LAWRENCE — Udoka Azubuike was out of this world Tuesday.
Need proof? Just check with the head coach standing on the sideline opposing Kansas basketball’s towering senior center.
“Doke, he’s like another planet out there,” said East Tennessee State's Steve Forbes, whose Buccaneers fell 75-63 at Allen Fieldhouse. “He’s so big. He’s got great hands.”
The No. 4-ranked Jayhawks (3-1) certainly orbited around the 7-footer in this one.
Azubuike posted team-highs of 21 points, 7 rebounds and 4 blocked shots in the victory, going 10 for 13 from the field in 28 minutes.
“What do y’all feed him?” ETSU's Tray Boyd asked the media after the contest, sporting a gobsmacked expression on his face. “Goodness.”
On a night that saw the Jayhawks hold a 54-24 advantage in points in the paint with a 7-for-7 mark on dunks and a 14-for-19 clip on layups, “The Big Fella,” as KU head coach Bill Self likes to call Azubuike, was the biggest driving force. He converted six dunks against ETSU, his four second-half flushes pivotal in helping preserve a lead that had been cut from 18 points to just five.
Forbes marveled at Azubuike’s hands, which he said were “like a clamp,” and his ability to finish off a pass inside.
“If (the help man) isn’t there to knock it out of the air, it’s over. It’s over. I don’t care who you are,” Forbes said. “The best thing you can do is hack-a-Shaq him. I promise you we fouled him three times and he just dunked us into the basket and they didn’t call it. We can’t even foul him. He’s ridiculous.”
Self labeled Azubuike the Jayhawks’ best offensive player Tuesday “by far,” an opinion also held by some of the team’s other top performers.
“He was great,” said junior guard Marcus Garrett. “I feel like this was the first team that didn’t double him, and you see what happens when you don’t double him.”
ETSU (3-1) trapped Azubuike at times in the opening half but eased off that philosophy after the intermission, deploying a one-on-one defensive approach that helped limit KU to a 1-for-14 evening from 3-point range but allowed Big 12 preseason player of the year Azubuike to essentially score at will inside.
“Like Marcus said, this team stuck to their straight up man-to-man defense, didn’t try to double (Azubuike),” said sophomore guard Devon Dotson. “That’s what happens when teams do not do that. So yeah, he played great today.”
Dotson and Garrett, the Jayhawks’ primary two ball handlers, played a key role in what was the best outing of the season for the team’s guards in terms of feeding the post. Dotson credited heightened awareness of when Azubuike and his frontcourt teammates had openings, the result of a week of practices where that was a major focus.
“We have (emphasized that), the whole time. We just haven’t been very good post feeders,” Self said. “Tonight it was easier for Doke because they didn’t trap. But it’s also hard to trap when you play four guards. I mean, you guys watch it and I watch it, but if we’re not bullying people with playing two bigs, we’re better with playing small, at least to this point.”
Azubuike did his share of bullying Tuesday.
“They’re still learning how to feed the post and all that stuff, so a lot of times I’m wide open and they don’t pass me the ball,” Azubuike said of his guards. “We kind of talked about it in practice this past week, the last practice, how to pass me the ball, how to pass the ball to the big men inside. They responded pretty good. The guys really responded.”
The cherry on top of Azubuike’s outstanding outing? An and-1 play on a dunk converted through contact, with a rare free-throw make giving the Jayhawks a nine-point lead and a little breathing room with 7:23 remaining.
Self, perhaps, deserves a hat tip for the sequence, too.
“You know, things are new, but when a guy steps (into the lane), it’s a freebie. It’s like jumping offsides (in football) — you get a free play,” Self said. “... (Azubuike) was going to hand the ball back to the official. And so I just yelled at him to shoot it. And you know what? It looked pure when it left his hand. You want to know why? Because he wasn’t thinking about it.
“Maybe there is something to be said that somebody just needs to be yelling at him the whole time when he’s shooting it. But it’s hard to believe you go 1-for-4 and you’re like, ‘Yeah, pretty good,’ from the free-throw line.”
Azubuike was amused by Self’s, let’s just call it, enthusiastic encouragement.
“It was kind of funny,” Azubuike said. “I was like, ‘OK.’ Then he kind of gave me the eye after I shot it. He kind of gave me the eye like, ‘What are you doing?’ I was like, ‘My bad.’ ”