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Tom Keegan: Basketball man-child Udoka Azubuike doing his best to catch up

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) disputes a technical foul called against him for hanging on the rim following a dunk during the first half, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Physically, Udoka Azubuike has all the advantages. He’s taller, wider and thicker than all of his teammates. For a man his size, he runs the floor swiftly and has impressive agility and explosiveness.

He has shown impressive discipline and work ethic in squaring into good shape.

So when he dominates at both ends for brief stretches, it doesn’t necessarily catch anyone by surprise.

At those times he fails to put his stamp on a game or makes ill-advised plays that result in him heading to the bench with foul trouble, it shouldn’t surprise anyone, either, because he’s the least experienced basketball player on the team.

At 7-feet tall and 280 pounds, he’s a man-child in many ways. Looking at him towering above the competition, it’s easy to forget that Azubuike just turned 18 in September. Watching him block a shot at one end and then soar above the rim to throw down a lob at the other, it’s only natural to overlook how he took the game up later than teammates and has spent comparatively little time sharing the court with sophisticated basketball players.

“There are times where I think he’s really gaining on it and there are times where I still think he’s a pretty substantial time away,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of his only player taller than 6-8.

As a freshman, Azubuike played in 11 games and suffered a wrist injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season.

“(Missing time) hurt him more than it would hurt most because he didn’t get much play in high school either,” Self said. “He needs those reps as much as anybody.”

Azubuike has done a much better job this season of limiting fouls, but still is a work in progress in that area. The loss to Washington in Sprint Center demonstrated how Azubuike needs to improve at eliminating careless fouls and realizing when to play without one eye on foul trouble.

“I honestly believe the foul situation has gotten in his head, but he’s not in foul trouble,” Self said.

Azubuike has committed just 20 fouls in eight games and has averaged 25.5 minutes a game. In the ideal world, his minutes would increase by not picking up quick first-half fouls, even if his total fouls increased by playing more aggressively when not in foul trouble.

Most coaches remove players in the first half with two fouls and if players pick up a third early in the second half, coaches typically will sit them.

“He’s put himself in a situation where he’s taken himself out of games early because of silly fouls,” Self said. “He got a bad call the first one (vs. Washington). Even the official said, ‘I blew that one.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but you don’t understand what that means to us.’ But (Azubuike) follows it up and fouls 94 feet from the basket, so those are hard lessons to learn but those are good lessons.”

The reason coaches remove players with two first-half fouls is so that they don’t enter the second half in foul trouble. Self pointed out that Azubuike tends to think he’s in foul trouble when starting the second half with a pair.

“So we go in the second half we don’t contest, or we don’t rim protect or we don’t go after a blocked shot because we don’t want to get our third,” Self said. “He has to get better at that.”

Once guarding his man aggressively before he catches the ball becomes an instinct and not something Azubuike has to think about, his fouls will decrease, which in turn will allow him to contest more shots.

One look at the terrific job the center has done at working his way into better condition shows it’s not a matter of effort, rather of game experience.

“He’s a young dude,” backup center Mitch Lightfoot said of Azubuike. “He’s learning how to play smart, learning how to block shots and really be a rim protector. That’s what we need him to be. He’s getting better and it’s only going to be up from here.”

I sense that cause for optimism that Billy Preston will join the team is fading because if there were a suitable explanation for the source of the money in the purchase of the vehicle he had been driving, it seems that it would have been provided by now, but that’s just conjecture on my part. Until it is announced that he won’t play for Kansas, hope remains that he could.

The stronger hope appears to be for Silvio De Sousa, a native of Angola who is attending IMG Academy in Florida, to graduate at the semester and enroll at Kansas in time for Big 12 play.

The more help Azubuike can get up front, the better. One thing Kansas can count on from Azubuike is strong effort. His numbers (14 points, 7.3 rebounds) and conditioning strides are impressive for such a big, inexperienced basketball player, but there is no fast-forward button to press to make up for a late start in acquiring a feel for the game.

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