INDIANAPOLIS — Kansas’ first possession of the new college basketball season ended with a point-blank attempt the sport’s defending field goal champion airmailed over the basket.
It was an inauspicious and somewhat jarring sight, for sure, but it didn’t take Udoka Azubuike long to recover from the uncharacteristic moment and show a national audience why the top-ranked Jayhawks (1-0) operate through the 7-foot, 270-pound load.
“He’s our first option,” Self said of Azubuike, who last season converted 77 percent of his field goal attempts. “Even though Dedric (Lawson) may lead us in scoring, everybody will tell you we want to play through Doke as much as possible.”
It certainly looked that way Tuesday.
While foul trouble limited Azubuike to just 20 minutes, the junior center made the most of his time on the floor in his team’s 92-87 victory over No. 10 Michigan State. Azubuike was indeed the team’s first option on almost every trip on offense, lifting and converting shot attempt after shot attempt over overmatched Spartans forward Nick Ward (6-9, 245 pounds).
Azubuike finished with 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting, adding three rebounds and four blocks.
“He scores the ball,” Self said. “The thing he doesn’t do is rebound the ball like he should rebound the ball. But I thought he played very well. That’s two big bodies banging on each other, so there’s no easy baskets. He didn’t get any angles. He had to score through (Ward).”
Three of Azubuike’s rejections came in his first seven minutes, well before the Delta, Nigeria, native found himself in foul trouble. Asked if Azubuike’s newfound rim protection — he averaged 1.7 blocks as a sophomore — speaks more to the team’s improved frontcourt depth or the center’s own offseason strides, Self indicated the answer is likely a mixture of both.
“But definitely he’s a better anticipator than what he has been,” said Self, who added Azubuike’s four-block performance “was nice to see.”
The highlight of Azubuike’s night came in a 20-second sequence early in the first half, when the 7-footer blocked a dunk attempt from MSU’s Aaron Henry, sprinted back to the other end of the court, then tipped an offensive rebound away from a pair of Spartan defenders and out to a wide-open Quentin Grimes, who drained a 3-pointer.
Those plays may very well find themselves on the best-of reel Azubuike sends NBA scouts and executives when the junior makes the jump to the next level, in all likelihood at this season’s end.
“Man, Doke is catching the ball outside the paint, he’s making great moves, he’s learning how to play his double teams,” Lawson said. ”... Ward being the size he is, Doke had to play against another big body, (but) I think he is more effective playing against the bigger bodies because he’s able to feel (and) play off them and make his moves.
“Udoka has developed so much since last year.”
With a one-game sample size, the jury is obviously still out on Azubuike’s improvements, including on his maligned-but-reworked free throw shooting form. He made 3 of 7 attempts from the stripe against MSU but missed four in the game’s final five minutes as the Spartans cut what was once a 17-point deficit to three in part by deploying a “Poke-a-Doke” strategy of intentionally sending Azubuike to the line.
Azubuike hit just 41.3 percent of his free throw attempts last season, but Self said he’s confident the big man will continue to improve in that area. Self said he won’t substitute for Azubuike in late-game situations “very often.”
“We’re going to keep going with him, and he’ll continue to get better,” Self said. “If you watched him last year, (his free throws) had no chance. I mean, tonight’s actually had a chance. I mean, they were pretty soft, and he shot them in pressure moments.”
Self actually seemed more perturbed by another number on Azubuike’s stat line.
“Udoka needs to play more than 20 minutes,” Self said. “If he plays more than 20 minutes, then we’re a different looking team.”