Despite winning the game, Kansas lost Udoka Azubuike for several weeks to an ankle injury. Are four-guard lineups about to become a regular thing for KU?
Eight minute into Tuesday’s 72-47 win over Wofford, No. 2 Kansas lost center Udoka Azubuike to a sprained ankle that is expected to keep him sidelined until January.
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Azubuike is one of the most efficient players in the country, shooting higher than 75% from the floor since the beginning of the 2017-18 season. Kansas loses a lot of easy baskets when he’s off the floor, but there are definitely parts of the game where Azubuike’s presence slows them down.
On Tuesday night, we saw the offense hit a new gear in the second half without Azubuike in the game. Using a four-guard lineup, the Jayhawks finally stretched the floor a bit and ran an opponent off the court. Transition opportunities were plentiful. Alley-oops became an option because the floor was so open. All five players on the court were a threat to both drive the ball and shoot it from three.
In the next five games, expect a healthy dosage of four-guard lineups from Bill Self. David McCormack is averaging less than five minutes per game, so there isn’t going to be a whole lot of two-big lineups KU uses without Azubuike available. Marcus Garrett figures to start and average near 30 minutes per contest with Azubuike out. K.J. Lawson should get the biggest increase in minutes, but he plays more like a wing than a traditional “big.”
Last year, the Jayhawks thrived in four-guard lineups by being able to shoot three-pointers well as a team. This year’s squad, save for Lagerald Vick and one half of one game by Quentin Grimes, has been truly horrific at scoring from deep. Eventually, I expect that to improve. Grimes, Charlie Moore, and Devon Dotson are all capable three-point shooters that should settle into a 37%-ish rate. Forcing three-pointers is never a good way to get a team going, but I think the upped athleticism on the floor will open up driving range, which will in time set up more and more open three-point, catch-and-shoot opportunities.
I also think that four-guard lineups will improve Kansas’ three-point defense tremendously. They guarded the three better against Wofford than they have in any game all year. It’s no coincidence that they ran more four-guard lineups in that game than in all others. More speed and athleticism being on the court allows for better close-outs on shooters, which is what KU needs more than anything else right now.
Garrett is the key to this team right now. He does everything in basketball, save for shooting, remarkably well. His ball-handling has improved immensely. He can guard the post. He can play point guard. He has excellent court-vision. He and Devon Dotson combine for one of college basketball’s smartest backcourts. With Vick playing as well as he has thus far, Grimes’ confidence rising, and Dedric Lawson consistently putting up 20 and 10, the Jayhawks should have a stabilizing floor. If Grimes can quietly turn into a consistent player, Kansas will thrive in the four-guard lineup. Depth was preached all offseason for this squad, and now it will be put to the test.
Also, it’s not exactly like Kansas is preparing to face murderers’ row in the next three weeks. Home games against New Mexico State, South Dakota, and Eastern Michigan should be borderline-blowout wins. KU should handle Villanova at home as long as they are competent shooting threes. And Arizona State figures to be tough, as the game is on the road, but even if KU loses that, you’re 9-1 entering conference play when Azubuike is presumably set to return.
Azubuike is a fabulous player who is the no-brainer guy to go to when you need a basket. But Kansas has the tools to succeed with him off the floor, and a four-guard lineup is exactly the way to do it.