Bill Self says if injured junior center Udoka Azubuike had his way, he’d tape his right hand and continue competing for Kansas’ basketball team.
“What’s frustrating is he wants to play, but the pain tolerance wouldn’t allow him to do it,” Self, KU’s 16th-year basketball coach, said Monday at his weekly news conference at Allen Fieldhouse.
Azubuike, a 7-foot junior from Delta, Nigeria, tore a ligament in his hand after getting it hit in a drill at practice on Friday — the day before the Jayhawks’ 77-60 loss to Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa.
Azubuike was held out of that game, then on Sunday was ruled out for the rest of the season after an MRI showed he needs surgery to repair damage in his shooting hand.
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“It’s frustrating to me sometimes when people assume he should be out there. That kid shouldn’t have been out there (Saturday),” Self said. “He wanted to try to be out there. There’s just no way he could have gone.
“This is a crushing blow to him without question,” Self added of Azubuike dealing with news his junior season — and possibly his KU career if he elects to turn pro — is finished.
This is déjá vu for Azubuike. After playing in 11 games his freshman year, he hurt his left hand the same way in practice, had surgery, and sat the rest of the 2016-17 campaign.
“We should not feel bad for us. We should just feel bad for him,” said Self. His No. 7-ranked Jayhawks (12-2, 1-1) have lost a key player as they shoot for a 15th straight Big 12 regular-season title. “If you look at it, the kid hasn’t played very many games since he’s been here.”
Self noted that Azubuike, “missed the whole season when he’s a starter on a team that could win a national championship (2016-17). Last year he gets hurt (knee injury before Big 12 Tournament), even though he toughed it up and came back and gave us a chance to go to the Final Four.
“This year he plays nine games (missing ISU game and four others because of ankle sprain) on a team that is preseason No. 1 in the country and we are undefeated when he plays,” Self added.
Self said the injury did not appear serious when it happened.
“Two years ago he got it caught in a jersey. This one … it was not a fall. He got it hit. We taped it up and he practiced. It was really bothering him (so X-rays were taken Friday and MRI Sunday),” Self said, noting Azubuike would have surgery this week, perhaps by the same doctor who operated on his left hand two years ago. After that, Azubuike might head home for a few days before rejoining the team and helping coach his teammates from the bench.
Doctors believe Azubuike will be able to play basketball at some point this summer, using the same timetable as the previous hand injury.
“Identical,” Self said of Azubuike’s two hand injuries. “They (doctors) said they could flip the X-rays — left hand and right hand line up perfectly.”
Azubuike may or may not continue his career at KU. He declared for the NBA Draft last spring but did not sign with an agent and ultimately elected to return to college.
“I think he has options,” Self said of Azubuike possibly turning pro after this season or returning for a senior season. “We know he’s going to heal based on his other hand and we know the time frame in which it’ll take to heal. For a 19-year-old that is not the easiest thing to digest right now, probably too early to talk about the future because he is certainly not doing that.
“The bottom line is the kid is 19. If he enters the draft this year he’s still one of the youngest guys in the draft even though he is a junior. There is nothing where his biological clock is ticking that he needs to hurry up and do something (like turn pro). Even though in his mind, ‘I’ve been here three years.’ He could go and hopefully put himself in position (to be drafted). He could return. This would never happen, but technically he could get the year back — medical hardship.”
Because of the loss of Azubuike and fact sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa still has not yet been cleared to play, Self might elect to adjust his roster before Wednesday’s 8 p.m. home contest against TCU (12-1, 1-0).
Self said he has spoken with 6-5 freshman guard Ochai Agbaji and Agbaji’s parents about possibly removing his redshirt status and letting him play in games the rest of the season.
“I have not made the decision to do that whatsoever because if you bring him out, you bring him out to play him,” Self said.
“Is he good enough? Absolutely. There’s no question,” he added of Agbaji, the former Oak Park High standout. “The reality of it is it’s a different pressure that he hasn’t had a chance to experience any of it. He’s been great in practice. He’s gotten a lot better but it’s a different type of environment he has never experienced before. Are we thinking about it? Absolutely. Have we made a decision? Not yet, no.”
Self said KU officials continue to speak with the NCAA regarding De Sousa’s eligibility issue.
“I know the university is working hard and trying to put something together to bring a resolution to it,” Self said. “That certainly hasn’t occurred yet. I am not privy to all the information on a timetable. When I ask, my daily deal (answer) is, ‘(we’re) working on it,’ which is 100 percent accurate. We know that to be the case.”
De Sousa and his recruitment were discussed this fall in a federal trial relating to corruption in college basketball. During the trial, Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola testified that he gave De Sousa’s guardian, Fenny Falmagne, $2,500 so De Sousa could take online classes. Gassnola also said he originally offered $20,000 to Falmagne to help repay $60,000 given to him from a Maryland booster; Gassnola said he never paid it, though, because he was cautious of the FBI’s investigation into the sport.
“He’s crushed,” Self said of De Sousa’s state of mind as the weeks go by with no decision rendered yet by the NCAA on eligibility.
“He will be more crushed now because his partner can’t play. He knows his role could be bigger. Whether Doke plays, that is totally isolated from Silvio. It’s totally different. We want him (De Sousa) to be available and have a chance to do what he loves to do regardless of Doke’s situation. You’d think it could be a little more magnified now obviously. People are trying to move forward with it. It’s just not moving quite as quickly as we had hoped.”
KU also could award more minutes to freshman forward David McCormack and/or junior forward Mitch Lightfoot. Or the Jayhawks could play small and start 6-5 sophomore Marcus Garrett at the power forward spot as Self did in Azubuike’s four-game absence with his foot injury.
“We’ve got it in us. This team has a lot of pride. We’ve got it in us,” Self said of being able to continue on without the team’s third-leading scorer (13.4 points per game) and second-leading rebounder (6.8). “It’ll be a collective effort by everybody.”