LAWRENCE — Plagued by injuries often throughout his four-year Kansas basketball career, Udoka Azubuike has been here before.
While those around the program note the 7-foot center has become better equipped to cope with these kinds of setbacks, the timing of this particular affliction isn’t easily digestible.
Azubuike suffered a sprained ankle in last Saturday’s 62-58 victory at Kansas State and is questionable for the No. 1-ranked Jayhawks’ next contest, a 7 p.m. Wednesday tilt with TCU. Notable are the dynamics in play here — one of two seniors on the KU roster and the program’s only active four-year Jayhawk, Azubuike could miss a contest that would represent his final time playing inside Allen Fieldhouse.
Speaking at a Tuesday news conference, Azubuike didn’t mask his frustration with the situation.
"It’s my last home game at the Fieldhouse. I mean, I want to play. I really want to play, this being my last game," Azubuike said. "Just what I’ve been through for the past four years and just thinking about it, this is pretty much the last one. So why not? I just feel like I really want to play."
Azubuike woke up Sunday morning with swelling in his right ankle, and while he has since ditched the walking boot, he is still rehabbing "every hour, pretty much," he said, called into treatment "continuously" over the last few days.
The Delta, Nigeria, native said he still doesn’t know if he’ll play Wednesday.
"Hopefully. I want to play," Azubuike said. "Hopefully if the (ankle) lets me, then yeah."
A Big 12 player of the year contender, Azubuike is averaging 13.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks and is playing some of his best basketball in conference play. The Jayhawks (26-3, 15-1 Big 12) would clinch a share of the league championship with a victory over the Horned Frogs (16-13, 7-9).
"I think that he definitely wants to (play). I don’t know that he will or not," said KU coach Bill Self. "I think it depends probably on how things go (Tuesday) and how sore he is tomorrow. But he’s trying. He’s getting treatment four or five times a day, doing everything he’s supposed to do. It’s one thing to want to play; it’s another thing to want to play on senior night. So I know he’ll do everything he can to get out there."
Referred to at times as a "sophomore-and-a-half," Azubuike suffered season-ending wrist injuries midway through both his freshman and junior campaigns. He also injured his knee as a sophomore and missed that year’s Big 12 Tournament, though he returned for the NCAA Tournament and played a pivotal role in helping those Jayhawks advance to the Final Four.
Self said Azubuike’s current injury "isn’t remotely close" to any of his previous ones, the sprained ankle threatening to cost the center "maybe a game."
If he does play Wednesday, Azubuike will see the court for only the 86th game of his collegiate career.
"It’s been an up-and-down journey. It’s been good times and bad times," Azubuike said. "Overall it’s been probably the best decision I’ve made, coming to Kansas. I’ve enjoyed every moment of it."
Both Self and Azubuike were at least able to identify silver linings to his frequent injuries.
"Certainly at his age and coming here at such a young age (16), he was probably even younger than what his age was when he got here in large part because America was new to him and he didn’t have basically structure or support locally from a family standpoint," Self said. "To see how he’s matured and grown is really nice, really cool.
"Even though the injuries were terrible to have, it’s probably forced him to mature in some ways and accept some things that maybe he wouldn’t be quite where he is right now if he hadn’t been through those things."
Azubuike said the setbacks made him "stronger" and "a better person."
"My first time dealing with adversity, dealing with injury (as a freshman), I didn’t really know what to think of it. I thought that was probably the end of everything. I had so much negative stuff in my head," Azubuike said. "But time flies and as I grow I realize that everything happens for a reason. You’ve just got to take the good with the bad and learn from it and keep moving."
Moss happy with decision
KU senior guard Isaiah Moss has also endured an up-and-down run with the Jayhawks, though it has come in a much shorter stint.
A graduate transfer from Iowa, Moss was hampered by hamstring injuries in the preseason and was slow to find his footing in the Jayhawk rotation. Like Azubuike, Moss has come on strong in Big 12 play, a starter now averaging 8.2 points with a 36.4% clip from 3-point range on the season.
"I came here to win. I know it’s a winning program. It’s always been like that. I definitely got what I was looking for," Moss said. "... It’s definitely been a journey but right now now I can say it’s been worth it all."
Without Moss, Self said, the Jayhawks wouldn’t be in such a favorable situation entering the final two games of the regular season.
"He gave us a chance to win big," Self said. "You stop and think about it: With Jalen (Wilson) getting hurt, if we didn’t have Isaiah right now we’d be relying on Christian (Braun) to be the guy with basically nobody else on the wing," Self said. "So he’s been very important and certainly he’s given us a chance to be where we’re at right now."