sunday is set for March 11.