KU guards can compensate for Udoka Azubuike's absence by attacking glass
Kansas City, Mo. — This season’s Kansas basketball team is no stranger to getting beat on the glass. So the top-seeded Jayhawks should feel right at home this week at Sprint Center, where they will try and navigate the Big 12 tournament without injured 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike.
Without question, KU’s offense will miss the high-percentage shots Azubuike, out with a medial collateral ligament sprain, provides with regularity. But the Jayhawks also will look like a lesser version of themselves on the boards, because the sophomore big is the best rebounder on a team that oftentimes struggles to finish stops by securing an opponent’s missed shot.
A massive presence in the paint, Azubuike started every game for Kansas (24-7) this season up to this point, and led the team in rebounding 18 times.
KU won the rebound margin in three of its final four regular-season games — +13 versus Oklahoma, +7 vs. Texas and +7 at Oklahoma State. But the Jayhawks lost that battle in 15 of the 16 games that preceded their more successful stretch.
Against Power 5 competition this season (25 games), KU out-rebounded its opponent five times — the other two came against Arizona State and Kansas State.
So what does the team that finished 9th in the Big 12 in rebound margin (-2.9 a game) look like without its best rebounder? To try and get a sense of what to expect at the conference tournament, let’s look at a few of Azubuike’s less impactful games this season on the glass.
Occasionally, Azubuike, who averaged 7.1 boards on the year and 6.6 a game in league action, finished with 4 or fewer rebounds. That occurred four times during Big 12 play:
at TCU: 1 rebound in 13 minutes (fouled out); TCU scored 14 second-chance points — KU won 88-84
at Kansas State: 3 rebounds in 18 minutes; K-State scored 9 second-chance points — KU won 70-56
at Baylor: 4 rebounds in 19 minutes; BU scored 14 second-chance points — KU lost 80-64
at Iowa State: 3 rebounds in 22 minutes; ISU scored 10 second-chance points — KU won 83-77
At TCU, Mitch Lightfoot (7 rebounds) and Marcus Garrett (6 boards) helped carry the load. At K-State, Malik Newman came through with 10 rebounds and Svi Mykhailiuk grabbed 7 more. At ISU, Newman and Devonte’ Graham tied for the team lead (6 apiece).
The Jayhawks lost at Baylor when no one stepped up to fill the void. Mykhailiuk, Newman and Lagerald Vick each finished with 4 boards.
KU’s rebounding numbers — and chances of advancing in the Big 12 tournament — will look a lot worse unless Azubuike’s teammates use his absence as incentive to really attack the glass.
“We’ve been a poor rebounding team by good rebounding team standards all year long,” KU coach Bill Self said Wednesday at Sprint Center.
It doesn’t sound as if Self is expecting Lightfoot and De Sousa to suddenly start rebounding like Cole Aldrich and Thomas Robinson.
“So we’re just going to have to have our guards rebound more,” Self said. “You know, Malik’s done a good job. Svi and Lagerald have got to become better rebounders probably as much as anyone.”
The numbers indicate Kansas should be able to count on Newman to get inside and clear some defensive rebounds. The 6-3 guard, per sports-reference.com, is KU’s second-most consistent rebounder on that end, gathering an estimated 15.6% of available defensive rebounds (Azubuike leads the team with a 20.2% defensive rebound percentage.)
Newman can look for some help on that end from Garrett (15.6%). Lightfoot enters the postseason with a 12.4% mark, while De Sousa, with far fewer minutes to give a better sense of his ceiling, owns a 12.3% defensive rebound percentage.
It’s unrealistic to expect any Jayhawks to match Azubuike’s offensive impact. But, chipping in as a committee of rebounders at Sprint Center will be necessary for them to get by without their game-changing center.
— Udoka Azubuike 2017-18 season game log —