Kansas center Udoka Azubuike is seven feet tall with good athleticism. He’s 70 pounds heavier and four inches taller than anyone else in Kansas’ current rotation.
So how, exactly, is he only the team’s fourth-best defensive rebounder?
KU coach Bill Self has a theory.
“You can talk technique, you can talk a lot of things,” Self said. “The bottom line, the guys that go after the ball get the majority of the rebounds.”
And Azubuike isn’t at that point ... at least not yet.
Let’s be clear: KU has been fine to this point without the big man making this a priority. While going against mostly pick-and-pop forwards, the Jayhawks haven’t been overwhelmed on the defensive glass, which is always a danger when playing small.
For future games, though — and yes, especially Saturday’s game against Syracuse — KU will need Azubuike to play more to his size.
“If we can’t have our big guy in the game, as small as we are, be our best defensive rebounder, that’s a formula for disaster later on when you play big teams,” Self said on his weekly radio show Monday.
Enter the Orange. Syracuse is the tallest Division I team according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistical measure and also is best in the nation when it comes to offensive rebounds.
For KU, it’s great to have guards like Lagerald Vick and Marcus Garrett doing their part to clean up on the defensive glass. They won’t have as clear of a path, though, when the Jayhawks are taking on the kind of size they’ll see this weekend.
In a perfect world, Self would like to see Azubuike become this team’s version of Byron Houston. When Self was an assistant at Oklahoma State in the early 1990s, the 6-foot-5 Houston was so aggressive with rebounds that the staff had him wear elbow pads in practice to protect his teammates.
After a while, Self noticed that Houston developed a reputation. He’d pick off a few defensive rebounds per game simply because opponents weren’t trying to get them.
Self says Azubuike has the physical potential to be that type of intimidator.
“He’s so big and strong and explosive that I think if he would start rebounding with both elbows above the rim, I think people would say, ‘Ugh. No reason for me to even go. Doke’s going to get them all,’” Self said. “I hope we get to that point.”
So what has held Azubuike back? Self says he can get “hung up on the offensive end too much,” and video appears to confirm some of that.
On one second-half play against Toledo in particular, Azubuike starts in the lane but then sneaks toward the other end after the ball is shot, content to let teammates Vick and Devonté Graham battle for the board underneath. Azubuike is hustling a second later, but he’s doing it to get out in transition instead of helping to complete the defensive possession.
A few minutes later, though, Azubuike shows his potential. He makes an effort shield off his man underneath, then goes aggressively for the rebound before ripping it away from Garrett.
“I think it’s a mindset,” Self said. “He can show flashes in practice where he thinks every ball is his. But there are times where I think he relies on Lagerald or Marcus just as much as he relies on himself to clean up the boards. That’s not going to be good moving forward.”
Azubuike’s most important game of the early season looms Saturday. Against the nation’s tallest team, it’d be an ideal time to prove he’s KU’s best defensive rebounder ... even if the stats don’t reflect that so far.