WICHITA — Fans, teammates, coaches — virtually everyone affiliated with the Kansas basketball program has had Udoka Azubuike’s health at the forefront of their mind for the last two weeks.
Ask Azubuike himself and the sophomore center will tell you he was fretting far more about another player’s well-being Saturday.
Azubuike, recovering from an MCL sprain in his left knee suffered during a March 6 practice, saw his first significant action since that setback in the top-seeded Jayhawks’ second-round matchup against No. 8 seed Seton Hall, and the 7-footer made the most of it. He posted a 10-point, 7-rebound, 2-block, 2-steal line in 21 minutes, notching a game-high plus-minus of plus-21 in the eventual 83-79 victory at Intrust Bank Arena.
As mentioned above, though, Azubuike’s evening didn’t come without an injury scare — just not to himself. Executing a handoff at midcourt near the end of the first half, the 280-pounder collided with teammate and senior guard Devonte’ Graham, whose forehead crashed into the center’s shoulder. Giving up 10 inches and 95 pounds in the collision, Graham stumbled backward and ended up on his back for several seconds.
Yes, KU’s only point guard collided with the team’s only center, its most irreplaceable player smashing into its second-most irreplaceable player, and the latter was admittedly terrified.
“I was for a little bit, I was, man,” Azubuike said. “I was like, ‘Oh no, you can’t get injured now, man. You’ve got to come back.’ I was nervous, yeah.”
Graham gave Azubuike reason to exhale. While he missed the final 45 seconds before the break, the Big 12 player of the year passed concussion protocol on the sideline and played all 20 second-half minutes in the Sweet 16-clinching victory.
He was all right. As it turns out, so appears to be Azubuike.
“He’s probably not even close to 100, to be honest,” Graham said. “But the way his attitude has been and the way he’s been rebounding and stuff like that is what allowed him to come out and play tonight. He wanted to be out on the court, and you know he’s a big key to the team. He just wanted to help us win.”
Without Azubuike, KU coach Bill Self said, the Jayhawks’ season would be over.
“I thought his attitude has been great and he’s matured so much,” Self said. “In my opinion, he was the most valuable player, because if his mind wasn’t so right to get healthy that fast, there’s no way we would have won that game.”
Self is justified in that opinion.
Seton Hall’s standout senior center, Angel Delgado, scored 24 points and brought in 23 rebounds, the latter the third-most boards in an NCAA Tournament game since 1973. Backup bigs Mitch Lightfoot (plus-minus of minus-13 in 14 minutes) and Silvio De Sousa (minus-3 in four minutes) offered little resistance inside in the tough matchup.
“It’s just a different presence, you know,” Graham said. “You can’t duplicate Doke with Mitch or Silvio. He’s way bigger than them and it’s harder to score over Doke, and then on the defensive end you’ve got to worry about him, as well. So Delgado, he was going to have to battle on offense and defense when (Azubuike) was in the game.”
Without Azubuike, Self said, Delgado would’ve reached 35 points and 34 rebounds. After the game, Self approached the player those in the program affectionately call “big fella” and delivered the highest praise one can receive from the 15th-year KU coach — “Man, you’re tough,” Self said.
“I don’t like saying stuff about myself, but he was like, without me, they would not be in the Sweet 16,” Azubuike said. “I was positive with my rehab, I came back and did everything positive, and that was really nice to hear.”
Azubuike checked out of Saturday’s game for good with the Jayhawks (29-7) up five at the 2:34 mark, a decision that visibly upset the 7-footer. But he had already eclipsed his 20-minute soft cap and, with the outcome still in doubt, may have been subject to the “Poke-a-Doke” strategy, a non-issue as KU made all 10 of its final free-throw attempts to seal the victory.
Still, watching Delgado dominate from the bench wasn’t a pleasant endeavor.
“It was pretty frustrating. It was, for real,” Azubuike said of his short-spurt appearances. “I just felt like I just wish I was in the game back then, but I knew it was for my own good according to the doctor and all that stuff, but just seeing him out there getting all the rebounds, I was kind of mad, for real.”
With five off days sandwiched between the Jayhawks’ next contest, Azubuike predicted he’ll be “way better” in the Sweet 16, and Self said he sees “no reason” why the center can’t be 100 percent and back in rhythm by Friday’s matchup in Omaha with No. 5-seeded Clemson at 6:07 p.m. The game will be televised on WIBW (13.1).
“Man, this is the NCAA, man. This is the Big Dance,” Azubuike said. “You’re just so excited. You want to win as many games as you can. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for real. It’s my first time in the NCAA Tournament, and every win, it’s a different vibe, it’s a different experience from the season.
“I’m excited. I’m pumped. It just means a lot.”
Before Friday, though, Azubuike appeared to have a loose end to tie up.
“Nah, he didn’t (apologize for the collision). He didn’t,” said Graham, smiling. “I’ve got to talk to him about that.”
Relayed Graham’s message, Azubuike laughed.
“He did ask me about it. He asked me about it, and I was like, ‘Man, I didn’t mean it. It wasn’t intentional,’ ” Azubuike said. “I’mma just tell him sorry when I see him, if that’s what he wants, yeah.”