INDIANAPOLIS — The most impressive display of the Champions Classic was Duke’s domination of Kentucky.
But the most important individual performance on Tuesday’s opening night may have been 7-foot Kansas junior center Udoka Azubuike.
There may not be another player in college basketball like him this season.
And if that’s the case then the Jayhawks do have a real shot to win the national title.
The numbers on the surface — 17 points, 7 of 10 shooting, six boards and four blocks — aren’t the whole story.
Nope, the manner in which he has become a lock in the post to score, to position himself as a difference maker if/when he gets the ball on the block, could be decisive for the Jayhawks. Kansas’ 92-87 opening win against Michigan State had significant KU debuts for freshmen guards Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson as well as Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson.
Not a bad debut performance for @qdotgrimes #KUbball pic.twitter.com/DlNxczzJdx— Kansas Basketball (@KUHoops) November 7, 2018
But Azubuike’s play in the post may be the most memorable and significant.
Azbuike said after the game that he was essentially gone to the NBA last spring, despite not shining enough last season in Kansas’ Final Four run.
But Azubuike got the right advice from NBA personnel. He wasn’t ready. And, get this, he actually took the constructive criticism. Kansas assistant Norm Roberts said Azbuike listened to his family, the staff and, most importantly the NBA, and didn’t take the easy path.
Most do. Most players think they will be a first-round draft pick when they may not be ready. A number of bigs will take the gamble.
Azubuike wasn’t ready and he knew it.
"Once the blood gets going, it's all about playing ball."— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) November 7, 2018
Dedric Lawson talks with @TheAndyKatz after dropping 20/14/6 in his @KUHoops debut. pic.twitter.com/HIOayn8Nfw
He went into the gym in the offseason. A wrist injury had limited him to 11 games as a freshman. A knee injury didn’t allow him to reach his full potential last season. Nothing was going to deter him this offseason.
And it shows.
“In the paint, one on one, I’m pretty much unstoppable,’’ said Azubuike. “Teams have to double team me. I worked on my conditioning in the offseason. I put in the extra time. It’s paying off.’’
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Azubuike, a native of Nigeria, speaks softly, but his words have strong meaning. He has a wide smile and is beloved in the locker room. He’s still a teenager as a junior, and that youthful exuberance is still on display daily.
“I’m not trying to have a big head,’’ said Azubuike. “But they don’t give me the credit I desire.’’
The they is essentially us — the media, the fans of the sport, the general public.
“People don’t really believe in me,’’ said Azubuike. “I’m trying to prove people wrong.’’
Count the staff as the first in line to back Azubuike.
“There aren’t true back to the basket five-men out there,’’ said Kansas coach Bill Self. “There’s only a handful in college basketball that can do that.
“He’s gained so much confidence,’’ said Self. “He’s a legitimate threat on the block. He’s got a right-hand little jump hook. He didn’t make his free-throws (3 of 7 after being a 41 percent free-throw shooter last season) but his stroke is much better.’’
RIGHT BACK AT IT ➡️ Udoka Azubuike, who led the NCAA in field goal percentage last year at 77.0 percent, was 7-for-7 from the field in our two exhibition games #KUbball pic.twitter.com/BR06BDFpzc— Kansas Basketball (@KUHoops) November 6, 2018
Azubuike is a rare breed in the sport — a big man who actually wants to play large, stay inside and get this — embraced coming back to school.
He’s the perfect model to prove that college basketball IS a benefit for bigs. The goal isn’t just to get to the NBA. The objective is to actually play. And there is something to be said for the lack of mental distractions that could stress a player out if he were to be in the G League. Azubuike doesn’t have to fret about making a team, working out with the right people and/or real-world expenses. He can just focus on becoming a better player while the benefits of a high-level college athlete allow him to lock in without a hiccup.
“There’s something to be said about a routine,’’ said Self. “He doesn’t have the worries. His attitude is great.’’
Playing alongside Lawson will open up the floor for Azubuike. And while he needs to rebound the ball better, according to the staff, he’s only going to improve in importance to this team daily.
Jayhawks hang on! 👀— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) November 7, 2018
Kansas defends their No. 1 ranking with the W over Michigan State in the Champions Classic! 💪 pic.twitter.com/HX9nhGeQTU
Self has seen something like this before. He said think about Cole Aldrich, a big man who wasn’t a first-round pick when he arrived, but developed into one. The NBA is not the same and bigs love to step out and shoot the face-up jumper or even 3-pointer.
Azubuike doesn’t need to do that on this team, nor does he want to do something that will expose him to something he is not.
He’s an old-school big who can dominate the block.
Do that often and the Jayhawks will be an even tougher out than projected on day one.