This has become a sideshow now, and Udoka Azubuike had to know that an hour before Monday’s game.
As he stood at the free-throw line in warmups, Kansas State students noticed … and started heckling him. They screamed at him before the practice shots, trying to distract him long before the game started.
“That was by far one of the funniest pregame moments I’ve ever had — by far,” KU guard Malik Newman said.
But something interesting — and important — happened after Azubuike clanged a shot off the front iron, much to the delight of the opposing fans a few feet away.
After asking a teammate for another ball, Azubuike went back to his new routine — slow setup, elbow under the ball — and swished the next attempt.
As the students went quiet, he raised his right arm, waving his fingers up toward the air.
“He told them to get louder,” KU guard Devonté Graham said. “Just that confidence, you could see it in him.”
This is far from the end of Azubuike’s free-throw story. KU defeated K-State handily Monday, 70-56, which meant Azubuike’s 38-percent season accuracy there wasn’t as important as it will be in the future.
But for one game, this was an encouraging step simply based on how Azubuike handled the situation.
It could have gone many different directions.
Shortly after KU’s 85-80 loss at Oklahoma — in which Azubuike missed six straight free throws in crunch time — coach Bill Self spoke openly about his biggest fear. He left Azubuike in the game to give him confidence, but after the big man failed in such a public setting, Self worried about how that might affect him going forward.
That night, Self even brought up the name “Rick Ankiel” — a talented major-league pitcher who developed the yips so badly that he eventually had to move to the outfield.
“I just hope I didn’t put him in a situation (like that),” Self said.
Azubuike didn’t get any free-throw tries against Texas A&M on Saturday, which pushed the intrigue back two more days.
It appears from Monday, though, that the big man will be OK.
Yes, he only made 2 of 5 free throws against K-State (and actually 2 of 6 if you add in an additional attempt he received because of a lane violation). His three misses in the first half also meant, at that point, he had officially gone 0 for his last 10 at the line.
But this wasn’t a case of being nervous in front of a crowd — as evidenced by Azubuike’s pregame actions — but more someone getting used to a new technique. He later hit his final two free throws at the 10:05 mark of the second half, putting the first right through before rolling in the second.
“They looked a lot better,” Self said. “The last two were soft.”
Azubuike had spent hours in the last week trying to make sure “Poke-A-Doke” wouldn’t be effective for future opponents. He shot free throws with Self, teammates and also non-stop before the Texas A&M and K-State games.
“I’m just happy for him,” Graham said. “Just like the Oklahoma game, I know it messed with him mentally. Just him knocking those down for us is going to help him a lot.”
The work isn’t complete. Self still took Azubuike out in the final minutes, choosing to protect him. Azubuike will have to re-earn trust to remain in.
Still, this was a step forward — small as it might be.
“Two-for-five isn’t great,” Self said with a smile, “but it improved his percentage a little bit.”