The case for Kansas center Udoka Azubuike as national player of the year is building with teammates and opponents alike
To hear his teammates tell it, Kansas senior Udoka Azubuike is on some kind of a hot streak at the moment, with five double-doubles in his last seven games and back-to-back monster showings in KU’s two most recent victories.
“I mean, he’s on a roll right now,” said sophomore guard Ochai Agbaji after Monday’s 83-58 win by No. 1 Kansas over Oklahoma State at Allen Fieldhouse.
Added freshman guard Christian Braun: “The roll he’s on right now is crazy. What he’s doing night in, night out is pretty impressive. It’s fun to watch for all of us.”
Throw OSU coach Mike Boynton into that “all of us” group, even if it comes in a losing effort.
Monday night, shortly after watching Azubuike torch the Cowboys for 19 points and 16 rebounds in 27 minutes, Boynton spent half of his postgame meeting with the media praising Azubuike.
That was after he offered one heck of an in-person compliment to Azubuike during the handshake line after the final horn sounded.
When the two met near midcourt, Boynton shook Azubuike’s massive mit with his right hand, tapped him on the chest with his left and then pointed up to the ceiling at Allen Fieldhouse.
“He kind of just said if I keep doing what I’m doing that I’m going to hang a banner at the fieldhouse,” Azubuike said.
After the victory, which featured the career 41% free throw shooter making 7 of 8 free throw attempts and nearly reaching 20 points on just six shots, Boynton, unprompted, paraphrased his exchange with KU’s 7-foot center.
“Hell, I’m not afraid to say it,” Boynton began. “If Udoka Azubuike is going to make all of his free throws, they’re going to win a national championship.”
Heading into Monday’s matchup, Boynton was keenly aware of two important realities. First, the third-year OSU coach knew the Jayhawks were national title contenders. Second, he knew his team wasn’t.
That made the challenge tough from the start. But the individual performances that led to the collective beatdown spoke to Boynton even louder throughout the 40 minutes of his third crack at a win on KU’s home floor.
“Damn, they’re good,” he said after the KU victory Monday night. “One of my goals was actually to never hear that chant in this building. I was 2 for 2. So that streak’s over.”
The unique thing about Boynton’s words on Monday night was that he seemed happy to share them. There was no shame in the loss, no overwhelming disappointment or frustration weighing on him.
His appreciation for what Kansas basketball is and his enjoyment of watching young men have success in the game he loves outweighed any of that.
“I cheer for these guys when we don’t compete against them,” Boynton said of the Jayhawks. “I hope they do well. We’re not a national championship contender. They are. And the reason that they are is because not only do they have (Azubuike), but they also have as dynamic of a point guard as you can have in college basketball (in Devon Dotson). But then their ancillary pieces all contribute, as well.”
Speaking specifically on Azubuike, Boynton emphasized the senior center’s four-year development and the obvious work that he has put in to position himself to have the year he is having.
“I’d be hard pressed to find a better national player of the year candidate,” Boynton said. “I mean, the way he’s playing is pretty special. … He’s truly one of the most improved players I’ve ever watched.”
And that improvement is not limited to one end of the floor or the other, nor is it something that shows up in spurts or small doses. Boynton, whose team did a better-than-average job of handling Azubuike in the first meeting in Stillwater, Okla., in late January, said the thing that has impressed him the most about Azubuike’s career is how he has shaped himself into a complete player.
“He still doesn’t have a ton of post moves, right,” Boynton said. “He’s not like (Hakeem) Olajuwon out there. But if he catches it in the paint, you don’t really have an answer for him. But what he can do defensively now versus what he could do two years ago, for sure, is night and day. He can move his feet, he can switch in ball screens and keep a guard in front of him, and then anything around the basket, he has very good reaction time, very good anticipation. And, for the most part, he does it without fouling a whole lot.”
Boynton continued: “This game is about these kids. I’ve watched his development in my time here. I saw him play a little bit in high school. And his growth is remarkable. Obviously a lot of credit goes to their staff putting him in position, but that kid has obviously put a lot of work in and he’s made himself not just a big, plodding post player who can get lost in today’s game as everyone thinks. No, the truth is if you’re good enough you can figure it out, and he’s terrific.”
Ranked No. 6 in the current KenPom.com player of the year standings — Dotson is actually No. 1 — Azubuike enters the home stretch of his senior season focused more on taking full advantage of every moment and less on individual accolades.
“I’m happy that I’m actually showing what all the hard work I put in in the offseason (has done for me) and it’s really paying off right now. I’m going to look back one day at this moment and the best thing to do is just cherish the moment.”
As for his head coach’s thoughts on Azubuike’s candidacy for national player of the year?
“Over the last (several) games, you can certainly make a case for that,” KU coach Bill Self said after Monday’s victory. “So hopefully he’ll still keep on this uptick and keep building off of it, and if that's the case and if we win then maybe he will start getting some recognition for that. I’d like for our guys to be in the game for all postseason accolades, but, you know, we still have to win three games before we should even think about that.”