LAWRENCE — Udoka Azubuike’s performance Saturday in top-seeded Kansas’ Sweet 16-clinching victory over Seton Hall made one thing apparent to coach Bill Self.
“I do think that we have to play through him from this point forward, however long it lasts,” Self said Tuesday afternoon in a radio interview with The Jim Rome Show. “We’ve got to get some inside baskets.”
That approach will now start from the jump.
Azubuike, the sophomore center who has been battling an MCL sprain suffered March 6, will start in the team’s 6:07 p.m. Friday contest against No. 5 seed Clemson at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., Self said. The 7-footer’s soreness was limited following his 22-minute appearance against Seton Hall, his first significant action since suffering the left knee injury.
“He took Monday and Sunday off and then he’ll be full speed Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and he’ll start Friday as long as we don’t have a setback,” Self said. “Hopefully I’ll be worried more about foul situations than health because we’re going to need him in there for 30 minutes.”
Azubuike posted a 10-point, 7-rebound, 2-block, 2-steal line against the Pirates and had a game-high plus-minus of plus-21 in the eventual 83-79 victory. Frontcourt foe Angel Delgado had an eye-popping 24-point, 23-rebound effort but saw his production at least slowed with Azubuike in the contest.
In the 18 minutes Delgado played with Azubuike on the bench, Self pointed out, the Seton Hall center notched 20 points and 15 rebounds.
“Even though Delgado had a monster game, Doke at least neutralized him some when he was in there and kept him off the offensive glass,” Self said. “We didn’t have to help on the post when Doke was in there, and when we did, obviously they made 3s. So he was huge for us, and it gave our team a lift. He was better for us defensively than offensively.”
After Saturday’s victory, Self admitted the contest “wasn’t a thing of beauty” and took issue with how the Jayhawks (29-7) finished. After watching game tape, though, he was “more pleased” but added a similar performance against Clemson (25-9) would likely end KU’s season.
The Tigers throttled No. 4 seed Auburn 84-53 in their Round of 32 matchup, a performance Self called “probably as impressive of a performance as anyone has had in the tournament so far.” One of three ACC teams left in the Midwest Regional, Clemson enters with balanced guards Marcquise Reed, Gabe DeVoe and Shelton Mitchell, all averaging at least 12.3 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists this season.
“They beat (Auburn) by 31 but it wasn’t that close. I mean, had ’em down 40 and certainly they’re so well coached,” Self said of Clemson.
“Brad (Brownell) is a terrific coach and he’s getting his due like he deserves. Everybody’s known it for a long time, the guy can coach. They don’t make mistakes. You’ve got to beat ’em.”
Clemson entered the NCAA Tournament with a 9-8 record in its previous 17 contest, most played without senior forward Donte Grantham, who was averaging 14.2 points and 6.9 rebounds before suffering a season-ending knee injury in a 67-58 victory over Notre Dame on Jan. 20. Still, the Tigers recovered and enter Friday’s game as the nation’s sixth-best team in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing just 92.5 point per 100 possessions according to advanced analytics outlet KenPom.com.
“They’ve dealt with some adversity also, losing a key player, and they’ve rallied around that,” Self said. “Hey, their perimeter is as good as we’ve played against all year, and certainly they’ve got a big guy (6-9 forward Elijah Thomas, averaging 10.9 points, 8.1 rebounds) they can play around, so we kind of mirror each other in that way. They don’t give up easy basket. You’ve got to make plays against ’em.
“Certainly they’re capable of beating anybody.”
A NEW MAN? — Sophomore guard Malik Newman continued his torrid postseason Saturday, scoring a game-high-tying 28 points to bring his average to 22 through five Big 12 and NCAA Tournament contests.
“Malik put us on his shoulders there for a stretch and got us 28 and I think 18 during the second half in crunch time. That was huge,” Self said. “We’ve got a really nice team — really, really nice team — but there’s not a lot of margin for error ’cause we don’t have a lot of depth. We really need all five starters to play fairly well. If we’re not then obviously somebody’s got to have a monster game like Malik did.”
Newman hit four 3s in Saturday’s game and went 6 for 6 from the free-throw line in the final minute to ice the outcome.
“Hopefully moving forward we can continue to have some balance,” Self said, “but Malik’s been the difference on our team the last couple weeks.”