Jayhawks’ Azubuike could return by start of Big 12 season

Udoka Azubuike is helped off the court after hurting his ankle against Wofford on Dec. 4.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Kansas coach Bill Self is hopeful injured center Udoka Azubuike will be back on the floor by the time the second-ranked Jayhawks open Big 12 play against Oklahoma on Jan. 2.

The 7-footer sustained a severe high ankle sprain when he landed awkwardly on a Wofford player early in the Jayhawks’ 72-47 rout Tuesday night. Azubuike was still not putting much weight on the ankle Thursday, Self said, but he could be moving in a walking boot by the weekend.

Azubuike is averaging 12.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game this season.

“He seems to have good spirits,” Self said. “I don’t think he’s excited about it. He’s not going to put any weight on it, or very little weight on it, the next couple of days. But I don’t see any reason he can’t be up and at ’em by the end of the weekend.”

Azubuike missed much of his freshman season after requiring wrist surgery, and he dealt with a sprained ligament in his left knee late last season and into the NCAA Tournament. Still, he managed to help Kansas roll to the Final Four before losing to eventual national champion Villanova.

The Jayhawks are also without big man Silvio de Sousa, whose name surfaced in connection with the FBI probe into college basketball corruption. The sophomore forward has been benched indefinitely while the school and the NCAA investigate whether he received impermissible benefits.

Kansas is still better equipped to deal with Azubuike’s absence than it has been in recent years, though. Leading scorer Dedric Lawson is a versatile point-forward capable of guarding an opposing big man, and junior forward Mitch Lightfoot has plenty of experience coming off the bench.

“We go from being a really deep team inside to now we don’t have much depth at all because you not only have ‘Doke out, but you have Silvio out, too,” Self said. “We do have more options. Last year, if ‘Doke went out, for almost half the season we didn’t have Silvio either, so it was just Mitch. So if Mitch got two fouls in the first 10 minutes, it was like, ‘What are we going to do?'”

Azubuike’s injury also should mean more playing time for freshman David McCormack, a five-star prospect from venerable Oak Hill Academy. McCormack has yet to play more than 10 minutes in a game this season — he didn’t play at all against Louisiana-Lafayette — but performed well against Wofford, scoring a season-high six points and pulling down three rebounds.

“I mean, he wants to make the right plays. You haven’t seen it in the games, but we’ve seen it in practice,” Self said. “He’ll make some pretty careless plays and he gets sped up, obviously, around the basket. I just think he needs to keep doing what he’s doing. Run defense, rebound and pay attention to scout report, things like that can help us. He doesn’t have to be a prolific scorer.”

The Jayhawks don’t necessarily need anybody to replace Azubuike, either. They have played largely with four-guard lineups in recent years, a byproduct of their roster, and they could lean on Lawson and their backcourt of Lagerald Vick, Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes for now.

Their schedule doesn’t get much easier while Azubuike is sidelined.

Kansas returns to the floor Saturday night against New Mexico State at Sprint Center, the site of the Big 12 Tournament and a regional final site for this season’s NCAA Tournament. The Jayhawks also get No. 21 Villanova at Allen Fieldhouse and have a visit to No. 20 Arizona State sandwiched between games against South Dakota and Eastern Michigan, a pair of talented mid-majors.

“I do think that it prepares you for league, without question,” Self said. “But the other thing is I do think it would be nice not to sweat every single moment, and that is not going to happen before Christmas for us. … There is not a lot of time to breathe from a standpoint where you go in and say if we just really try hard today, we are going to be OK. That has not been the way it has been with us.”