Wearing a thick, black brace on his left leg, Udoka Azubuike accepted a pass from one of Kansas’ student managers in the paint, turned, dribbled, then deposited the ball in the basket during KU’s 40-minute shootaround Wednesday afternoon at Intrust Bank Arena.
Earlier Wednesday morning at Kansas Newman’s gym, the 7-footer from Nigeria participated in what he called a “light workout” as he continues rehabbing his sprained left knee — one that has left his status in question for Thursday’s first-round NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional contest against Penn.
Tipoff is 1 p.m., with a live telecast on TBS.
“He practiced four possessions today live,” KU coach Bill Self said of the 280-pound Azubuike, who sprained his MCL eight days ago and was held out of last week’s Big 12 postseason tournament. “He showed he can do it. It’ll be a game-time decision to determine whether he’ll be utilized or not, but he’s doing much better."
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Self was reminded that on Tuesday night he said Azubuike would likely be available Thursday only “in an emergency-type situation.”
“No I don’t remember what I said. That was a long time ago last night,” Self said with a smile.
“We feel and the docs feel he’s making unbelievable progress. We do not want to have a setback. I’m optimistic he can get in the game tomorrow. I’m not overly optimistic he can play significant minutes, be a real positive force inside. I do think he can be out there and if he can play at 80 percent or 70 percent and be confident, we may use him a few minutes. That 70 percent could be 90 percent or 85 percent by Friday and 90 percent by Saturday if we’re fortunate enough to win.”
The winner of the KU-Penn game will meet either Seton Hall or North Carolina State on Saturday at Intrust Bank Arena.
Azubuike spoke to the media Wednesday for the first time since spraining the knee at practice on March 6.
He wouldn’t answer questions about how the injury occurred, how he feels on a scale of 1-to-10 and exactly how much pain he’s experienced as a result of the injury.
Otherwise, he was forthright while being asked the same questions over and over by various waves of reporters during his 30 minutes of media availability.
“I worked out a little bit today, a short workout. I handled the ball a bit, worked on my hook shot, ran, jogged a little bit. That’s pretty much what I’m able to do now. I’m hopeful to play tomorrow, yes,” Azubuike said.
“Hopefully” was the word of the day, Azubuike repeating it several times when asked if he’d play against the No. 16 seed Quakers (24-8).
“I’ve been making much progress in rehab. Hopefully tomorrow I”m feeling much better,” said Azubuike, who averages 13.7 points and 7.1 rebounds. “It’s basically how I feel and how the doctor feels. If what I feel is on the same line as what as the doctor feels, I’m good to go.”
He acknowledged that this is the first time in his life he’s had to play while wearing a knee brace.
“I just have to get used to it,” he said.
Backup forward Silvio De Sousa, who combined for 30 points and 29 rebounds in three Big 12 tournament games, was asked whether he thinks Azubuike will play versus the Quakers.
“I’m sure he will play tomorrow, but we’ll just have to wait and see,” De Sousa said.
Asked about Azubuike’s brace, De Sousa said, “It’s not really about what he has on his body. It’s what he will bring to the game tomorrow. We have to wait and see."
Self said Mitch Lightfoot would start in place of Azubuike. Lightfoot started all three Big 12 tourney games, though De Sousa opened the second half of the Jayhawks' title-game victory over West Virginia last Saturday.
“I think it (knee) is getting better. He’s been doing really well,” Lightfoot said. “I’m excited for him to get back out there.”
Asked about the huge brace, Lightfoot said: “Honestly I think the trainer got the best brace for him. I think Cheddar (Bill Cowgill) does a great job with that.”
Penn coach Steve Donahue called Azubuike “a monster. There’s no doubt. He’s one impressive player and they are much better on the floor when he is in the game. We kind of talk about him, can’t make a mistake here, here’s why, and then address everything else we’re talking about.”
Azubuike was flattered.
“I mean, it’s good I guess being called ‘monster,’’’ he said, smiling. “I’m just focusing on helping my team any way possible.”
He’s also taken great joy in watching 6-9 freshman De Sousa emerge as a factor.
“I talk to him all the time,” Azubuike said. “I tell him, ‘You’ve got to go out there, play your game, not be scared to make a mistake.’ I have all the confidence in Silvio, Mitch, all our bigs. I know they will do real well.”
It all clicked last week in Kansas City as the Jayhawks (27-7) stormed to the Big 12 title. Azubuike was able to climb the ladder and clip the net with his teammates after the contest.
“I wasn’t worried at all,” Azubuike said of having his knee buckle on the ladder at the Sprint Center. “I was just trying to get my piece of it (net). It was fun.”
Frankly, he’s anxious to get back on the floor and experience the fun of the postseason. Remember, a year ago he missed the entire postseason because of a wrist injury that limited him to 11 total games all freshman year.
“Last year I was out. It’s natural (to think of last year),” he said. “It’s about the team, not me. There are no distractions. We just want to play as well as we can.”
Wichita fans turn out
KU coach Bill Self was impressed by the huge crowd (13,695 fans) for Wednesday’s shootaround at Intrust Bank Arena, which seats 14,619.
The crowd included 4,100 students from area schools.
“Hopefully they are out of school today for the reason of basketball,” Self said. “I know there’s been protest all across America today in schools. I honestly think that’s positive too.”
Students all over the U.S. walked out of schools Wednesday in a nationwide gun violence protest.
“Certainly Wichita is home-away-from-home I guess as much as anyplace is,” Self said. “We’ll be excited to play down here and excited to play in front of quite a few KU people.”
No. 1 vs 16
A No. 1 seed has never lost to a 16 seed in NCAA Tournament play.
“Been hearing a lot of talk about it,” junior guard Lagerald Vick said of this possibly being a competitive 1 vs. 16 matchup. “They tied the league (with Harvard at 12-2), won their conference championship. So that’s all I got to say.”
Noted Devonté Graham: “You don’t want to be the team that does it (lose to a 16). You kind of have it in the back of your head. Hopefully that doesn’t happen.”