LAWRENCE — For a do-or-die stretch in Kansas basketball’s most recent victory, the No. 2-ranked Jayhawks’ biggest weapon reached a ceiling fitting of his 7-foot frame.
“Doke (Azubuike), that’s as good as a big man can play for about a 15-minute stretch,” KU coach Bill Self said of the Jayhawks’ senior center. “He was fabulous.”
Azubuike’s showing in his team’s Maui Invitational-clincher last week was likely what opposing Big 12 coaches envisioned seeing often in selecting him as the league’s preseason player of the year.
Named a co-MVP of the three-game tournament at Lahaina Civic Center in Lahaina, Hawaii, Azubuike finished with 29 points on 12-for-15 shooting and four blocks in 31 minutes played in the Jayhawks' 90-84 overtime victory last Wednesday over Dayton. Azubuike scored his team’s first nine points in the extra session.
“That’s the kind of stuff that we see often that isn’t translated to the games near as often,” Self said this week on his “Hawk Talk” radio show. “Hopefully that will give him some great confidence to feel like he doesn’t have to gather for balance, that he can just catch and go rather than have to catch and bounce. Nervous about a double team? He should embrace it.
“There’s a lot of great things he did very positively even when he didn’t score the ball. So yeah, I thought he was great.”
Azubuike will look to pick up where he left off when KU (6-1) plays host to No. 20 Colorado (7-0) at 6 p.m. Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
The Delta, Nigeria, native is now averaging 15.1 points on 79.7% shooting this season to go along with 7.6 rebounds per game, a seven-game start that Self classified as a bit of a mixed bag to this point during comments made at his Thursday news conference.
“I would say that he’s been hot and cold,” Self said. “I don’t think that he was near as impressive starting out. I thought he was a little hesitant, maybe a little rusty, maybe lacking a little bit of the confidence he has now. ... Against Dayton, he was great. He was great against Dayton. And I also thought he was a presence in the other (Maui Invitational) games, even if he didn’t score the ball or get the ball a lot.”
That last part of Self’s comment appears to be key moving forward.
While the 7-footer was undoubtedly well-fed from an offensive standpoint in Maui, Azubuike has at times shown visible in-game frustration at a lack of passes inside from Jayhawk guards. Shoring that situation up, Self indicated, will be a major focus moving forward.
“Doke I think is going to have a great year, but our perimeter players have got to do a better job getting him the ball,” Self said. “I thought the Dayton game was a step in the right direction. He played a lot better, but our perimeter players allowed him to look good too because they got him the ball on time and on target when he was posting. He just needs to keep being aggressive.”
Another step in the right direction against the Flyers? Azubuike’s free-throw shooting.
The senior center’s 5-for-8 conversion rate from the charity stripe may not appear to be much to celebrate, but it was a sizeable feat for the career 39.5-percent free-throw shooter. In fact, Azubuike came up big there when it mattered most, draining each of his last four tries from the line with three of those coming in overtime.
While an improved percentage hasn’t materialized just yet, Self observed that Azubuike’s free-throw motion this season has seen noticeable progress.
“I thought when he made those down the stretch, I mean, those were pure. He snapped it off and was confident and didn’t aim it,” Self said. “It just goes to show you what confidence means. Whatever you do, if you’re confident, you have such a better chance of being relaxed and actually having an opportunity to make a play regardless of sport. ...
“I was real happy to see that. To me that doesn’t have as much to do with playing well as what a lot of people think it does, but certainly we don’t win the game more than likely unless he was able to be relaxed at the line.”
Still, last Wednesday’s victory didn’t end without at least one teachable moment for Azubuike.
With 21 seconds remaining in regulation and the Jayhawks leading by just one, Azubuike rejected a shot attempt at the rim by Dayton’s Ryan Mikesell. The 7-footer enjoyed the moment a little too much, however, issuing a Dikembe Mutombo-esque finger wag in Mikesell’s direction.
Azubuike wasn’t issued a technical foul, but had the officials seen otherwise, the celebration could’ve been a game-changing gaffe.
“He shouldn’t have done that,” Self said. “And it’s a great learning lesson. There were a lot of things that happened late game that you can learn from. One is you can’t become too emotional in a situation like that because of the sportsmanship rule. Now, I’m not saying that’s a technical, but an official may view it as a technical.”
“It was," Self added, "a huge block."