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2018 NCAA Tournament: Azubuike’s presence huge as No. 1 Kansas holds off No. 8 Seton Hall

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It turns out Kansas is a whole heck of a lot better when Udoka Azubuike is in the floor.

Who knew?

The sophomore center returned Saturday for extended minutes after being limited with a knee injury to help the No. 1 Jayhawks to a 83-79 win over No. 8 Seton Hall to earn a spot in the Sweet 16.

Azubuike had 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, but the strongest stat in his column was his plus-minus. When he was on the floor, Kansas bested the Pirates by 21 points. When he was off, the Jayhawks got outscored by 17, and there is noise in that number as Seton Hall continued to put them on the foul line in the last minute with Azubuike on the bench.

The 7-footer’s importance to Kansas has been apparent all season, but it was even starker against the Pirates, whose Angel Delgado feasted when Azubuike wasn’t on the floor.  Seton Hall’s double-double machine finished with 24 points and 23 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to power the Pirates into next week. Neither was Khadeen Carrington’s 28 points, all but two of which came after halftime.

Azubuike’s critical role for Kansas is three-fold. First, he’s very talented. Second, he makes the four-out offense possible. Third, the drop-off behind him – apologies to Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa – is rather significant.

Kansas, which got 28 points from Malik Newman, has to play a very specific way offensively with guard-heavy roster. The Jayhawks have to get up a ton of 3s, and they’ve got to make a bunch of them. Without Azubuike in the middle drawing attention and making it difficult for defenders to stay hugged-up on shooters on the perimeter, the architecture of the offense can crumble in on itself.

Azubuike certainly isn’t a perfect or dominant player, but he rebounds well, blocks shots and makes about three-quarters of his shots. Which, of course, means he fits his role perfectly for maybe the most vulnerable Kansas team in Bill Self’s tenure. The Jayhawks’ margin for error, at least at this juncture against the competition they’re going to see in Omaha, is pretty small. Deviate from the plan and things can get away from them quickly. Duke and Michigan State, Kansas’ presumptive opponents in the Elite Eight, will punish them for any missteps or holes in their gameplan.

Azubuike is the linchpin. When he’s in place, things hold together. When he’s not, there’s trouble.

Saturday’s tip times and TV assignments released

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With Day 1 in the books, Saturday’s times and TV assignments have been announced for teams looking to book a trip to the Sweet 16. All times Eastern.

Pittsburgh: Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Dan Bonner and Dana Jacobson

  • 12:10 p.m.: No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 9 Alabama, CBS
  • 2:40 p.m.: No. 2 Duke vs. No. 7 Rhode Island, CBS

Boise: Brian Anderson, Chris Webber and Lisa Byington

  • 5:15 p.m.: No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 13 Buffalo, CBS
  • 7:45 p.m.: No. 4 Gonzaga vs. No. 5 Ohio State, CBS

Dallas: Spero Dedes, Steve Smith, Len Elmore and Ros Gold-Onwude

  • 6:10 p.m.: No. 3 Tennessee vs. No. 11 Loyola (Chicago), TNT
  • 8:40: No. 3 Texas Tech vs. No. 6 Florida, TNT

Wichita: Brad Nessler, Steve Lavin and Evan Washburn

  • 7:10 p.m.: No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 8 Seton Hall, TBS
  • 9:40 p.m.: No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 6 Houston, TBS

2018 NCAA Tournament: Big men that will break your bracket

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There’s a line of thinking that the NCAA tournament is a guard’s game, and there’s ample evidence of its veracity when we look back at runs by Kemba Walker’s UConn, Kris Jenkins and and Josh Hart’s Villanova and Russ Smith’s Louisville in recent years. Don’t, though, forget the big guys. Here’s a list of post presences that could help determine a national champion – and your bracket pool winner.

Marvin Bagley III, Duke: The Blue Devils freshman was the toast of the sport early in the season before being overshadowed by Trae Young, but he’s been consistently great. He’s great around the bucket, good enough from distance to keep defenses honest and rebounds at a high level. He may not be June’s No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, but he ain’t slipping past five, either.

Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic, Arizona: This is about as close to a throwback frontcourt as you’ll see – despite the fact that Ayton fits well enough in the modern game to be a potential No. 1 pick in June. It’s rare that a team can put two seven-footers on the floor and make it work, but Arizona’s pair can make it work. Still, it’s Ayton that fuels this pairing as he’s established himself as a dominant force inside and capable of keeping the Wildcats moving through the bracket.

Michael Porter, Jr., Missouri: Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon held down the fort inside all season long for the Tigers, but they’re now adding Michael Porter, Jr. to the mix – which could either make them fearsome up front or create a rocky fit. It’s one of the big bets of the NCAA tournament that coach Cuonzo Martin is making here. The upside is massive given Porter, Jr.’s talent.

Isaac Haas, Purdue: It’s pretty astounding that the Boilermakers lost Caleb Swanigan, one of the best big men the sport has seen in recent years, and somehow had a better season. Isaac Haas is a big reason why. The 7-foot-2 senior is on the floor more this year without Swanigan now that coach Matt Painer doesn’t have to juggle the two big men, and Haas has upped his production as a result. His size and skill bends the defense like few other players in the country.

Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward, Michigan State: Jackson is the darling of NBA scouts with his modern game while Ward is a more traditional big man – together they make up an incredibly dynamic and productive frontcourt for the Spartans. Ward is the country’s most prolific offensive rebounder and Jackson is one of the top shotblockers in the nation. And both shoot better than 60 percent from the floor.

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Luke Maye, North Carolina: Maye went from a nice story on last year’s national champion Tar Heels to one of the most productive players in the country this year. He’s averaging a double-double of 17.2 points and 10.1 rebounds as his role has exploded from bit player to star for coach Roy Williams.

Killian Tillie, Gonzaga: With all the turnover off last year’s national runners-up, Tillie has seen his role and his production trend way up. He’s one of the most efficient scorers in the country with a true-shooting percentage of 68.2, which is top-10 nationally. He’s not as proficient as a shotblocker and rebounder, but he’s a major problem for defenses.

Udoka Azubuike, Kansas: The Jayhawks’ roster is incredibly dependent on Azubuike given the dearth of other options inside, making his health status one of the more important subplots of the NCAA tournament. The sophomore missed the Big 12 tournament due to a knee injury, but is expected to return to the court this week. His presence inside really facilitates Kansas’ guard-oriented and 3-point heavy approach.

Mike Daum, South Dakota State: The 6-foot-9 Jackrabbit may be the best mid-major player in the tournament. He’s a high-usage player with a 59.5 true shooting percentage and rebounds on the defensive end at a high rate. His athleticism isn’t going to wow anyone, but his ability to score at every level and in unique ways makes him an incredibly tough cover. If South Dakota State turns into this year’s Cinderella, it’ll be Daum who fit them with the glass slipper.

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Angel Delgado, Seton Hall: The 6-foot-10 senior is a double-double machine, averaging 13.3 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. His prowess on the glass is what separates him from the rest of the big man pack as he’s elite on both the offensive and defensive ends on the floor in that area. He’s not a prolific scorer, but he creates extra shots for the Pirates and limits those extra opportunities for their opponents.

Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, Texas A&M: Another super-sized frontcourt that harkens back to a different era of basketball. Both of these guys are great around the rim, but not threats from the 3-point arc. Williams is a fantastic shotblocker while Davis is a great offensive rebounder.

Mohamed Bamba, Texas: Bamba appears to have healed up from a sprained toe and will try to help the Longhorns escape the first weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012. The 6-foot-11 freshman with an expansive wingspan is one of the most impactful defenders in the country as an elite shotblocker. His offensive game lags behind his defense, but he is capable of causing headaches for opponents on that end as well.

No. 9 Kansas eases by K-State, 83-67, in Big 12 semifinal

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Malik Newman poured in 22 points, Silvio De Sousa filled in admirably for ailing big man Udoka Azubuike and ninth-ranked Kansas beat short-handed Kansas State 83-67 on Friday night to reach the Big 12 Tournament title game.

Devonte Graham added 15 points and Svi Mykhailiuk had 12 for the top-seeded Jayhawks (26-7), who will play No. 14 Texas Tech or No. 18 West Virginia for the championship on Saturday night.

The fourth-seeded Wildcats (23-10) learned Friday morning they’d be without All-Big 12 forward Dean Wade, who hurt his foot in their quarterfinal win over TCU. Then they lost starting guard Barry Brown early against the Jayhawks when he was accidentally poked in the eye.

