LAWRENCE — The big fella is back, and if Saturday was any indication, Udoka Azubuike hasn’t lost a step.
Azubuike returned to the court for the first time since suffering an ankle sprain on Dec. 4, and there was no rust to be seen for Kansas basketball’s 7-footer. The junior center scored a game-high 23 points on 10-for-13 shooting, hauled in nine rebounds and blocked a pair of shots in a statement return, and the fifth-ranked Jayhawks easily dispatched Eastern Michigan, 87-63.
Azubuike made his presence felt from the opening tip — which the Jayhawks won, again thanks to the returning frontcourt force.
KU (11-1) took a 21-point lead into the break on the heels of a picturesque performance in the paint, illustrated mostly by Azubuike. The Jayhawks shot 65.4 percent in the period and connected on 15 of 18 attempted 2s.
Azubuike, who last season led college basketball with a 77-percent shooting clip, converted 6 of 8 for a game-high 14 points in the first half. He drew fouls on each of his first three point-blank makes, converting his third and-1 attempt, and even blocked a 3-pointer before checking out for the first time at the 14:48 mark. All told, KU outscored EMU (6-7) 28-6 in the paint before the break, helping offset a 2-for-7 shooting start from beyond the arc.
The Jayhawks struggled out of the gate in the second half, held without a field goal for the first four-plus minutes, but it was again Azubuike who got his squad back on track. He scored seven points and hauled in five boards in the periods first eight minutes, his short jumper ballooning the KU advantage to 59-34 with 11:17 to play.
All told, Azubuike played 20 minutes in his return. He checked out for good with 5:36 to play, receiving a roar from the Allen Fieldhouse faithful who can exhale and likely shelve any concerns about his reintegration into the Jayhawk lineup.
Quentin Grimes scored 16 points, while fellow freshman Devon Dotson pitched in 15 to round out the double-figure scorers for the Jayhawks, who rebounded from an 80-76 setback at Arizona State a week ago. James Thompson and Paul Jackson scored 15 points apiece to pace EMU.
KU begins its Big 12 slate with an 8 p.m. Wednesday showdown against No. 25 Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse.