LAWRENCE — In a literal sense, Kansas basketball without question finds itself shorthanded in the wake of starting center Udoka Azubuike’s season-ending hand injury.
Less than 24 hours after learning the 7-footer’s unfortunate diagnosis, though, Bill Self had no interest in using that word — nor in adjusting his expectations for the suddenly retooling Jayhawks.
“We’re not playing shorthanded. This is who we’ve got,” Self said Monday. “So we need to change our mindset on what we need to do in order to be successful, and I think what we need to do to play well isn't any different than what we've been stressing all along. I think it’s just magnified now a lot more.
“And yeah, we’ve got it in us. There’s no doubt. This team’s got a lot of pride. We’ve got it in us.”
The seventh-ranked Jayhawks (12-2, 1-1 Big 12) will get their first taste of life without Azubuike at 8 p.m. Wednesday when they play host to No. 25 TCU (12-1, 1-0) at Allen Fieldhouse. While the team has already played five games without the oft-injured junior, including last Saturday’s 77-60 defeat at Iowa State, Self acknowledged the permanent nature of Azubuike’s latest ailment has led to new brainstorming on what’s best for the team from a rotational standpoint.
So where does KU go from here? Self touched on a number of possibilities — increased usage of the four-guard lineup, the removal of freshman guard Ochai Agbaji’s redshirt, even the potential return of withheld sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa — during a 25-minute news conference that carried one major theme throughout:
Replacing Azubuike, he stressed, will be a collective effort.
“There’s 24 hours in a day,” Self quipped, “so we’ve still got plenty of time to figure stuff out.”
One of Self’s most interesting comments regarded Agbaji, the 6-5, 210-pounder out of Kansas City, Mo. A three-star player listed as the nation’s 145th-ranked prospect at recruiting outlet Rivals, Agbaji nevertheless was a late climber in the Class of 2018, but the decision was made this summer to redshirt the Oak Park High School product.
Now, Self said, all parties involved may be reconsidering that position.
“Ochai and myself and (his) mom and dad, we’ve talked about it,” Self said. “I haven’t made a decision to do that whatsoever. because if you bring him out, you bring him out to play, and is he good enough? Absolutely, there’s no question. But the reality of it is, it’s a different pressure (and) he hasn’t had the chance to experience any of it.”
A hack-and-slash threat that Self said has been “great in practice,” Agbaji has apparently improved dramatically since his arrival. While throwing a true freshman into the metaphorical deep end that is Big 12 play isn’t unprecedented, it appears Self is being mindful of the risks involved in losing the guard's Year 1 if he ultimately amounts to little more than a role player.
“He’s gotten a lot better, but it’s a different type of environment that he’s never experienced before,” Self said. “Are we thinking about it? Absolutely. But have we made a decision yet? We have not.”
De Sousa, the 6-9, 245-pound rebounding savant, would appear the most natural replacement for Azubuike, but the Luanda, Angola, native has yet to see the court this season. KU has voluntarily withheld the sophomore since testimony and documents at an October trial of three individuals in the federal government’s probe into corruption in college basketball alleged De Sousa’s guardian, Fenny Falmagne, received illicit payments from multiple entities in exchange for steering the forward’s recruiting process.
Self said he’s unaware of any movement on De Sousa’s situation by the NCAA, which is now reviewing the matter, though he added KU is working daily toward getting the long review to a resolution — “People are trying to move forward with it. It’s just not moving quite as quickly as what we’d hoped,” Self said.
De Sousa’s situation and Azubuike’s season-ending injury, Self contended, are mutually exclusive, with the former not affected by the latter whatsoever.
“He’s crushed. He’s crushed. And he’ll be more crushed now because his partner can’t play and now he knows his role could be bigger,” Self said of De Sousa's spirits. “But whether (or not) Doke (Azubuike) plays, that’s totally isolated from Silvio. It’s totally different. We would want him to be available and have a chance to do what he obviously loves to do regardless of Doke’s situation, but you’d think it could be a little bit more magnified now obviously."
Regardless of whether Agbaji, De Sousa or both end up on the court at some point this season, they’re both long-term solutions at best for the Jayhawks.
Beginning Wednesday, KU’s immediate future will likely resemble how KU played during Azubuike’s four-game absence in December — primarily a four-guard approach with the 6-5, 195-pound Marcus Garrett sliding into the four-spot and the 6-9, 235-pound junior forward Dedric Lawson at the five. The team will also deploy a two-big frontcourt when necessary, however, with reserve forwards David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot likely seeing upticks in usage.
Opponents, Self said, will often dictate what look the Jayhawks utilize.
“We’re still going to play two bigs some. We have to,” Self said. “... Dedric’s not a five, so we’re going to have to play him at the five. He’s much better when he can face (the basket) and drive a guy or whatever. We’ll tweak some things on what we need to do. We don’t have much time to do it, but it’ll be a collective effort from everybody.”
As for Azubuike, the player teammates and coaches refer to as “the big fella” will have surgery at some point this week to repair the ligament tear in his right hand, an injury Sunday’s MRI revealed mirrors exactly what he suffered in his left hand in a season-ending incident during his freshman campaign (2016-17).
The mental anguish Azubuike must be experiencing makes it too early for Self to have a serious discussion about his future, though the KU coach said both an exit to the pros and a return to the collegiate level are on the table. Azubuike averaged 13.4 points on 70.5-percent shooting and 6.8 rebounds across his nine games this season.
“There’s nothing (where) his biological basketball clock is ticking and he needs to hurry up and do something,” Self said. “There’s nothing like that, even though in his mind (he thinks), ‘I’ve been here three years.’ That is a positive thought. ...
“We should not feel bad for us. We should just feel bad for him. ... It’s a crushing blow to him, without question. I think he has options. We know he’s going to heal based on his other hand and we know the time frame it will take to heal and those sorts of things, but for a 19-year-old, that’s not the type of thing to easily digest right now.”
Despite the turmoil caused by Azubuike’s exit, it’s worth remembering this is still a KU team with a national preseason All-American (Lawson), three freshman McDonald’s All-Americans (McCormack, Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes) and a senior guard with four 27-plus-point outbursts this season (Lagerald Vick).
“This is not a lost deal by any means,” Self said, “but it’s certainly not the ideal situation, to kind of have to revamp who you are after conference play starts.”