With Udoka Azubuike out for the foreseeable future, KU will have to find a way to keep winning without their dominant down-low presence.
Azubuike left the Jayhawks’ win against Wofford at just under the 12-minute mark in the first half when he landed awkwardly on his ankle after going for a shot block at the rim. Fortunately, the X-rays came back negative. However, it does look like this is more that just a routine twisted ankle. Bill Self called it a “very legitimate ankle sprain” and later classified Azubuike’s status as out indefinitely.
Azubuike has been one of KU’s best players all season; he leads the team in blocks per game at 1.4 and is second in rebounds per contest at 6.1. Azubuike has also shown off a more improved post game this year, as he was averaging 15 points per contest before exiting Tuesday early and finishing with 0.
That kind of production will be almost impossible to replace for the Jayhawks. KU’s next three big guys in line are K.J. Lawson, David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot. Those three are all solid players, but they’re nowhere near the asset that Azubuike is on the floor. This injury brings Silvio De Sousa’s situation back to the forefront for the Jayhawks. The high-energy big man would slide right into the starting lineup in Azubuike’s absence if he was available. However, it doesn’t look like De Sousa will be seeing the floor for KU anytime soon due to his ongoing eligibility questions.
It seems the more likely candidate to fill Azubuike’s spot in the starting lineup is Marcus Garrett. Garrett’s addition to the starting five will push Dedric Lawson to the center position, with Garrett running as a small-ball four. Garrett doesn’t bring much to the offensive end, but he’s a bulldog on defense. After Azubuike went down against Wofford on Tuesday night, Self went to a smaller lineup featuring four wings and a big man, which seemed to spark something in the Jayhawks, who finished the game on a 27-3 run.
Azubuike’s injury doesn’t mean all bad things for this team. KU’s has struggled all year with three-point defense, and going to a smaller starting lineup should help remedy that problem. The Jayhawks will be able to switch more freely onto opposing shooters, allowing fewer open looks from deep after opponents set screens. Azubuike will be missed most down low against driving opponents. That’s where you could see K.J. Lawson come in and make an impact right away. The athletic big guy has shown some ability to be a shot disrupter and overall pest to opposing players in the paint. You should also look for McCormack to get more playing time and possibly break out. It’ll be all about opportunity for the talented freshman, as he’s already shown flashes of a polished offensive game.
It looks like Azubuike could come back sometime around the new year, and KU’s Big 12 opener against Oklahoma makes a lot of sense as a target date for his return. In that span, the Jayhawks face New Mexico State, Villanova, South Dakota, Arizona State and Eastern Michigan. If KU can get through that stretch with only one loss and a healthy Azubuike back, the Jayhawks should keep rolling into the new year.