Udoka Azubuike stood in the tunnel, about to answer a reporter’s question, when assistant coach Jerrance Howard interrupted him from a few feet away.
“Yeah ’Doke!” Howard yelled as he headed to the team bus. “Big fella grew up today!”
The words spoke directly to KU’s most important development Friday.
Sure, the talk this weekend will be about KU’s 17 three-pointers in its 92-86 victory over Texas. The Jayhawks outshot their defensive issues, picked up an important road victory and perhaps moved one game closer to getting added frontcourt depth.
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But if we’re honest about it, KU doesn’t just need a couple more bodies on its front line. It needs a better Azubuike, which has been evident from early in the season.
The sophomore is 7 feet with athleticism and soft hands. He’s a big body who should be a dominant rebounder and at least a decent shot-blocker.
But early on, Azubuike hasn’t always seemed to grasp what this particular team needed from him
There were moments when he would point up for a lob, then seem disappointed when he didn’t get it. Other times — as KU’s only big man in the game — he’d run away from defensive rebounds while trying to leak out in transition.
In other words, Azubuike wasn’t being selfish, but he wasn’t exactly being unselfish either.
Which brings us to Friday.
“Just anything to help my team win … I’m ready to do anything,” Azubuike said. “Ready to sacrifice anything to help my team.”
That wasn’t just talk. It was action too.
Azubuike came to Austin with a sore lower back that had grown worse over the last few days. It was so bad that he had problems bending over, and at one point, he says he couldn’t sit down.
“We didn’t know if he was going to play until game time,” KU coach Bill Self said.
The choice was Azubuike’s. After not participating in most of his team’s pregame activities, the big man decided to play.
“They said they needed me,” Azubuike said of his teammates. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll go. I’ll just play with pain.’”
It was difficult early. His counterpart, Texas forward Mo Bamba, had 11 points at the first media timeout. Azubuike, who led the nation in field-goal percentage coming in, had a couple of shots thrown back at him.
That didn’t define his night, though. Self could sense Azubuike becoming more confident as the game went on, as he gutted out 29 minutes and put up a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds.
“He played real tough tonight for us,” KU guard Devonté Graham said. “I think the game ball should definitely go to big ’Doke.”
After months of prodding from his coach, Azubuike also showed his potential on the boards.
Though it’s gone mostly unnoticed — thanks partly to the frequent discussion about KU’s lack of free throws — this is the worst offensive rebounding team in Self’s 15 seasons. Much of that responsibility falls to Azubuike, who needs to embrace the grunt work for KU to make significant progress.
Friday was a big step forward. Azubuike’s six offensive rebounds tied a career high, and most of them weren’t easy, either.
Two in particular were key in the second half — so much so that Texas coach Shaka Smart spoke about them unprompted in his news conference after the game.
With 19:25 left, Azubuike had outside position behind Bamba for a Svi Mykhailiuk three-point attempt. He didn’t settle, though, working his way around the Texas freshman before beating him to the basketball.
The best time to shoot threes is after offensive rebounds when the defense is in scramble mode, and sure enough, Lagerald Vick had an open shot two passes later. When it went through, Self raised his fists in celebration on the sideline — some for Vick, but more for Azubuike.
Another example came a few minutes later. Though Azubuike didn’t get a lob thrown to him, he continued to battle, outmuscling (and outhustling) Bamba to the carom before finding Vick for another three.
This is the Azubuike that Self has been wanting to see. It’s the one that KU needs, regardless of whether Billy Preston or Silvio De Sousa get meaningful minutes down the stretch.
After struggling early Friday, Azubuike came back with his best basketball, content to play through injury while selflessly helping his team to a win.
Howard said it best: This was growing up.