Udoka Azubuike wasn’t hard to find this time around.
The 7-footer put together the best performance of his college basketball career on Saturday afternoon, going for 23 points, 19 boards and three blocks while shooting 11-for-13 from the floor as No. 3 Kansas went into the Ferrell Center and staked their claim to the title fo the best team in college basketball with a 64-61 win over No. 1 Baylor.
After Baylor scored the first five points of the game, Kansas answered with a 9-0 run and never looked back. The Bears were only able to draw level once for the remainder of the game, and while Ochai Agbaji managed to make things interesting down the stretch with a late turnover against Baylor’s pressure, the Jayhawks were more or less in control throughout.
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And the reason for that is simple: Udoka Azubuike.
The first time that these two teams squared off back in January, when Baylor landed the program’s first-ever win in Phog Allen Fieldhouse, Azubuike was invisible, especially offensively. He finished with just six points on 3-for-6 shooting from the field largely due to the fact that Baylor’s defense is uniquely designed to take away players in the post. The Bears fronted Azubuike, they played off of non-shooters on the weak side of the floor and they dared Kansas to beat them from the perimeter.
It did not go well.
But giving Bill Self four days to devise and implement a game-plan is never going to work out well for anyone, and Baylor learned that the hard way.
And the tweak, truthfully, really quite simple:Mi
This had an impact on two things on that end of the floor. For starters, it made it difficult for Baylor to influence which way the ball-handler would come off of the screen. You can’t ‘ice’ a ball-screen in the middle of the floor. You can ‘weak’ it — forcing the ball-handler to come off of the screen going to his weak hand — but this is risky, especially with a point guard that is as quick as Dotson is. He was allowed to get a full head of steam going with only Freddie Gillespie between him and the rim. That’s a good thing for Kansas.
The other part of this is that since the ball is in the middle of the floor, and since Baylor cannot make the offense go the way they want them to go, it’s harder to sell out as a helper. This creates open lanes for Azubuike to run to the rim, and there is no one in college basketball that is a better lob-catcher in traffic than Azubuike.
“He was great and controlled the paint,” Self told reporters after the game. “That was about as well overall as I’ve seen him play.”
And he’s not wrong.
Azubuike was a titan on the offensive end of the floor.
But he was just as good defensively.
Baylor’s guards were never able to get into a rhythm on Saturday afternoon. MaCio Teague hit a couple of threes, but for the most part, he was a non-entity. Matthew Mayer scored eight straight points in the first half but was invisible outside of that run. Devonte Bandoo took one shot. Davion Mitchell shot 2-for-11 from the floor, and while Jared Butler went for 19 points and six assists, he needed 18 shots to get there.
Much of the credit there belongs to the perimeter defenders on this Kansas roster. Marcus Garrett is a walking, talking, ball-hawking demolition derby. He’ll take the soul of someone that is careless with their dribble, and Mitchell learned that the hard way. Devon Dotson more than held his own, while Ochai Agbaji, Isaiah Moss and Christian Braun did just enough to keep whoever they were guarding from getting a clean look. The Jayhawk ball pressure was, throughout the game, something else.
But the reason that ball-pressure was possible is because of the human eraser at the five. Doke owned the paint. He only finished with three blocks, but that’s because Baylor opted to settle for jumpers instead of trying to challenge the big fella. His ability to move his feet eliminated Baylor’s ball-screen offense:
Udoka Azubuike's ability to move his feet and keep ball-handlers in front while defending ball-screens is much, much improved. It helps when playing against a five that can't shoot, but incredibly impressive nonetheless. pic.twitter.com/089hQ0s9aP
— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) February 22, 2020
All told, when you factor in both ends of the floor, this was one of the single-most dominant performances that I can remember seeing this season.
Kansas is going to enter this upcoming week as the biggest talking point in the sport.
Is this the best team in the country?
Can the Jayhawks win a national title this year?
Are they actually the favorite to cut down the nets?
And the reason that the answer to all three of those questions is ‘yes’ is the presence of Udoka Azubuike.
The more interesting question that we should be having has less to do with Kansas as a team and more to do with Udoka Azubuike: Is he, and not Dotson, the All-American on this Kansas team?
And where should he factor in the Player of the Year race?