This isn’t how Bill Self is used to coaching.
When players struggle in games, or don’t give effort to his liking, he’s always had a place reserved for them on KU’s bench.
That tactic has become increasingly difficult this season. The Jayhawks have ranked in the top 10 in percentage of minutes played by starters while trying to work around the fact they only have seven available scholarship players.
“If the guys aren’t doing (what I want) right now, I hate to say this, what you do is, you yell at them from the sideline and say, ‘Hey, do it better,’” Self said Thursday. “I don’t think that’s the best way to coach. I’ve always thought the bench is a heck of a motivator, and not from a negative standpoint. It’s just, guys want to be out there.”
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Let’s complete this thought, because if we examine a little closer, it appears evident that Self is talking about one player more than others.
That would be center Udoka Azubuike, who has been fine statistically while not coming close to his immense potential.
There have been times in KU’s last two losses where Self has been frustrated with Azubuike. One example was against Washington when the 7-footer — perhaps fearing a foul — didn’t go all out trying to block guard Nahziah Carter’s layup attempt. Self sent Mitch Lightfoot to get Azubuike so quickly that Lightfoot was already making his way to the scorer’s table before KU advanced its next possession past midcourt.
In other years, Self would have made a point here. Azubuike would sit, some other big man would get extended minutes, and a message would be clearly sent that even small details were not optional.
That’s not what happened this time. Azubuike sat 71 seconds, and after two empty KU possessions, he checked back in for Lightfoot and stayed in the next 10 minutes.
The pattern continued against Arizona State.
Azubuike failed to get a defensive rebound late in the first half, with Self sending Lightfoot to get him. Azubuike checked out at the 4:24 mark ... and was back in 75 seconds later.
The second half was even more dramatic. Azubuike was subbed out at 16:50, then back in at 16:12 after a Lightfoot inbound violation. At 14:39, Azubuike went out after failing to block a shot ... only to return to the game 29 seconds after that.
“Sometimes, right now, we’re in situations where we don’t have the answers to put others out there, because we’re so thin,” Self said. “I’m speaking negatively right now, but that’s the fact of the matter.”
In other words, Self’s balancing act between the greater good and winning in the moment hasn’t served either master particularly well the last two games.
As mentioned, all is not lost for Azubuike. He’s made 78 percent of his twos, which is a top-15 mark nationally. He has good athleticism for his size and has displayed soft hands with flashes of an improving post game.
This particular KU team needs so much more from him, though. As the one big in a four-guard lineup, he has to rebound, and thus far that appears to be more a chore than a source of pride. The Jayhawks defense also could be improved if he becomes a better rim-protector, but as of now, his block rate is barely half of what he posted in 11 games last season.
Azubuike could also help himself with better knowledge of KU’s offense. He struggled with a few set plays against Syracuse, and when Self tried to get him the ball to start the second half against Arizona State, his technique wasn’t good enough to open up a passing angle in the post.
Sam Cunliffe will be eligible for Saturday’s game against Nebraska, which will help KU’s depth. And Self is still hopeful to add Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa to the roster, though their statuses remain uncertain.
One looming question, though, will be whether Self can bring out a better Azubuike. The coach has had to change up his motivational techniques because of his team’s lack of bodies, and that has allowed Azubuike to play through many mistakes that past KU big men weren’t able to.
To this point, the Jayhawks haven’t been better for it. The Azubuike they need and the one they’ve gotten aren’t the same player.
It’s a dilemma, for now, that Self will have to continue navigating in an unfamiliar way.