Jayhawks reinvent themselves after season-ending injury to Udoka Azubuike
It’s simple now.
The Kansas basketball team’s success — and the likelihood of a 15th consecutive Big 12 title this year — rests on one question: What will Bill Self and his staff come up with this time?
The big news broke Sunday. Center Udoka Azubuike is out for the season because of a wrist injury. With that, Self’s offseason vision of how KU would win — and potentially dominate opponents — disappeared in a flash.
“We’ll tweak some things with what we need to do,” Self said Monday. “We don’t have much time to do it.”
KU was going to play two bigs this year. Self had thought about that for months. The team was going to feed the space-clearing Azubuike inside, dominate the glass and use Dedric Lawson as a distributor, playing off him to open up easy baskets.
Crumple up that thought and toss it in the trash. KU will have to be different now, moving to a plan B.
But let’s be clear: Self’s been pretty damn good when he’s been forced to innovate in the past.
Think back to 2004-05. When Wayne Simien had a thumb injury that was to keep him out a month, Self adjusted on the fly, pivoting from an inside-out attack to a new ball-screen offense suggested by then-assistant coach Tim Jankovich. The result? A few days later, KU defeated Georgia Tech at home in overtime, and continues to run that “fist” offense during certain scenarios today.
Then two years ago, Carlton Bragg wasn’t developing as expected, while Lagerald Vick and Josh Jackson both seemed ready for expanded roles. KU’s coaches created a new four-guard offense to accentuate the team’s strengths ... all after playing “small ball” for just four possessions the previous season.
Even last year brought challenges. Svi Mykhailiuk wasn’t as versatile defensively as Jackson, but KU still made it work with him as a post defender, with Self and staff creating new plays to take advantage of his mismatch on the other end. It worked, with Mykhailiuk setting a new school three-point record, and the Jayhawks ending up in the Final Foul.
There’s no question Self would prefer to have Azubuike. But faced with the reality of his absence, he can now fully devote his attention to making the best of the new situation.
One can expect there will be coaches’ meetings and also brainstorming sessions. Self, based on Monday’s news conference, seemed to indicate he’d already been pondering new ways to play with his team now lacking rim protectors.
“You stop and think about it: Can we become totally opposite of what we’ve been? Can we become a charge-taking team?” Self said. “Since we don’t have shot-blockers, can we become a team that’s better positionally, that you can’t get beat as much because you don’t have the guy behind? Can we be a team that maybe soft presses and do some things to create activity that maybe wouldn’t be in our best interest if you’re playing two bigs?”
The fact that Self would even consider these options shows how flexible he’s become.
Bill Self ... teaching charges? A recent Ken Pomeroy article showed KU to be the eighth-worst team in the nation since 2016 at drawing offensive fouls, and a mindset of “let yourself be bulled into by the opponent” has obviously not been a fit with Self preaching toughness for his entire coaching career.
And pressing? This has long been something Self has preferred to avoid, mostly because of his long-held belief that the best teams are ones that don’t allow easy baskets. Gambling defensively is a surefire way to allow teams more close shots at the rim.
Self, though, can’t be in a position to only look at the negatives here. His job is to see the full picture.
For instance, could charges help his team hold down opponents’ two-point percentages? It sure seems to be working for Texas Tech, which leads the nation since 2016 in offensive fouls taken and also is tops in the country this year in two-point defense.
Could pressing help the Jayhawks’ stagnant offense? KU appears to have players in Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes and Vick who could thrive in transition, so might some defensive woes be offset by KU’s offense taking a huge step forward?
Self also has lineup combinations he could potentially experiment with thanks to a deep bench. Could a K.J./Dedric Lawson pairing be effective if they played more minutes together? Or could the season be saved if McDonald’s All-American David McCormack develops into 90 percent of what Azubuike was for KU?
The point here is that all is not lost for KU without Azubuike. Self might prefer to play in his comfort zone, and he might rather this season go on the path he originally envisioned.
It’s time to move on from that now. There are many ways for KU to still reach its goals this season, even if the exact path to that is less defined now.
Here’s what should be most comforting for KU fans: Self has thrived in this role before.