Kansas Basketball’s Big 12 title streak is officially in jeopardy.
On Sunday, the Jayhawks received some bad news. Starting center Udoka Azubuike, who led the nation in field goal percentage a year ago, will miss the remainder of the 2019 season with a torn ligament in his right hand.
Azubuike is one of the most intimidating players in the country. He and Dedric Lawson gave the Jayhawks a formidable frontcourt duo that could take over games. The Lawson-Azubuike combination proved to be formidable, as the two big men led Kansas to several impressive wins in November and December.
Azubuike is a player who cannot be replaced in the lineup. His absence will be noticeable because he impacts the game in so many ways. His career field goal percentage of .744 is astounding and showcases how efficient he is when he gets the ball and is in position to score. On the defensive end of the floor, he averages 3.1 blocks per 40 minutes played.
Additionally, Azubuike’s impact on the offensive end is not limited to the times when he has the ball in his hands. The Jayhawks have made 46.3 percent of their three-point attempts this season when Azubuike is on the floor, and they have only made 31 percent of their threes when Azubuike is on the bench, per ESPN’s Myron Medcalf. One may not think that a center who plays exclusively on the low block would have an impact on a team’s three-point shooting percentage. However, Azubuike draws a lot of double-teams and attracts a lot of attention in the paint, which helps to free up open shooters on the outside. There is a good chance that the Jayhawks will continue to struggle with their outside shooting in Azubuike’s absence because they do not have many players who can create their own shots.
At the beginning of the season, the 2018-19 Jayhawks had the look of a vintage Bill Self team. Lawson played at the high post and around the perimeter, while Azubuike roamed the paint and jostled for position on the low block. Now, Kansas faces a difficult decision. They must choose between playing a “vintage Self” lineup with two bigs or going back to a four-guard lineup that the team utilized in the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
For right now, it seems that Kansas will go with a four-guard lineup to start and finish games. Sophomore Marcus Garrett stands as the player with the most to gain if KU goes small. Garrett has already started several games this season when Azubuike was unavailable. The sophomore is a valuable player because he plays hard and because he can switch and defend multiple positions. While Garrett is a strong defender, he struggles on the offensive end because he cannot consistently make jump shots. KU can play small and get the job done on defense, but they will not be able to score from the outside the way they did last year. Opposing defenses will pack the paint and will allow the Jayhawks’ inconsistent shooters to fire away. When they play small, Lawson will have to play down low, and he will not be able to run the offense the way that he can when he has the ball at the top of the key. The small lineup poses problems that will be difficult, if not impossible, to fix in just a few short months.
Yesterday, Self and the Jayhawks made another decision that seems to point toward the team using a smaller lineup. They decided to pull freshman guard Ochai Agbaji’s redshirt, which means that Agbaji will be eligible to play for the rest of the season. He will not get big minutes, but Self’s decision is a signal that Kansas may be leaning toward going small.
A “vintage Self” lineup would be easier to use if Silvio De Sousa was in the rotation. Unfortunately for Kansas, De Sousa will not be cleared by the NCAA at any point in the near future. He may never play another game in a Kansas uniform. Without De Sousa, Self must turn to freshman David McCormack to play on the low block. McCormack, a McDonald’s All-American, has been used sparingly in his first season in Lawrence. As a result, he has not been able to get into any sort of rhythm. Despite his lack of playing time, McCormack has shown promise. He has made 14 of his 27 field goal attempts and is averaging 13.3 rebounds per 40 minutes played.
Kansas will ultimately use both types of lineups during each game. However, as it stands right now, it seems that Kansas will lean on Garrett’s experience and will play four guards more often than they play two bigs.