The Kansas frontcourt was already thinner than years past — and that was before Wednesday’s announcement that freshman center Udoka Azubuike will miss the rest of the season because of a wrist injury suffered in practice.
It wasn’t that long ago when guys like Cole Aldrich, Jeff Withey and Mario Little had the title of fifth-best big man on KU’s roster. That sort of incredible depth gave Bill Self a luxury not many other coaches had.
This year’s KU team already was different. After playing four possessions of four-guard “small ball” last season, Self quickly realized the benefits of putting freshman Josh Jackson at the 4 this year, deciding that this set needed to be how KU played a majority of its possessions.
That still left plenty of opportunity for a true center and defensive stopper to earn playing time … which is how this injury hurts KU the most.
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Azubuike still had a ways to go offensively. His turnover rate was too high, and a poor free-throw percentage (38 percent) also kept him from being an efficient player.
KU doesn’t need scoring out of that 5 position, though. It needs defense and rebounding, and Azubuike gave plenty of that.
Had he played a few more minutes, his defensive rebounding percentage would have ranked in the top 75 nationally. He was a good offensive rebounder and also was easily KU’s best shot-blocker when he could avoid fouls.
In short, he was a perfect sidekick to sub in for Landen Lucas at the 5 position. And now, KU will have to adjust.
Most of that should fall on Lucas, who already was going to have a lot asked of him late in the season. He’s a natural fit to play center when KU plays four guards, as he provides solid defense and rim protection.
This also should increase the minutes for Carlton Bragg. He’s not a great fit at the 5 — it’ll be tough for him to guard the opposing team’s best interior scorer — but he’s still a former McDonald All-American who should be effective playing the 4 alongside a true center. Though Self has loved his team’s four-guard lineup, the Azubuike injury could pivot him back to more of the 3-out, 2-in look to put Bragg in a better spot to succeed.
Mitch Lightfoot — also a true 4 — could also get more of an opportunity as well. He, like Bragg, had seen his playing time limited partly because Jackson has taken most of the minutes at the power-forward position.
Dwight Coleby, in limited duty, also has posted impressive defensive rebounding and block numbers. Though he’s still trying to fully recover from a knee injury he suffered last season, he’s the most natural fit at the 5 position outside of Lucas.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Azubuike’s injury is that KU’s bench has gone from “shorter than years past” to “thin.” The Jayhawks have nine scholarship players available now (Self didn’t use his 13th scholarship, and Malik Newman and Evan Maxwell have to sit out because of transfer rules), and another injury or suspension would leave the possibility that Tyler Self could again be entering competitive games with enough foul trouble (like he did against Indiana).
For a program that has churned out as many successful big men as anyone, this certainly is a strange spot. Instead of having his pick of big men to play, Self must now navigate a season where many of the frontcourt rotation decisions now will be made for him.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s this: The one time Self faced a similar issue at Kansas came in 2012, as walk-on Justin Wesley was the first forward off KU’s bench. That team not only won the Big 12, but it also later advanced to the national championship game.
Obviously, no one wishes for less depth, but as that team showed, Self might not need 12 great players to succeed.
There’s a chance eight or nine can work out as well.