LAWRENCE — Before Tuesday night, it would’ve been hard to envision the 7-foot, 280-pound Udoka Azubuike capable of speaking so softly.
In the aftermath of No. 10 Kansas’ 85-73 home defeat to No. 18 Texas Tech, the Jayhawk center sat stoically in his chair at the players’ postgame news conference, at times running his gigantic hands over his face, at other points peering down for several uninterrupted seconds at the box score in front of him.
After nearly three minutes of listening to teammates Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk speak, Azubuike was asked a simple question: What was the status of his injured back, which he played through in the team’s previous contest, a 92-86 victory at Texas?
Azubuike refocused and, after hearing the question repeated, offered his soft-spoken response.
“I mean, it’s getting better,” Azubuike said quietly. “I’ve been doing rehab and all that all week. It’s getting a little better.”
It’s easy to empathize with the inexperienced Azubuike, who has taken on an importance worthy of his height for the shallow-rostered Jayhawks (11-3, 1-1 Big 12) but found himself in a minimized role at times against Texas Tech.
Azubuike finished with 11 points against the Red Raiders but did so on only six shot attempts, fewer than four of the eight KU players that appeared in the contest. Malik Newman, who came off the bench and played seven fewer minutes than Azubuike, finished with eight shot attempts, while reserve Sam Cunliffe had five shot attempts in 19 fewer minutes.
Involve Azubuike the Jayhawks did not, reversing course on an edict from head coach Bill Self that emerged in a Dec. 16 victory at Nebraska and was key to a four-game winning streak.
“We’ve got to want it more,” Azubuike said of the defeat. “I know we play more minutes but we’ve still got to want it more than our opponents. We’ve got to go out and there and fight. That’s the only chance.”
Azubuike led the team in rebounds with seven but saw the Jayhawks collectively trounced in that category, 44-29. Mitch Lightfoot, the team’s only other frontcourt option but, at 6-8 and 210 pounds, perhaps miscast in his appearances at the five position, had zero boards in eight minutes off the bench.
Texas Tech made hay on the offensive glass, where it held an 18-8 edge on KU. That mark led to a 15-4 advantage in second-chance points for the Red Raiders, who Self said “out-toughed” the Jayhawks on the boards.
In eight games against Power Five-conference opponents this season, the Jayhawks have been out-rebounded five times, finishing tied in that category twice and ahead only once — a 36-33 advantage in an eventual home defeat to Arizona State. KU’s last three Power Five opponents — Texas Tech, Texas and Stanford — collectively out-rebounded KU on the offensive glass, 51-29.
Self didn’t chalk up his team’s rebounding deficiencies Tuesday to a lack of size, saying Texas Tech guards Justin Gray (six rebounds), Niem Stevenson (six rebounds) and Zhaire Smith (five rebounds) were “so much more athletic” than their Jayhawk counterparts.
“They weren’t any bigger than us. They played four guards too,” Self said. “They started with (6-8 forward Zach) Smith in the game but he only played five minutes, so after that they played four guards. … I think we’re fairly athletic when we’re turned up, but we didn’t even come close to jumping for balls. Their wings, their guards obviously outplayed our guards.
“I mean, that’s two games in a row where we’ve given up a total of 36 offensive rebounds. I don’t care how small you are. Tough teams and competitive guys don’t allow that to happen.”
The senior point guard Graham, who finished with a game-high 27 points but couldn’t secure a rebound his 40-minute appearance, echoed Self’s assessment.
“We’ve just got to be tougher down there,” Graham said. “We know we small so we’ve got to play even harder, even scrappier and we’ve got to do a way better job rebounding.”
Back to Azubuike, whose voice was a little firmer during a breakout interview minutes after his initial answer.
He said he wasn’t 100 percent Tuesday but added he’s improving. He said he’s “definitely” hoping for good news on forwards Silvio De Sousa and Billy Preston, both awaiting NCAA clearance to appear in games for the Jayhawks, but acknowledged the lengthy wait has been “disappointing.”
As for the rare home defeat, only the 12th in Self’s 14-plus seasons in Lawrence but the second in 14 career home games for the sophomore center, it appeared a result Azubuike was still wrapping his head around.
“It wasn’t easy. I’m not used to all this,” Azubuike said. “I know I didn’t play (the second half) last year but we’ve just got to keep focusing in the game. Like Devonte’ said, everybody is going to give us their best shot so we’ve just got to focus and get ready to play right from the jump.”