They still put up a fight, thanks primarily to Makol Mawien, the unheralded forward who scored a career-high 29 points. Xavier Sneed added 12 but once again struggled with his shot.

It was the Jayhawks’ eighth straight win over Kansas State, and they remained perfect in 10 games against their cross-state rival in the Big 12 Tournament.

This one was supposed to be a challenge, though, with Azubuike out with a knee injury. But the plot was thrown for a twist when Wade showed up to the arena wearing sweats, and again when Brown was poked in the eye by Graham while driving to the basket less than 90 seconds into the game.

The high-scoring guard flopped to the floor in pain, clutching at his face, and remained down while a trainer and coach Bruce Weber visited him. He immediately went to the locker room and returned to the bench later in the half but wound up sitting out with slight bleeding in his left eye.

Kansas took advantage of his absence by ripping off a 19-4 run midway through the first half that gave the Jayhawks control. They eventually pushed the advantage to 43-30 by the break.

Mawien and the Wildcats made the Jayhawks work for it in the second half. The junior college transfer dominated in the paint, especially when Kansas big man Mitch Lightfoot picked up his fourth foul with 11:38 to go, and Kansas State clawed to within 53-51 with 10 minutes left.

It was Newman that restored order. The transfer from Mississippi State followed up his career-best 30-point effort in a quarterfinal win over Oklahoma State with another virtuoso performance.

He drained a 3-pointer to make it 60-53 with 8½ minutes left, then hit his fifth of the game a few minutes later. And by the time Lagerald Vick curled in back-to-back baskets, the lead had swelled to 71-59 and the Jayhawks were on their way toward the title game.

WADE WATCH

Weber held out hope Wade could return for the title game if Kansas State won, and he is optimistic about his availability for next week’s NCAA Tournament. “Going forward into next week,” Weber said, “we have every indication he will be able to play.”

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State almost certainly locked up its NCAA Tournament bid with its win over TCU, but the fight the Wildcats showed against Kansas — down their two best players — may have helped their cause.

Kansas has played well using a four-guard lineup while Azubuike deals with a sprained ligament in his left knee. That should give the Jayhawks confidence if he misses any NCAA Tournament games.

UP NEXT

Kansas State returns to Manhattan to await its NCAA Tournament fate.

Kansas turns its attention toward winning its 15th conference tournament title.

Newman’s career day lifts Kansas over Cowboys in Big 12s

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Kansas had just been battered by Oklahoma State for the second time this season, a humiliating loss in Stillwater that sent the Jayhawks into the Big 12 Tournament rubbing their bruised egos.

Then the Cowboys raced out to a 10-point lead in their quarterfinal matchup.

Rather than fold, though, the ninth-ranked Jayhawks showed the kind of toughness they’ve been missing much of this season. Malik Newman scored a career-high 30 points, their backup big men made up for the absence of injured center Udoka Azubuike, and coach Bill Self’s squad pulled away in the second half for an 82-68 victory over the Cowboys on Thursday.

“This team is easy to nitpick with because when we’re good, it’s magnified in ways because we can shoot and move the ball, and when we’re bad it’s magnified because we don’t do the things in grind-it-out games that a lot of teams do,” Self said. “Sometimes I think we get a little spoiled on what our expectations are, but I’m real proud of them. I think they competed hard for the most part.”

Svi Mykhailiuk added 13 points and Devonte Graham had 10 points, four rebounds and nine assists for the No. 1 seed Jayhawks (25-7), who were swept by the Cowboys (19-14) in the regular season. But they rose to the occasion when it mattered, setting up a date with Kansas State on Friday.

The Wildcats beat TCU in an overtime thriller earlier Thursday.

“We just wanted to come out, be aggressive and play tough,” Newman said, “because we haven’t played tough against those guys. We wanted to execute, have fun and be tough.”

Jeffrey Carroll scored 17 points and Kendall Smith had 14 for the No. 8 seed Cowboys, who can only hope their opening-round win over Oklahoma solidified their spot in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’re a tournament team. We’ve proven that all season long,” Smith said. “Especially to see the kind of basketball we’re playing right now, I definitely think we should get in.”

