LAWRENCE — Moments after suffering a 25-point loss to the nation’s top-ranked team, Mike Boynton was prepared to make a declaration about Kansas basketball.
In fact, the Oklahoma State head coach led off his postgame news conference with the observation.
"Hell, I’m not afraid to say it: If Udoka Azubuike is going to make all his free throws, they’re going to win a national championship," Boynton said. "So, questions?"
A few, actually.
Azubuike had another monster outing Monday, scoring 16 points, hauling in 19 rebounds and blocking three shots in the Jayhawks’ 83-58 triumph over the Cowboys at Allen Fieldhouse. The 7-footer did all of his damage in just 27 minutes, going an efficient 6 for 7 from the floor and a double take-worthy 7 for 8 from the free-throw line.
A career 40.6% free throw shooter, Azubuike isn’t likely to often, as Boynton remarked, "make all his free throws," or at least come as close as he did Monday night. That said, the senior center did enough in the Big Monday tilt to earn glowing praise from teammates and coaches — both his own and those patrolling the opposing sideline.
"I don’t watch a lot of national basketball. I watch a lot of basketball but I don’t focus on all the players," Boynton said. "I’d be hard pressed to find a better national player of the year candidate than (Azubuike) is. I mean, the way he’s playing is pretty special."
Azubuike has averaged 16.1 points, 13.3 rebounds and 3 blocked shots across his last seven games, raising his season marks to 13.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. The Delta, Nigeria, native is connecting on 74.4% of his field goal attempts and is on track to break Tacko Fall’s record for career field goal shooting percentage.
Azubuike, who reunited during Monday’s pregame warmups with a brother, Chima Azuonwu, that he hadn’t seen in about 10 years, was all smiles in his postgame interviews.
"This is my last year. This is my last season," Azubuike said. "Regardless of what’s going on, you’ve got to embrace it because I’ve just got the mindset that I’m going to look back one day at this moment, and the best thing to do is cherish the moment. It’s basketball. You’ve just got to have fun regardless."
Boynton called Azubuike "one of the most improved players" that he’s ever watched at the college level, adding that his defensive growth has been just as impressive as his offensive strides.
"He still doesn’t have a ton of post moves, right? He’s not like (Hakeem) Olajuwon out there. But if he catches it in the paint, you don’t really have an answer for him," Boynton said. "But what he can do defensively now versus what he could do two years ago, for sure, is night and day. He can move his feet, he can switch in ball screens and keep a guard in front of him, and then anything around the basket, he has very good reaction time, very good anticipation. For the most part he does it without fouling a whole lot."
Azubuike’s improvement in those specific areas is no coincidence.
"I think he’s gotten to the point where people have recognized him for what he brings to the table athletically, and if he plays to his athletic ability, that’s how he’ll get paid," Bill Self said. "He’s never going to get paid by shooting 15-foot fadeaways or whatever. That’s not who he is.
"So can he guard a ball screen? Can he get out of a ball screen? Can he protect the rim? Can he rebound outside of his area? If you can show people you can do those four things then I think he’s got a really good chance to make it. If he doesn’t, then he won’t. I’m excited that he buys into what’s most important."
While Azubuike’s ability to score easy layups from a couple of feet out won’t necessarily translate to the next level, his athletic ability will, Self argued. Entering the home stretch of his final collegiate season, the "Big Fella" seems to finally understand that fact.
"We’ve been trying to tell Doke all along he can dominate a game without having to get a lot of touches. That’s the case," Self said. "He’s quickly becoming as good a defensive center, the best defensive center we’ve had since I’ve been here, and we’ve had some pretty good ones. You look at (Jeff) Withey, you look at Cole (Aldrich). But he’s the best."
After his 23-point, 19-rebound outburst in last Saturday’s 64-61 victory at then-No. 1 Baylor, Azubuike made it a point in both his postgame news conference and in an interview with ESPN to highlight the importance of proving wrong all those who have doubted him — doubted his free throw shooting, doubted his rebounding, doubted his rim protection, doubted his ability to handle ball screens.
Teammate Christian Braun says it’s obvious to him that Azubuike is playing with a chip on his shoulder.
"In our eyes he’s proving everybody wrong," Braun said. "There’s nothing on the court that he can’t do. You see him hitting free throws, blocking shots. Like he said earlier, he’s not even worried about offense — he’s worried about defense. That’s the most impressive part."
Boynton didn’t save all his praise of Azubuike for the media availability.
When the two met in the postgame handshake line, Boynton patted Azubuike on the chest, then pointed up to the rafters. Later, Boynton revealed that he told Azubuike that if he keeps up this level of play, he’ll be able to hang a banner inside Allen Fieldhouse.
"This game is about these kids," Boynton said. "I’ve watched his development in my time here. I saw him play a little bit in high school. His growth is remarkable. Obviously a lot of credit goes to their staff putting him in position, but that kid has obviously put in a lot of work. He’s made himself not just a big, plodding post player who can get lost in today’s game as everyone thinks. No, the truth is if you’re good enough you can figure it out, and he’s terrific."