OMAHA, Neb. — After the final seconds of Kansas’s latest triumph in this NCAA tournament had ticked away, Udoka Azubuike, parked on the bench after picking up his fifth foul with 2:30 left in the second half, stood up, looked out at the jubilant tableau unfolding before him and began clapping. A towel draped over his shoulders and a black brace supporting his left knee, Azubuike dapped up a teammate, senior guard Devonté Graham, before entering the handshake line and joining another one, sophomore guard Malik Newman, for interviews on press row.
Azubuike had just watched his Jayhawks advance to the Elite Eight for the third consecutive year as a No. 1 seed, with an 80-76 win over No. 5-seed Clemson that was at once affirming and concerning. Kansas looked like one of the best teams in the field as it racked up 1.15 points per possession by halftime against an elite defense and built a 20-point lead in the second half, only to have Clemson roar back to make it a four-point game (twice) inside the last minute. “We didn’t finish the game very well at all,” head coach Bill Self said afterward. “We played not to lose late.”
The operative cliché here is that Kansas survived and advanced. The Jayhawks doing as much is the most important thing, not least because of what they have the potential to do next.
The best version of this Kansas team was not available for its three games leading into the tourney, and in the days after Selection Sunday, there was enough doubt about its availability to feed speculation that maybe, just maybe, it would become the first No. 1 to go down in the first round. A different No. 1 claimed that distinction, the Jayhawks thumped the University of Pennsylvania, and now, one win away from the Final Four, they seem to be getting closer to reaching their ceiling as a small-ball, floor-spreading offensive machine.
At the CenturyLink Center here on Friday night, Kansas brought a swift and convincing end to one of the better stories of these NCAAs: Clemson. The Tigers not only won a pair of games in the tourney—including a thorough, 31-point beatdown of No. 4 seed Auburn—but they did it after earning their first at-large bid since 2011, shaking off rampant hot seat chatter surrounding head coach Brad Brownell as well as a season-ending injury to their best player (senior forward Donte Grantham), and drawing a 13th-place preseason projection in the ACC.
The Jayhawks sent home the Tigers because their perimeter-oriented attack is a nightmare to contain when it’s whirring at full tilt, and because that attack is even more of a nightmare to contain when Kansas has its primary big man at or close to peak form. A sprained medial collateral ligament had sidelined Azubuike for the Big 12 tournament and limited him to just three minutes for Kansas’s tourney opener against Penn. After battling through 22 minutes in a second-round win over Seton Hall, he was on the floor against the Tigers for 25 minutes, more than his average in conference play before the injury. “I feel great,” Azubuike said afterward, though he conceded that he’s “not 100% yet.”
Clemson came into Friday’s game with one of the top interior defenses in the country, but like most of the teams Kansas has faced, it did not have an effective counter for a spry “Doke” who establishes position in the paint. Azubuike went to work against shot blocking-ace Elijah Thomas and the rest of Clemson’s frontline, shrewdly working the post for his own buckets or kickouts to shooters. He scored on rim-shaking dunks and contested turnarounds and crashed the offensive glass, finishing with 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting and 11 boards, good for his sixth double-double of the season.
Azubuike held his own defensively, too. A massive frame (listed at 7-foot, 280 pounds) and heavy feet make him a liability roaming out to the perimeter, but Azubuike’s sheer presence can serve as a deterrent for would-be drivers. Midway through the second half, after Clemson had recorded five unanswered points to cut into what was a 20-point Kansas lead, Azubuike shuffled his feet to contain Tigers guard Marcquise Reed off the dribble before leaping to swat his layup attempt off the backboard, igniting a fast break that led to a transition wing three from Graham. “Just his presence alone,” Graham said of Azubuike, “you can’t duplicate it.”
What Azubuike did to propel Kansas to the regional finals against No. 2 seed Duke was not a total surprise. Self had given notice that Azubuike would be fit to put in a full day’s work. At a news conference on Thursday, he was asked about how Azubuike performed in workouts the previous week. “He’s been fine,” Self said. “He practiced full speed Tuesday, Wednesday. Will practice today. And unless something unforeseen happens he’ll be starting and be full speed tomorrow.” No assurance from Self could have wiped out the apprehension about Azubuike’s health. He needs to play, and play well, against teams capable of neutralizing him on offense and making him pay on defense.
“I think he was huge for us today,” senior wing Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk said of Azubuike.
This is a perimeter-oriented team whose survival hinges on the play of its guards. Kansas ranks fifth in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency in large part because of the ease with which it generates points from beyond the three-point arc. It ranks sixth in effective field goal percentage, which takes into account the added value of threes, and 37% of its scoring has come from deep. Without Azubuike, the Jayhawks’ starting lineup comprised two guards (6’2” Graham, 6’3” Newman), two wings (6’5” junior LaGerald Vick, 6’8” Mykhailiuk) and 6’8” sophomore Mitch Lightfoot.
Kansas made do with Azubuike sidelined, winning the postseason tournament held by the strongest league in the country, but it is thin in the frontcourt even with him available. It doesn’t have enough proven contributors behind him to advance deep in this tourney if he’s not. The Jayhawks’ top recruit, power forward Billy Preston, signed with a professional team in Bosnia and Herzegovina in January after never suiting up for Kansas, and true freshman Silvio De Sousa is only a few months removed from logging minutes for a high school team. Lightfoot is best suited as a reserve with a limited workload.
Self has had more than one Jayhawks team better than this one. At multiple points this season, Kansas looked dangerously close to snapping the conference championship streak that has become synonymous with his glorious run in Lawrence. Yet with Azubuike nearing the inside force whose two way impact outstrips all but a few big men still alive in the NCAAs, it has a really good chance to do what its two predecessors that reached the Elite Eight could not: win one more game. “It’s been great, but it would be nice to make it special, special,” Self said of this season. “And I think, in order to do that, at Kansas, you’ve got to go to a Final Four.”