Azubuike sprained the MCL in his left knee in practice Tuesday, causing him to miss the entire weekend. The Jayhawks hope to have him back for the NCAA Tournament next week.

Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa combined for 14 points and 14 rebounds in his place.

“We showed we can play without Doke,” Mykhailiuk said. “We can still win.”

Oklahoma State threatened to run the Jayhawks out of the building early on, just as it did in an 82-64 rout in Stillwater on Saturday. Yakuba Sima took advantage of the inside space where Azubuike usually roams, and Carroll’s 3-point barrage gave Oklahoma State an early 10-point lead.

That’s when the Jayhawks finally caught fire, going on an 18-4 charge to turn things around. It was Newman leading the way with a trio of 3-pointers, part of his 20 first-half points.

He kept the hot hand going early in the second half, scoring seven points during another big run — this one 14-0 — that made it 66-50 and forced Cowboys coach Mike Boynton to call timeout.

Boynton said after his team’s rough-and-tumble win over the Sooners that he didn’t buy into the notion that beating a team three times was any more difficult than beating it once. But Boynton didn’t address the challenge that comes with winning two games in fewer than 24 hours.

With 15 minutes left against Kansas, the Cowboys’ legs looked shot.

The Jayhawks’ game-breaking run coincided with a scoreless drought for Oklahoma State that went on for more than 7 1/2 minutes. At one point midway through the half, the Cowboys were 4 for 17 from the floor and had made more turnovers (five) than field goals.

Oklahoma State made a couple of late runs, but he Jayhawks were never in danger of letting their lead slip, locking up at least 25 wins for an NCAA-record 13th consecutive season.

“I won’t say fatigue wasn’t a factor,” Boynton said, “but we knew that coming in. We put ourselves in that scenario and Kansas earned the right to have the extra day of rest.”

BIG PICTURE

Oklahoma State had a 53-27 rebounding advantage against Oklahoma. But the Cowboys only had a 36-33 edge against Kansas, even with Azubuike out with the knee injury.

Kansas set a school record for 3-pointers in a season (319) when Lagerald Vick knocked one down with 3:49 to go. The Jayhawks have relied on the outside shot all year, but it came in handy with their biggest post presence sitting on the bench.

UP NEXT

Oklahoma State waits anxiously to hear its name called on Selection Sunday.

Kansas tries to beat the Wildcats for the third time this season.

Big 12 Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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While the final standings of the Big 12 may have been predictable, the conference’s tournament is going to be anything but. When a league is projected to get up to 80 percent of its members into the NCAA tournament, “anything is possible” isn’t a cliche or tired slogan, it’s honestly a reality.

Kansas won its 14th-straight Big 12 regular season title, setting the standard for dominance in this recent era, but the Jayhawks did it this season without an overwhelming talent or athletic advantage that has so often been the mark of Bill Self’s teams. In fact, there was a fleeting moment when it looked like the Jayhawks’ streak may come to an end. It was a moment, albeit a silly one.

The story of the Big 12 tournament is that there are legitimately nine teams that conceivably could be the last one standing at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, and the 10th-place team, Iowa State, has been beset by injuries but the Cyclones have won three of the last four Big 12 tournaments, boast a fanbase that invades Kansas City and have three wins over ranked teams themselves.

So the question becomes not only who will win the Big 12 tournament, but how many teams will the league get into the Big Dance? If it’s eight, that will set a record for highest percentage of a conference’s teams earning bids ever. Things may have to break just right – and if they break perfectly maybe we’re talking about nine – that might be the most likely scenario, not just a long-shot one.

It’s the Big 12. Who knows what’s going to happen?

 

THE FAVORITE

Despite having perhaps his weakest and most ill-fitting roster, Bill Self got the Jayhawks on top of the heap once again, even giving them enough leeway that dropping a second game to Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale didn’t hurt them. Kansas may not look like one of heavy national title contenders – despite being in line for a one-seed – in the eyes of most, but there’s pretty convincing argument that this is the most impressive of the Jayhawks’ 14 titles, especially when you consider the strength of the rest of the league

Still, the Jayhawks are vulnerable on a number of fronts. The defense can be beat, they’re 3-point dependent and Self has struggled to motivate some of his players at different times this season, complaining about effort and focus.

