KU's Azubuike draws early attention of all types and answers the call
The Bankers Life Fieldhouse public address announcer, who routinely referred to Kansas junior Udoka Azubuike as “Udoka Azu-boo-koo” throughout the first half of KU’s 92-87 victory over No. 10 Michigan State, was not the only one who elected to call the KU big man by a name other than his own on Tuesday night.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo also joined in the fun.
Asked after the loss to the top-ranked Jayhawks why he elected not to foul Kansas — specifically, Azubuike, who entered the game as a career 40.7 percent free-throw shooter and 3 of 7 (42.8 percent) vs. Michigan State — Izzo pointed out, in no uncertain times, that the Spartans employed that exact game plan.
“Well, we were fouling Kansas,” Izzo began.
That’s when he, too, referenced Azubuike by a different name.
“We had some foul trouble,” he continued. “But it was a (six)-point game and we were going to try to foul, you know, Shaq. But he's got to get the ball. They were warning me about you can't just go grab him, you can't do this and that.”
“Shaq,” of course, is NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, who famously was the first player to experience teams fouling him intentionally on a regular basis in order to send him to the free-throw line.
Hack-A-Shaq was the name given to the strategy, which later was utilized on half a dozen other NBA big men, and teams first began experimenting with the Hack-A-Dok strategy at the college level last season.
During his 19-year playing career, O’Neal shot 52.7 percent from the charity stripe and never finished a season higher than 62.2 percent.
That reality, along with their mammoth size, has drawn the occasional comparison between Azubuike and O’Neal. And Izzo, like others before him, said it was in the MSU game plan to employ the strategy if necessary Tuesday night.
“When Shaq got the ball, we fouled him in the last two minutes,” said Izzo, again using the nickname for KU's big man. “But those other guys are all pretty good free-throw shooters. And, you know what, we cut it to three with 34 seconds left and we had two chances to cut it to two.”
KU coach Bill Self, who is on record saying he does not like the idea of taking his best players out of the game at the end — and said it again Tuesday night — did ultimately take Azubuike out with 19 seconds left. But he said that was for defensive purposes and had nothing to do with Azubuike’s free-throw shooting.
Regardless of how he shot at the line or what name he was called or by whom, Azubuike’s season debut featured a lot to like.
In addition to playing hungry and with more energy than he showed most of last season, Azubuike was wildly efficient on the offensive end and his KU teammates kept throwing the ball to him whenever possible.
“That’s two big bodies banging on each other (Azubuike and MSU’s Nick Ward),” Self said. “So there were no easy baskets. He didn’t get any angles. He had to score through him.”
Coming off of a record-setting field goal shooting season a year ago, the junior from Nigeria did just that, making seven of 10 shots from the floor on Tuesday while blocking four shots and drawing six fouls.
Several of his offensive post moves showed a polish that did not exist a season ago, as Azubuike scored via his signature monster slams, but also flashed a soft hook shot with both hands and used his improved footwork to get easy baskets, as well.
“He’s our first option,” Self said of Azubuike, who finished with 20 points and three rebounds. “Even though Dedric (Lawson) may lead us in scoring, everybody will tell you we want to play through Dok as much as possible. ... He scores the ball, but the thing he doesn’t do is rebound the ball like he should. But I thought he played very well.”