KU may be playing small-ball, but this year’s squad will go as far as the big man can carry them.
Finally able to shine after recovering from injury, Udoka Azubuike is leading Division-I NCAA basketball in field goal percentage at 77.6 percent. With KU’s cupcake early schedule, Udoka has been dominant. Dunking over 7-footers, posting double-doubles and terrorizing in the paint. For the Jayhawks to succeed this season, he will need to keep feasting.
With Billy Preston no closer to seeing action and Silvio De Sousa’s eligibility undetermined, Azubuike’s only real relief is fellow sophomore Mitch Lightfoot. While Lightfoot plays with admirable intensity, he still needs time to develop. Udoka is essentially the first and last line of defense against opposing big men. Against non-Power 5 schools, this is no real challenge. However, as KU enters conference play against squads like as Texas, the Jayhawks will be forfeiting length on many nights.
Udoka will have to be patient and precise to stay out of foul trouble all season long. If Udoka can continue to impose his interior presence, the perimeter will open up for Kansas’ elite guards to knock down shots. If Udoka picks up quick fouls or struggles, the team will likely follow suit.
The one knock on Udoka’s game is from the free throw line, and teams will certainly look to exploit this weakness in late-game situations. Don’t be surprised if Udoka’s free throw shooting becomes paramount in some Big 12 contests, especially on the road. While many centers fail to impress in this area, Udoka will need to make strides and Bill Self will be forced to make some strategic substitutions in close contests.
Since arriving on campus, Andrea Hudy has been able to mold Azubuike into a much leaner version of his former self. This is going to become critical as his stamina will be tested with the amount of minutes he will be expected to log all season. If he can sustain his aggressive play on both ends, Udoka will be a tough matchup for even the most elite opponents.
Just as Frank Mason had Landen Lucas to rely on last season, Devonte’ Graham will be leaning on Udoka to clean up the boards and make the offense two-dimensional. With how thin KU is this season, the Jayhawks would be rattled by any injury. If Azubuike is sidelined for any amount of time, it would be catastrophic.