WICHITA — Hobbled Kansas center Udoka Azubuike admits he isn’t quite 100-percent confident yet in playing through his injured left knee, damaged last Tuesday and now sporting a bulky, black brace.
Climbing ladders, though? That’s another story.
Azubuike, battling an MCL sprain and a game-time decision for the No. 1-seeded Jayhawks’ 1 p.m. Thursday clash with 16th-seeded Penn at Intrust Bank Arena, watched from the bench as his depth-challenged teammates won three games in three days last week to capture the Big 12 Tournament championship in Kansas City, Mo.
Following the final victory, an 81-70 triumph over West Virginia on Saturday night, Azubuike finally got his turn in the spotlight. Sporting street clothes and a backwards cap commemorating the Jayhawks’ accomplishment, Azubuike gingerly climbed the ladder — well, three rungs of it, at least — and cut his piece of the championship net.
A grinning Azubuike held the piece of net in the air and waved it at fans. Devonte’ Graham, stationed at Azubuike’s side, held the ladder in place for his 14th and final assist of the evening.
Giving his first interview since suffering the injury, Azubuike said he gave no second thought to making the trek up the ladder to snip his piece of the winners’ spoils.
“Nah, I wasn’t worried. I was just trying to get my piece of it,” Azubuike said Wednesday with a laugh. “It was fun.”
If these Jayhawks (27-7) are to enjoy another net-cutting ritual, expect Azubuike’s ascent to be less delicate — and count on the 7-footer, at some point, playing an on-court role in that outcome.
Azubuike continued his recovery process Wednesday, for the first time going through four possessions of play with light contact during a morning session and later performing drills alongside teammates in the afternoon open practice.
“We feel and the docs feel that he’s making unbelievable progress,” KU coach Bill Self said. “We do not want to have a setback. His availability (Thursday) will probably be a game-time decision, but certainly we feel he’s getting better each day, and each day certainly played out to be a pretty big improvement from a rehab standpoint.”
Azubuike was less direct with some of his answers. Asked to grade his pain level on a scale of 1-to-10, he paused for a few seconds and politely declined. Given an opportunity to retell the sequence of events that led to his injury, he again declined — “I don’t want to go into detail,” he said. “I just fell in practice.”
He did, though, open up on a number of subjects, including his thoughts on entering another tournament while wounded, his confidence in Silvio De Sousa (16 points, 10 rebounds against WVU) and how KU has rallied around his injury, among other topics.
Azubuike missed last year’s NCAA Tournament with a wrist injury suffered in late December 2016, another “freak deal” that occurred during a team practice. The sophomore admitted that is immediately where his mind went as he laid on the court last Tuesday.
“It’s natural for humans. Once you get injured, it’s just something that just comes up, like, ‘Oh, not again,’ ” Azubuike said. “You just kind of think about it and last year being out, all that kind of stuff. It is just natural for me. I felt pretty much the same thing. But I’m not going to look back. I’m just going to keep focusing on trying to help my team in every way possible and any way I can.
“Stuff happens, so I’ve just got to keep my head straight and just help the team any way I possibly can.”
De Sousa, who joined KU in late December from the high school level at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., emerged as a diamond in the rough against the Mountaineers and through overall consistent play across the entire three-game conference tournament run. Azubuike said he instructed the 6-9 forward to play his game and to play fearless, the latter certainly on display during De Sousa’s don’t-back-down approach to WVU sophomore forward Sagaba Konate.
“He played like a grown man, that’s what I’d say,” Azubuike said. “Against West Virginia, they’re not always an easy team to play against. Sometimes they play bully ball and all that stuff. He pretty much held his own, so I was pretty impressed.”
De Sousa’s performance and Mitch Lightfoot’s experience have given Azubuike confidence he can go through the recovery process without rushing himself back onto the court before he’s ready in an emergency attempt to prevent a season-ending defeat, he said. He’s hopeful he can play against the Quakers (24-8) and said even a five-minute appearance Thursday would provide a world of confidence for Saturday.
Whether he plays against Penn or not, Azubuike has noticed the chatter on social media and elsewhere labeling the Jayhawks as vulnerable — “Why No. 16 Penn Can Knock Off No. 1 Kansas,” read the headline of a Wall Street Journal story posted Wednesday.
“All I can say is watch tomorrow,” Azubuike said. “It’s the game of basketball. Everybody’s got his own opinion. You can’t take someone’s opinion. You’ve just got to see. And I’m confident in my team, that’s all.”