University of Kansas

'Pushing and shoving' Doke is this KU walk-on's job. He has bruises to prove it

In KU practice, Udoka Azubuike is guarded by a football player

Udoka Azubuike says playing against KU football player and basketball walk-on James Sosinski in practice helps him in games. The Jayhawks play Villanova in the NCAA Tournament Final Four on March 31, 2018.
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Udoka Azubuike says playing against KU football player and basketball walk-on James Sosinski in practice helps him in games. The Jayhawks play Villanova in the NCAA Tournament Final Four on March 31, 2018.

If this is the only season James Sosinski plays for the Kansas basketball team, he will have a few lasting memories: the four points he scored at Allen Fieldhouse against Omaha, this current run to the Final Four, and the bruises.

So many bruises.

“Right here,” Sosinski, a redshirt sophomore, said while pointing at his right bicep. “A consistent bruise throughout the year, just always staying. I guess that was right where his elbow just hits me on the post-up.”

Here's a 360-degree look at the scene when dozens of journalists descend on Kansas' locker room inside the Alamodome. Watch as a photographer goes to extreme lengths to get a shot. This video is best viewed on desktop computers.

The elbow Sosinski's referring to belongs to Udoka Azubuike, Kansas’ 7-foot, 280-pound center, who is one of college basketball’s most physically dominant players. Ever since Sosinski walked onto the KU basketball team in December, he has been the primary defender on Azubuike in practice. The challenge has led to blue marks all over Sosinski’s body, including most recently around his legs, which have banged against the brace Azubuike has worn since spraining his left MCL.

Sosinski, who played basketball in junior college and had a scholarship offer to play the sport for Washington State, has only logged 8 minutes this season. But he has played an important role for Kansas. At 6-foot-7 and 250 lbs., he is the only man capable of pushing Azubuike around in the post, and head coach Bill Self has called him the Jayhawks' best defender on the star center.

“James gives bruises, too,” said assistant coach Norm Roberts, who added that coaches instructed Sosinski to stop “the pushing and shoving" in the post while Azubuike combats his knee injury.

Even with that direction, practices are still a bit more challenging for Azubuike than they were before the walk-on joined the Jayhawks. The center from Nigeria said “it was always two steps and I’m at the basket” before a football player started defending him. Now he faces a strong defender almost every day.

"That helps me during games playing against bigger people, because in practice I'm always used to playing against him," Azubuike said on Thursday in KU's locker room, where a swarm of reporters surrounded him — some even spilling into the space in front of Sosinski's locker.

The two men met during Sosinski's first week on campus, and he was so impressed by the center’s imposing figure that he felt compelled to call his father about the experience. He knew when he joined the Jayhawks that Azubuike would be strong, but he didn’t know just how difficult he would be to stop.

During a chance meeting on the ground floor of the Alamodome on March 29, 2018, KU coach Bill Self ran into Villanova coach Jay Wright while the pair waited to do several television interviews in preparation for this weekend's Final Four.

During one of Sosinski’s first practices with the Kansas, he thought he had pushed Azubuike far enough away from the hoop to stop him from scoring. But then Self told Azubuike to rise for a dunk.

Azubuike didn’t finish the slam, but he came close enough to make an impression on Sosinski, who realized then that his job was going to be even harder than he once thought. He said basketball practices against Azubuike feel just as tiresome as football practices, even if there’s no tackling.

“Your body is drained,” Sosinski said. “You’re ready to go to sleep.”

Speaking of football, Sosinski —who redshirted as a tight end last fall — recently received a good luck text from Kansas football coach David Beaty. This could be the tight end’s only NCAA tournament. He said he’s not sure whether he will be part of the Jayhawks basketball team again next season. Coaches will have to ask him back.

Photographers Shane Keyser, Allison Long, Travis Heying and Rich Sugg drove to San Antonio to cover the Kansas Jayhawks in the Final Four. Watch a time lapse video of their trip.

Even if they don’t, he'll stay busy. He will join KU’s spring football practices once this basketball season ends.

After working himself back into basketball shape, being part of the whirlwind of the NCAA Tournament and taking beatings in the post from Azubuike, Sosinski is looking forward to three weeks off in the summer.

“That,” he said, “will be a nice break.”