Big deal: Azubuike powers Kansas past Baylor

Feb 22, 2020; Waco, Texas, USA; Kansas Jayhawks center Udoka Azubuike (35) reacts after scoring during the first half against the Kansas Jayhawks at Ferrell Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The most anticipated home game in Baylor basketball history turned against the top-ranked Bears because of one inconvenient truth.

They had no answer for the biggest man on the floor.

Udoka Azubuike, a 7-foot, 270-pound monster of a center, showcased how much he has improved Saturday afternoon during third-ranked Kansas’ 64-61 road victory. The same guy who was once too foul-prone and out-of-shape to stay on the floor for more than a few minutes at a time played nearly the entire game and delivered 23 points, 19 rebounds and 3 blocks.

“Man, I’m still emotional right now,” Azubuike, a native of Nigeria, told sideline reporter Holly Rowe at the end of ESPN’s telecast. “I gave it everything I’ve got. A lot of people looked down on me. They thought that I can’t [do this], but I’ve been through so much. I helped my team. I helped my country. It really means a lot to me.”

While Azubuike is best known for his ability to dissuade opposing teams from scoring in the paint, it was his ferocity around the rim on offense that proved to be Kansas’ biggest advantage in a battle between two of college basketball’s best teams. A flurry of lob dunks and put-back slams from Azubuike helped Kansas build an 11-point lead midway through the second half and stifle every Baylor attempt at a comeback.

Unable to establish Azubuike in the low post the first time his team faced Baylor this season, Kansas coach Bill Self countered with a shrewd tactical change in the rematch. Self asked his massive center to set ball screens at the top of the key and then crash hard to the rim, putting Baylor center Freddie Gillespie in a difficult predicament.

If Gillespie focused on staying in front of the ball handler to block his path to the rim, the Kansas guard typically found Azubuike rolling to the rim for an alley-oop slam.

If Gillespie stayed glued to Azubuike, Devon Dotson or Marcus Garrett would simply turn the corner and drive unimpeded to the basket for a layup.

Self’s reliance on that one simple set helped Kansas avenge its previous loss to Baylor and halt the Bears’ 23-game win streak. Azubuike made 11 of the 13 shots he attempted and Kansas shot over 50 percent from the field against a Baylor “no-middles” defense that had been one of the nation’s stingiest entering all season.

Playing in front of an energetic sellout crowd that included Waco luminaries Chip and Joanna Gaines and former Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, Baylor displayed trademark grit and resilience. A late charge gave the Bears a last-gasp chance to force overtime on their final possession, but Jared Butler’s contested 3-pointer at the buzzer caromed harmlessly off the rim. 

The most meaningful implication of Kansas’ victory is that it keeps the Jayhawks in contention for the Big 12 title. Kansas is now tied with Baylor for first place with four games left apiece, a familiar position for a Jayhawks program that had won at least a share of 14 straight league titles before Kansas State and Texas Tech halted their streak last year. 

In terms of national ramifications, there was actually surprisingly little at stake. Kansas may yet leapfrog Baylor and Gonzaga to move into the top spot in the AP Top 25, but both the Jayhawks and Bears would be locks to land No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament if the season ended today.

Only Kansas and Baylor have 10 or more victories in Quadrant 1 games this season. Both have only lost to one-another in Big 12 play and both collected a handful of impressive victories against marquee non-league opponents.

While the high-speed heroics of Dotson and the lock-down defense of Garrett have played a role in Kansas’ emergence contender, it’s not a stretch to say that Azubuike is the Jayhawks’ most important player. They wouldn’t be at the forefront of the national title picture were it not for his offseason efforts to shed 30 pounds and get in better shape in response to lukewarm feedback from NBA scouts. 

Now Azubuike is a legitimate NBA prospect, and Kansas is better for it. He doesn’t alway deliver 23-point games like Saturday’s performance, but he’s a consistent weapon for the Jayhawks at both ends of the floor. 

At one time Azubuike would gasp for breath after running up and down the floor more than a few possessions in a row. On Saturday, he logged 36 minutes. 

At one time Azubuike struggled to move his feet well enough to stay in front of opposing guards without fouling. On Saturday, his lateral quickness was a strength, not a weakness.

Azubuike’s joy at coming through on a big stage was apparent after the game during his TV interview with Rowe. 

He has come a long way over the course of a tumultuous college career, and he may yet lead Kansas even further.

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