Kansas still unsure if Azubuike will play in first tournament game

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike remains questionable entering a first-round matchup Thursday against Ivy League champion Penn (24-8) at Intrust Bank Arena.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

WICHITA, Kan. — The likelihood Kansas would capture the Big 12 Tournament title was reduced when center Udoka Azubuike sprained an MCL and was ruled out for the event.

But now that the bracket for the NCAA Tournament is out and the Jayhawks (27-7) are a No. 1 seed after claiming regular-season and conference tournament titles, their outlook seems a little brighter, even though Azubuike remains questionable entering a first-round matchup Thursday against Ivy League champion Penn (24-8) at Intrust Bank Arena.

The sudden emergence of Silvio De Sousa during a three-game stretch in the Big 12 tourney provided a surprising lift. The 6-foot-9 freshman played sparingly after enrolling at the semester break, but provided solid frontline support and posted his first double-double (16 points, 10 rebounds) in the Jayhawks’ championship win over West Virginia.

“I thought Silvio played well enough that we should have confidence using Silvio in pressure situations,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.

That should ease whatever concerns Kansas might have about Azubuike logging extended minutes if he is able to return.

The Jayhawks would gladly welcome the 7-foot sophomore’s usual contribution of 13.7 points, which includes the nation’s most accurate touch (77.4 percent). Azubuike also leads Kansas with a 7.1 average on the boards and his post presence is something the Jayhawks lacked alternating De Sousa and sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot underneath during their Big 12 tourney run.

“We’re hopeful that (Azubuike) can play some on Thursday,” said Self, “and if we’re fortunate enough to advance, we’re more confident that he could be used on Saturday.”

Kansas extended its record streak of consecutive NCAA appearances to 29 by obtaining its third straight No. 1 seed and the eighth under Self, who is in his 15th season guiding the Jayhawks. Kansas fell in the Elite Eight each of the last two seasons, to Villanova and Oregon.

Senior point guard Devonte’ Graham is beginning to stockpile All-America honors after being named Player of the Year in the Big 12. He averaged 14.3 points and 10.0 assists in the Big 12 tourney, including a career-record 13 assists in the championship game. Sophomore guard Malik Newman was named the tourney’s most outstanding player after averaging 24.0 points on 62.5 percent shooting.

“This past weekend helped out a lot with a lot of confidence,” Graham said. “Doke being hurt helped out our big guys’ confidence a lot.”

Penn claimed its first NCAA berth in 11 years behind two sophomores, guard Ryan Betley and forward A.J. Brodeur. Betley averages a team-best 14.4 points, while Brodeur is the Quakers’ top rebounder (7.0) while averaging 13.0 points on 54 percent shooting.

Beating a top seed would be a more colossal stunner since it has never been achieved by a No. 16 seed since the 1985 expansion of the NCAA tourney field.

“To me, objectively thinking, I don’t think like this is a 16-1 game,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “Now that doesn’t mean Kansas isn’t terrific and that we don’t have our work cut out for us, but I feel strongly we will perform well.”

Penn’s best hope is its defense along the arc. The Quakers rank second nationally guarding the 3-pointer, allowing a .292 percentage. Kansas shoots a bunch of treys with its four-guard lineup, ranking 20th nationally with 10 makes on average.