The temptation as a casual observer is to always follow the ball.
It’s something that becomes ingrained over time. Nuances take place in the background, but the final result always centers on that single object, which makes it difficult to turn away.
That’s even the case when a play is over.
In the final minute of Kansas’ 71-64 victory over TCU on Tuesday, Malik Newman was fouled in the backcourt before throwing a pass upcourt.
And Svi Mykhailiuk decided to keep going anyway. He took one dribble, cupped the ball in his right hand, and put down a windmill slam that didn’t count.
Fans were watching, as evidenced by the roar from the crowd after the non-basket went through.
If you did too, you might’ve missed something else important happening a few steps away … something that left Udoka Azubuike beaming in the postgame press conference.
KU coach Bill Self stepped out on the court and put out his hand. And Azubuike nearly twirled in a circle when he gave it a slap.
“That’s probably my first time he’s gave me a high-five,” Azubuike said with a smile.
Let’s be clear: This wasn’t about free throws.
Yes, Azubuike made those on Tuesday. He went 4-for-7 overall, but he made two crucial ones with 2:47 left to push KU’s lead to six.
It was a coy move by Self to get him that opportunity. The coach first called a ball screen play for Devonté Graham before switching to a set that was designed to get it to Azubuike. When the big man caught it in the lane, TCU predictably went to Poke-a-Doke, choosing to make him earn his shots from the free-throw line.
But again, that’s not what got Azubuike the personal congrats. A day after Self was critical of Azubuike in public — then talked to him again in a team setting — the coach saw more of what he’s wanted all season.
“Rebounds above the rim and protecting the lane,” Self said. “I thought he did a really good job with that.”
The numbers showed more activity. Azubuike’s eight defensive boards were his most of the Big 12 season. He also registered two blocks, and his presence inside was a big reason TCU made just 41 percent of its twos.
This has been a story line for KU all season. The Jayhawks desperately need defensive rebounds while playing their four-guard look, and Azubuike is the only one who is physically capable of doing that at a high level.
Yet, Self too often saw his focus in the wrong places. Sometimes, Azubuike would leak out defensively to get a head start on fast breaks instead of going after rebounds. And recently, Azubuike put so much emphasis on his free-throw shooting that it almost became a misguided obsession.
“I asked Devonté and Svi last night at the team meeting, I said, ‘Would you rather Doke make free throws or protect the rim and rebound?’ They said, ‘Protect the rim and rebound,’ ” Self said. “So worry about the right things, and you’ll make more free throws.”
So what led to the high-five? The answer won’t surprise you.
After TCU’s Kenrich Williams shot a three from the corner, Azubuike sought out TCU’s Vladimir Brodziansky to lay a shoulder into him, then went with both hands to grab the carom before passing to Newman.
“They’re a good rebounding team. No lie. They can rebound the ball,” Azubuike said. “It’s just about going and getting the ball. I did that today.”
It was the final indication of progress. All game, Self had seen Azubuike take pride in the responsibilities KU needs from him.
Making free throws was a positive. But for Self, this buy-in was better.