They’re the favorite, but not an overwhelming one.

THE CONTENDERS

If Keenan Evans doesn’t get hurt, we very well could be talking about Texas Tech as the team that finally ended Kansas’ reign. After looking like a potential Big 12 player of the year, a toe injury sapped Evans’ ability to the point where a player who was routinely putting up 30 a night suddenly couldn’t even crack double-digits. It’s not surprising the Red Raiders lost four-straight – and a potential conference crown – with Evans on the mend.

Evans, after missing a game against West Virginia, returned over the weekend and got 23 against TCU, signalling he may be ready to go this week and keep Kansas from winning another Big 12 title this season.

The other frontrunner here has to be Bob Huggins and West Virginia. The Mountaineers had a late-January lull, but have otherwise been solid. They don’t make a ton of shots, but here’s betting their style of play can wear down opponents in a game-a-day format.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

It’s easily Oklahoma. Sure, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State could all use a dub, but the Sooners would be toying with an epic and embarrassing collapse if they lose in the first round and somehow find themselves outside the Field of 68. This is a team that spent much of the season’s first two months looking like a Final Four contender while Trae Young carved up the country.

Now the Sooners are hanging on for dear life having lost seven of their last nine and Young looking completely human. They could lose to Oklahoma State on Wednesday and still sneak in, but they’ve got the most to lose should they falter.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

The Sooners’ spot is tenuous while Kansas State and Baylor both have to be thinking that one win in Kansas City ought to get them in the field. Oklahoma State probably will need a couple wins to counteract a non-conference schedule that features a win over Florida State and not a whole lot else. The good news for the Cowboys is it looks like they just might have the Jayhawks’ number should the two teams meet in Thursday’s quarterfinal.

THE SLEEPER

When Jaylen Fisher went down to injury, it was a major blow to TCU, but the Horned Frogs come to KC playing good ball. They fell to Texas Tech in the finale in Lubbock, but had won four-straight before that. Their offense is absolutely elite with plenty of shooters around Vlad Brodziansky, who can step out and stroke it himself. TCU’s defense may be suspect, but the way they can spread you out and fill it up makes them a sneaky pick to be hoisting a trophy Saturday night.

PLAYER TO WATCH

I know you’re probably tired of hearing and reading about him, but no player has more at stake at the Sprint Center than Trae Young. It wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t mention his name without quickly comparing him to Steph Curry, and it was just a few weeks back when his lead in the national player of the year race looked insurmountable.

Young’s legacy as a college player will be decided in the next couple weeks. Well, it could be if the Sooners’ season doesn’t end Wednesday night. Whatever struggles Young has had the last few weeks – and he was right when he said he gets guarded like no other player in the country – he can quiet all his critics with one monster month of March.

X-FACTORS

– Teams are going to key on Devonte Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk and surround Udoka Azubuike, so Kansas is going to need to get contributions from Malik Newman. If Newman can provide some pop offensively, Kansas will be in good shape.

– How healthy is Mo Bamba? The Texas freshman is dealing with a toe injury that coach Shaka Smart said makes him questionable heading into play this week. The Longhorns may not need Bamba to get past Iowa State in their opener, but if they have designs on making a serious run this week, they’re going to need their man in the middle. When he’s on his game and playing at his best, he has the ability to completely change the dynamic of a game.

– Try making sense of Baylor. The Bears opened Big 12 play with 2-7 mark before reeling off five-straight to get back in to the NCAA tournament conversation. Now, though, Scott Drew’s team has lost three of its last four. The team that won five straight can win this thing. The team that started and finished the Big 12 slate could easily go out Thursday.

NBC SPORTS BIG 12 HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Devonte Graham, Kansas

COACH OF THE YEAR: Bill Self, Kansas

FIRST TEAM ALL-BIG 12

  • Devonte Graham, Kansas
  • Trae Young, Oklahoma
  • Keenan Evans, Texas Tech
  • Jevon Carter, West Virginia
  • Mohamed Bamba, Texas

SECOND TEAM ALL-BIG 12

  • Dean Wade, Kansas State
  • Sagaba Konate, West Virginia
  • Svi Mykhailiuk, Kansas
  • Manu Lecomte, Baylor
  • Barry Brown, Kansas State