The shot-blocking ability of Texas freshman Mohamed Bamba has been a popular topic at Kansas’ basketball practices this week.
“That’s all we’ve been talking about. His wingspan is 7-foot-9, so every time somebody throws a short pass in practice, Coach is like, ‘That’s a steal,’” KU senior point guard Devonté Graham said.
Both KU coach Bill Self and team leader Graham realize the 6-foot-11, 225-pound Bamba is capable of single-handedly disrupting KU’s offense in Friday’s Big 12 opener between the No. 11-ranked Jayhawks (10-2) and unranked Longhorns (9-3). Tipoff is 8 p.m. at Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas, with a live telecast on ESPN2.
“You’ve got to throw it over him. He (Self) is definitely emphasizing his size a lot, going at him, attacking his body, trying to get him in foul trouble,” Graham added. “We have to make sure Doke (Udoka Azubuike) knows he has to be aggressive, playing the way he has been lately. If he (Bamba) is not in the game, they are a much smaller team.”
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Bamba, a freshman out of Westtown School in Pennsylvania who’s originally from Harlem, N.Y., has blocked 47 shots in 11 games, good for a 4.27 average that ranks third in the country. His single-game high in blocks is six in UT’s last game, a 66-50 victory at Alabama on Dec. 22.
“His length is ridiculous,” Self said. “I’ve never seen anything like him from a length standpoint. The guy is 6-11 and his wingspan is 7-9. That’s plus-10. I don’t know if anybody in the NBA comes close to that. This guy has a chance to be something pretty special.”
Bamba averages 10.9 points and 9.8 boards in 28.2 minutes per contest.
“He has not shot it great, but has good touch on the ball,” Self said of Bamba, who has made 50 percent of his overall shots but is just 3 of 19 from three. He has made 61.0 percent of his free throws. “He can change a game without blocking a shot because people are thinking about him.”
Self would love for Bamba’s minutes to be reduced because of foul problems.
“I would say it’s important (to attack the paint) but I’m not sure the ones that would get fouls on him would be guards. He doesn’t have to leave his feet to block a guard’s shot,” Self said.
“Doke has to take it at him and try to force him to commit the foul. That will be very important.”
Azubuike, a 7-foot sophomore from Nigeria, has averaged 15.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. He has 19 blocked shots in 12 games. Azubuike scored 24 points on 12-of-15 shooting with seven boards in a 75-54 win over Stanford on Dec. 21 and 26 points on 13-of-17 shooting with 10 boards in a 73-72 win at Nebraska on Dec. 16. Sandwiched in between was an 11-point, 12-board outing in a win over Omaha on Dec. 18.
“It’ll be interesting. I played against Udoka in high school. One of my first games my sophomore year was against Udoka,” Bamba told The Star at Big 12 Media Day. “I was so frail. I actually played pretty well against him. It will be fun to get out there and play against them.”
Texas, which has additional size in 6-9 junior Dylan Osetkowski (14.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game), could receive a boost Friday with the possible return of the team’s leading scorer, guard Andrew Jones, who has been out because of a wrist injury. Jones, a 6-4 sophomore, has averaged 15.3 points in eight games. Freshman point guard Matt Coleman has 49 assists to 19 turnovers and chips in 7.4 points per game.
“This would be a hard matchup for us considering how small we are,” said Self, who has two available scholarship bigs in Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot with the hope that Silvio De Sousa and Billy Preston will be available soon. UT also has 6-9 freshman Jericho Sims, who averages 4.4 points and 3.3 boards off the bench.
“They lose to Duke in overtime, push that one against Gonzaga to overtime too,” Self said of Texas losses to Duke and the Zags. “The Michigan game to me (59-52 loss) is almost a non-counter because that’s the first game they played without Jones. They hung 50 on ’em because they hadn’t figured out how to play without him yet. Their performance against Alabama the other day (holding guard Collin Sexton to eight points on 4-of-12 shooting in a 16-point Texas win) was pretty incredible especially on the road.”
Regarding the big picture, KU on Friday begins its quest for a 14th straight Big 12 regular-season title.
“I actually brought it up today (at practice),” Self said Wednesday. “Us winning on the road will be unbelievably hard because we’ll be a really big game for everybody on the road. It’s not like people are saying, ‘Well there’s these guys and we’ve got to play perfect to beat them.’ You don’t have to be perfect to beat us just like we wouldn’t have to be perfect to beat the other teams in the league. It’s a well-balanced league.
“Somebody said, ‘Is this a hard opening game?’ The answer would be, ‘Heck yes it is.’ Anybody we play would be a hard opening game. Think if we were playing at West Virginia, TCU, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, it doesn’t make any difference. They’d all be hard games. Every home game will be tough too.”
Self said he thought “13-5 would get it (league title) free and clear. Even when we’ve lost two in a row (in past) it’s like the sky is falling. Everybody in the league is going to lose two in a row. How you respond to those negative performances will probably be very important.
“We’ve been kind of spoiled here. We haven’t had to do that a ton. We haven’t had to deal with four or five defeats in conference play often. That’s going to happen. The league is too good. There will be some disappointments. You’ve got to move onto the next one and not worry about the last one,” he added.
KU will return home to meet Texas Tech at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Allen Fieldhouse.