LAWRENCE — Hobbled by an injury suffered early on in Saturday’s game, Kansas basketball’s Udoka Azubuike was largely ineffective against Kansas State.
That said, the situation could’ve been worse.
"The way he laid on the ground initially, amputation may have been a viable course of action," KU coach Bill Self quipped following the top-ranked Jayhawks’ 62-58 victory at Bramlage Coliseum. "But he came back and at least gave us some minutes."
Arguably KU’s most important piece entering March, Azubuike collapsed after committing a travel just four minutes into the contest with the Wildcats. The 7-foot senior center clutched at his right ankle and, after remaining on the court for what was surely an uncomfortable amount of time for Jayhawk fans, departed for the locker room under his own power but with a noticeable limp.
Following a brief evaluation, Azubuike emerged from the tunnel and underwent some jogging and stretching exercises under the instruction of director of sports performance Ramsey Nijem. The Delta, Nigeria, native checked back into the game with 9:01 left in the first half.
"That was big that he came back. He showed some toughness coming back," Self said. "But I imagine he’ll be fine. Big guys like that, a turned ankle probably affects (them) more than a guard."
Speaking Sunday at the Wilt Chamberlain Special Olympics Clinic at Allen Fieldhouse, Self provided an update on Azubuike’s situation, stating the center suffered a sprained right ankle against the Wildcats. Azubuike, who experienced swelling overnight and is wearing a walking boot, is questionable for the Jayhawks’ next game, a 7 p.m. Wednesday senior night contest against TCU at Allen Fieldhouse.
Azubuike finished Saturday’s game with six points on 2-for-4 shooting, adding nine rebounds and a steal in 20 minutes. With junior forward Silvio De Sousa suspended until the Jayhawks’ regular-season finale, Azubuike and sophomore forward David McCormack are the only two true frontcourt players active on the KU (26-3, 15-1 Big 12) roster.
"Even though (Azubuike) wasn’t effective, we probably don’t win the game unless he’s able to give us some minutes," Self said, "because now David gets his second foul early, that forces us to play a lineup we haven’t practiced in the last month other than when David was suspended (two games)."
Azubuike checked out of the contest for good with the visitors up 50-48 at the 6:23 mark in the second half.
While Azubuike’s difference-maker role can’t be denied — the Big 12 player of the year contender scored 23 points and hauled in a career-high 19 rebounds in the team’s 64-61 victory over then-No. 1 Baylor on Feb. 22 in Waco, Texas — it’s perhaps encouraging that KU played some of its best basketball Saturday with the "Big Fella" out of the game.
The Jayhawks reeled off a 9-1 rally immediately after Azubuike’s first-half departure, and the team authored an 8-2 run right after Azubuike left the court for good. That second stretch was capped with a McCormack jumper with two minutes left, giving KU a 58-50 lead.
Self said his squad played "actually pretty good" in crunch time without Azubuike.
"We play next man up," said sophomore point guard Devon Dotson, who scored a game-high 25 points. "I mean of course we’re going to feel for him and make sure he’s all right, but a player going down, it can’t stop us that particular game in the moment. Coach told us we’ve got to play. We can’t feel sorry and if we do they’re going to take advantage of that, so we’ve just got to keep confident."
Freshman guard Christian Braun acknowledged it was "good to see" McCormack and others pitch in with Azubuike sidelined, though he noted it wasn’t an ideal situation.
"Obviously it’s not how we want to be going forward. Obviously we’re not as good without him in the rotation," Braun said. "But it’s good to see we can all step up."