KU center Udoka Azubuike hasn't played to his rebounding potential
As Bill Self continues to address his Kansas basketball team’s ongoing rebounding issues, the coach knows one player in particular could do all of the Jayhawks a favor by making a more vigorous impact on the glass.
On the same afternoon Self revealed a lack of effort on the part of Lagerald Vick led to the junior’s removal from the starting lineup, the 15th-year KU coach didn’t hide his displeasure for center Udoka Azubuike’s rebounding of late, either.
A 7-foot, 280-pound sophomore from Nigeria, Azubuike has secured six or fewer rebounds in each of the Jayhawks’ past four games, two of which ended as losses.
It’s the lack of defensive boards in particular that drives Self mad, though, because KU so often has failed to end opponent’s possessions after the first shot attempt. Oklahoma State destroyed Kansas with 26 second-chance points off 16 offensive rebounds on Saturday. In the Jayhawks’ past 11 games, nine opponents have reached double digits in second-chance points. During that stretch dating back to the start of Big 12 play, KU’s foes are averaging 15.4 offensive rebounds a game and scoring 14.9 points a game off those extended possessions.
So what has been lacking from Azubuike, who averages 7.3 rebounds on the year and has pulled down nine or more on nine occasions?
“I’d say just quickness, intensity, athletic ability, want-to more than anything else,” Self listed. “He got a defensive rebound against Oklahoma State on the first possession the other day — and that was it. He got one to start the second half — that’s it. Got two (defensive) rebounds the whole game. He plays a lot of minutes.”
Azubuike has contributed three or fewer defensive rebounds in five straight games. He averages 4.6 boards on defense this season and 3.8 in Big 12 contests.
“It’s great for a big guy to score points, and we love that,” Self said after Azubuike, the NCAA leader in field goal percentage (76.2 percent) made 8 of 11 shots and scored 20 points in a loss to the Cowboys. “And I don’t want to take that away from him by any stretch. But, you know, for us to win, everybody’s got a role and everybody’s got to play to their role. And he knows he’s the biggest guy on our team. He knows he’s the best defensive rebounder. He knows he’s that, so it’s up to him to play to that.”
Looking at season averages, Azubuike’s 4.6 defensive rebounds a game lead Kansas (18-5 overall, 7-3 Big 12), but just barely. Malik Newman gathers 4.5 and Vick is at 4.3. In league games, Newman leads the team with 4.7 boards on the defensive end of the floor, where Vick contributes 3.5 and Svi Mykhailiuk has provided 3.2 on average.
Perhaps playing alongside new starter Lightfoot will make Azubuike a more effective rebounder as Self gives playing bigger a chance, despite a guard-heavy rotation. The move wasn’t made specifically to address KU’s shortcomings on the glass, but it certainly couldn’t hurt a team that has been out-rebounded in 11 of its lsat 12 games.
Self remains hopeful his hulking starting center will begin embracing the idea of becoming KU’s defensive closer, a player capable of ending opponents’ possessions by snatching the first miss out of the air and eliminating second — and sometimes third — attempts.
“And hopefully he will. He hasn’t done that in a while, but I don’t think he’s played poorly,” Self clarified. “I just don’t think he’s played to what he is — and that is the biggest guy on the floor most every night.”
Kansas plays host to TCU (16-7, 4-6) at 8 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN2).