Udoka Azubuike knew he was capable of producing big-time numbers against Eastern Michigan on Saturday — 25 days after suffering a severely sprained right ankle in a home victory over Wofford.
“I just had to trust my feet and my legs. That’s what I did,” Azubuike, Kansas’ 7-foot junior center from Delta, Nigeria, said after scoring 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting and grabbing nine rebounds in the No. 5-ranked Jayhawks’ 87-63 victory over the Eastern Michigan Eagles at Allen Fieldhouse.
Azubuike, who he hit 3 of 6 free throws and also blocked two shots and had one steal, started and played 20 minutes. He looked like a guy ready for Wednesday’s Big 12 opener against Oklahoma (8 p.m., Allen Fieldhouse).
“It’s a process getting back,” Azubuike said. “I’m getting there. I’ve been working hard every time at practice. I still go to rehab every time. It will still take me a little bit. Hopefully by the end of this week or next I’ll be 100 percent.”
Azubuike, who had missed the last four games, came out energized Saturday after 16,300 fans greeted him with a loud ovation during introduction of the starting lineups. He had a steal off a trap in the corner two minutes into the game, KU up 5-4.
He then went to work offensively, scoring seven points (two dunks, one layup and one free throw in three tries) to help the Jayhawks (11-1) grab a 15-9 lead at 14:48. He also had a rebound and block at that point, when he headed to the bench for a breather.
Azubuike finished the first half with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and three rebounds in 11 minutes as KU led 46-25.
“I really am confident in my feet. I can move, slide my feet,” Azubuike said. “I had confidence in myself sliding. When I got a block (five minutes into game) I said, ‘Yeah my feet are pretty strong.’ That gave me that confidence.”
Azubuike certainly was aggressive Saturday.
He accidentally knocked down teammate Dedric Lawson (eight points, five assists, four rebounds) in going after and securing a defensive rebound with 8:52 left in the half. One minute earlier, he extended one arm as far as his wingspan would allow in catching a pass from Lawson and scoring.
“It’s just part of the game, things happen. It’s something you laugh off and move onto the next play,” the 6-9, 235-pound Lawson said of getting leveled by the 7-foot, 270-pound Azubuike in battling for the defensive board.
Lawson said it was great to once again be able to feed some high/low passes to Azubuike, who delivered inside. Eight of Azubuike’s baskets were dunks.
“He was great — 23 and nine in 20 minutes … you can’t ask for anything better in that amount of time,” Lawson said of Azubuike’s line.
KU coach Bill Self said he would have started two bigs versus a tall Eastern Michigan (6-7) team Saturday, even if Azubuike couldn’t open the contest. Freshman David McCormack (four points, five boards, 17 minutes) would have been the person to open the game at the 5 spot next to Lawson had Azubuike not been available.
“We talked before the game that he (Azubuike) would play half the game and David the other half,” Self said. “David, Doke and I met at morning pregame and talked about everything. Doke said he was ready to go. David said he was good with him going and backing him up. David has performed the best of any of our bigs the last four, five practices we’ve had. It worked out well,” Self added.
Self said another reason to start Azubuike was: “Doke will be the starter in league play and also we didn’t want him to be cold after warming up.”
Azubuike said one reason he was ineffective early in the second half — Self benched him after a turnover at the 18:20 mark — was his ankle tightened up at halftime. He had nine points and six boards in nine minutes after Self put him back in the game.
“I’ve got to continuously do something so it doesn’t get stiff on me,” Azubuike said of his right ankle. “It was a little stiff on me to start the second half. Coach got on me. I went back out there and tried to play better.”
Azubuike said he’d received great support from KU’s medical staff and also cited assistant coach Norm Roberts for working with him on his game while he was out of action.
Azubuike said in looking back at three weeks of rehab:
“I wanted to come back before the Oklahoma game (Wednesday). I was trying to come back when we played Villanova (Dec. 15). I couldn’t make it. After Arizona State (Dec. 22) coach was talking to me. He said, ‘You’ve got to come back,’ and all that stuff. I kept working on rehab and hopefully I’m back now,” Azubuike added.
He wasn’t the only bright spot against Eastern Michigan.
Freshman point guard Devon Dotson scored 15 points (two off a career high) and dished four assists. Meanwhile freshman guard Quentin Grimes contributed 16 points on 4-of-6 shooting (2 of 4 from three, 6 of 6 from the free-throw line) after having scored in single digits in eight of the past nine games.
“It’s nice to see Q see the ball go in the basket,” Self said. “I thought Devon was terrific. And to get Doke back … what a difference he makes.”
NOTES: KU hit 31 of 56 shots (55.4 percent). The Jayhawks cashed 7 of 21 threes and 18 of 26 free throws; Eastern Michigan was 21 of 70 for 30 percent. The Eagles hit 6 of 32 threes and 15 of 23 free throws. ... James Thompson IV scored 15 points (with 14 rebounds), Paul Jackson 15 points and Elijah Minnie 13 for Eastern Michigan, which fell to 2-3 all-time against teams in the Big 12 and 0-1 versus KU. … Hattie Long, a 102-year-old KU fan from Whitewater, Kan., attended her first game in Allen Fieldhouse. Long visited with the team in the locker room after the game. … KU is 1-0 all-time against Eastern Michigan and 15-1 against teams from the Mid-American Conference. … KU is 86-11 following a loss in the Self era. Since 2013-14, the Jayhawks are 36-3 following a loss. KU is 47-3 following a loss in Allen Fieldhouse in the Self era. … KU has closed the first two months of the season with one or fewer losses for the eighth time in Self’s 16 seasons. … KU has won 11 in a row in Allen. … Eastern Michigan is now 0-2 in the state of Kansas. The Eagles lost at Wichita State in 1975. Eastern Michigan is 2-3 versus Big 12 teams. The Eagles defeated Texas Tech in the 1995-96 season and Baylor in 1974-75 and lost to TCU this season and also during the 1999-2000 campaign.