Nick Ward sat in front of his locker without much regret.
The Michigan State forward — just a few minutes after his team’s 92-87 loss to No. 1 Kansas — was asked about the team’s game plan against KU center Udoka Azubuike.
“Just play behind him,” Ward said, “and make him shoot contested shots.”
Ward paused a second to let out a half-chuckle.
“That’s what we did.”
It would be wrong to say that Michigan State didn’t see a potential strong outing from Azubuike coming. Before the game, coach Tom Izzo used the words “monster” and “redwood” to describe him, while hinting it might be a tough matchup for his team.
But what KU’s 7-foot junior did Tuesday in scoring 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting was even beyond what the Spartans could have expected.
That’s because Azubuike didn’t dominate by getting behind his defender all night; he took over the game instead by making difficult twos over the top of outstretched arms.
“That’s what I wanted him to do,” Ward said of forcing Azubuike into jumpers. “He dunks the ball a lot, so I wanted him to shoot floaters and stuff like that, which he did against me.”
KU coach Bill Self is a mastermind at getting post players “angles” so they can score easy baskets with no defender between themselves and the rim. That’s not what happened for Azubuike on Tuesday, though.
“He had to score through (Ward),” Self said.
These are not easy points, but Azubuike still delivered time and time again.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of KU’s season opener was that when the game got tight and KU really needed a bucket, Self didn’t turn to Dedric Lawson. Instead, he called three consecutive plays for Azubuike.
With Michigan State cutting KU’s lead to eight with 5:32 left — and Spartans fans coming to their feet — Azubuike spun off Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman for an and-one.
Next time down, Azubuike again. He went to a left-shoulder hook this time, scoring over Ward.
Self rode the hot hand a third time. Azubuike buried Kenny Goins this possession, drawing a foul and two free throws.
“He’s our first option,” Self said. “Even though Dedric may lead us in scoring, everybody’ll tell you we want to play through Doke as much as possible.”
There were other reasons to be optimistic about Azubuike’s season outlook based on Tuesday’s contest. He was able to get more rest because of KU’s added frontcourt depth, which led to better effort on both ends. That was most evident on one first-half sequence, where he helped on Quentin Grimes’ man to block a shot before sprinting in transition for a hustle offensive rebound.
Azubuike should have his deficiencies masked better this year while playing next to Lawson too. Self is often frustrated by Azubuike’s lack of rebounding, but that shouldn’t be as much of a problem with Lawson providing help. Lawson’s driving and passing ability also gives Azubuike the potential for easy shots off lobs he might not have gotten in the past.
“They have the best of both worlds,” Ward said. “It’s a different challenge.”
Maybe even more than that.
The best way to stop Azubuike — at least when playing a traditional big lineup — is probably to do what Michigan State did: Try to keep him from dunking. Push him away from the basket. Make him show off his finesse game.
For a day, Azubuike countered that effectively on one of college basketball’s biggest stages — the best development for KU on a night with plenty of positives.