LINCOLN, Neb. — Mitch Lightfoot has a simple strategy when it comes to transforming Udoka Azubuike from gentle giant to bruising enforcer.
It goes a little something like this: Poke the Doke, and find the nearest exit.
On the heels of the sophomore center’s 26-point, 10-rebound effort in the No. 13-ranked Jayhawks’ 73-72 victory Saturday night at Nebraska, Azubuike’s teammate and the only other active frontcourt player on the active KU roster Lightfoot was asked his own personal formula for eliciting a mean streak from the 7-footer.
Lightfoot paused momentarily, thinking of how to phrase his response.
“What can I say here?” he asked. “First of all you’ve got to make him mad, and then once he’s mad, I don’t want to get in his way. I’ll let the other team do that.”
The Cornhuskers, the “other team” Saturday, provided little resistance in a contest that flashed the Delta, Nigeria, native’s potential.
Azubuike’s 26 points represented a new career-high, accomplished on 13-for-17 shooting. The 17 shot attempts also represented a personal high and was only the third time in 21 career contests at KU (8-2) that he reached a double-digit total in that category.
The scoring outburst, it turns out, wasn’t happenstance.
During practices and film sessions in the days leading up to the Nebraska contest, KU coach Bill Self hounded Azubuike and his teammates for the center’s lack of aggressiveness, essentially demanding the sophomore demand the ball more often. It was, as Azubuike perhaps understated, a “big topic” last week.
“I don’t think Doke’s going to send me any Christmas cards or gifts this year for sure (because of) the last 10 days,” Self said. “He responded very well. He hasn’t played to his size I think at all here of late, but he did today.”
Senior guard Devonte’ Graham has taken to telling Azubuike he is “unstoppable” in the paint. Asked for his thoughts on Self’s marching orders to feed the 7-footer more, Graham responded plainly: “I agree with him.”
“He just wants everybody to be aggressive, and he felt like some guys weren’t being aggressive, especially Doke down low,” said Graham, who called Azubuike the game’s MVP. “He’s a monster down there, so we’ve got to feed him the ball.”
Graham had an up-close view of perhaps Azubuike’s most important play Saturday, the block of James Palmer’s potential go-ahead floater in the lane with less than 10 seconds to play. Azubuike chased down the ball and kicked it ahead to Lagerald Vick, who ran out the rest of the clock for the come-from-behind victory.
“I was right beside him. He better had got it,” Graham said with a laugh. “No, it was a great block — and it was the game-winning block.”
“He was driving to the basket,” Azubuike added. “I had no choice but to block it.”
It was the first block of the game for Azubuike, a statistic not lost on Lightfoot.
“I was about to say, I was like, that boy had great timing on the most important block we’ve had yet of the season,” Lightfoot said. “All that energy. I was like, ‘That’s my boy.’ ”
Lightfoot said Azubuike doesn’t necessarily need to be talked into being aggressive — “When he’s got his mind right, that dude, he’s really good,” he said.
Still, if Lightfoot ever feels like riling the gentle giant, is he above fabricating some bulletin board material?
“Oh, I mean, no?” Lightfoot said, adding an exaggerated wink. “I’m sure we’ve all got our ways to make big fella more motivated.”