LAWRENCE — Udoka Azubuike’s season is officially over — again.
The Kansas basketball team’s hard-luck and oft-injured junior center will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ligament in his right hand, the team announced in a Sunday night news release. Azubuike was withheld from Saturday’s 77-60 defeat at Iowa State in what the team at first called a “precautionary” measure stemming from a blow suffered at Friday’s practice, but a subsequent MRI on Sunday revealed the severe nature of the injury.
Azubuike, who averaged 13.4 points on 70.5-percent shooting to go along with 6.8 rebounds per game, is expected to make a full recovery and return to basketball-related activities this summer. It’s the second season-ending ligament tear for the 7-footer, who in December 2016 tore a ligament in his left hand in an incident that cost him the entire second half of his freshman campaign.
“Although the initial X-rays did not reveal the extent of the injury, the MRI did and it will require season-ending surgery,” KU coach Bill Self said in a news release. “The surgery date will be set early this week.”
Azubuike also missed four games in December with a sprained ankle and three games in the Big 12 Tournament last season with a knee injury.
Where the Jayhawks (12-2, 1-1 Big 12) go from here appears the next matter at hand.
The team — which primarily deployed a four-guard lineup across the last two seasons, albeit with better outside shooting — used an ineffective four-guard look around 6-9 junior forward Dedric Lawson in the loss at Iowa State. Frontcourt depth was considered a strength for the Jayhawks entering the season, but with Azubuike sidelined and sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa still indefinitely withheld pending an NCAA investigation into potential illicit payments distributed during his recruitment, the team is down to just Lawson, junior forward Mitch Lightfoot and freshman forward David McCormack, the latter two sparingly used to this point in the season.
The 6-8 Lightfoot averages 2.0 points and 2.4 rebounds across 8.7 minutes, while the 6-10 former McDonald’s All-American McCormack stands at 2.5 points and 2.4 rebounds through 7.2 minutes per game. Sophomore guard Marcus Garrett, 6-5, started in place of Azubuike against the Cyclones but averages 5.8 points on 33.3-percent shooting and an 18.2-percent clip from 3-point range. The Jayhawks as a team connect on 34.1 percent of their attempt from beyond the arc but have made just 10 of 41, or 24.4 percent, of their long-range tries across the first two games of league play.
De Sousa, a 6-9, 245-pounder out of Luanda, Angola, was a revelation down the stretch last season for the Jayhawks but has been indefinitely withheld in the wake of last October’s trial of three individuals in the federal government’s investigation into corruption in college basketball. Testimony and documents from that trial alleged De Sousa’s guardian accepted payments to steer De Sousa’s recruitment process. Self on Dec. 17 said there was no update or movement on De Sousa’s status from the NCAA despite the end of the first semester.
Without Azubuike, KU actually out-rebounded Iowa State by 15 and held a 12-point advantage in the paint. Still, the 7-footer’s unexpected absence — Self said he learned of Azubuike’s decision to sit out and await an MRI on the team bus heading into shootaround that morning — may have played a role in the dysfunctional play of the Jayhawks, who committed 24 turnovers.
“We didn’t have them ready as a staff to be able to score points without Doke present, so that’s on us. That’s not on the kids. That’s on us,” Self said in his postgame radio interview Saturday. “We’ve got a lot of stuff we’ve got to hammer out and hopefully we can do it relatively soon.”