MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As peculiar as it is to write, and as strange as it must be to read, the following was true about Kansas’ marquee showdown Monday at No. 6 West Virginia:
The No. 10-ranked Jayhawks played the “nobody believes in us” card.
Yes, those Jayhawks. The program that has won a national-record-tying 13 straight regular season conference championships, the institution that hasn’t lost the Big 12 since starting center Udoka Azubuike was five years old, assumed the role of slighted underdog against the Mountaineers.
And sure enough, it worked.
“Nobody was going to believe in us,” Azubuike said following KU’s 71-66 comeback victory, its first at WVU Coliseum since the 2012-13 season. “Nobody thought we were going to come over here and win the game — our fans too, I’m sorry to say, but everybody was skeptical about the game.
“Right before the game coach (Bill Self) was like, ‘It’s about the team, it’s about us, because everybody’s doubting us, the media. We’ve just got to stick together as a team.’ That’s what we did tonight. Regardless of the score we just kept our composure and played through it.”
No one “played through it” more than Azubuike.
Despite an abbreviated appearance spurred by foul trouble, the 7-footer may very well have been the difference-maker for the Jayhawks. Azubuike scored 10 points and added nine rebounds in his dominant 20-minute outing, adding a game-high in plus-minus as KU (15-3, 5-1 Big 12) outscored the Mountaineers by 20 when Azubuike was on the court.
“I think I did good,” said Azubuike, who added to his nation-leading field goal percentage (78.1) with a 5-for-5 shooting effort. “I would’ve done way better if I was still in the game, but sometimes basketball, sometimes calls get made and stuff like that. You’ve just got to play through it. Every time I was on the floor I tried to do my best to put my team in the best position to win.”
Azubuike’s first foul was a technical, whistled after he successfully converted a dunk with 14:23 left in the first half. It began an evening of foul management for the sophomore, who said he never received an explanation for the technical.
“All I did was dunk the ball and I kind of looked. I didn’t say nothing and just got a tech,” Azubuike said. “… I didn’t say anything to him but I guess it was my facial expression. So (Self) was like, ‘Just keep your head up. We need you in the game.’ ”
Azubuike returned to the court at the 11:51 mark but left for the rest of the first half when he was dinged for dragging a WVU defender out of the paint less than a minute later. Azubuike picked up his third foul 68 seconds into the second half, but Self kept him on the floor and managed to squeeze 14 second-half minutes out of the center before he finally fouled out with 1:01 left to play.
By then, the Jayhawks had completed their improbable comeback from what was a 12-point hole with just under nine minutes to play.
“Any time Doke is in the game,” said senior guard Devonte’ Graham, “the defense is worried about him.”
KONATE BLOCK PARTY A-OK WITH SELF — West Virginia forward Sagaba Konate was a force in the paint in the first half, blocking five shots and limiting the Jayhawks to a 6-for-19 shooting performance on layups and dunks in the period.
Still, Self didn’t take issue with KU’s aggressiveness in challenging the 6-8, 260-pound sophomore.
“If we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down at least attacking rather than being soft,” Self said. “That’s what I told our guys.”
Konate’s blocks of Mykhailiuk and Marcus Garrett on one-on-one drive-and-dunk attempts electrified WVU Coliseum and seemed ill-advised at the time — Konate averages 3.1 blocks per game — but again, Self absolved his guards of blame for those decisions.
“When Svi went in and tried to dunk it and when Marcus went in and tried to dunk it, I thought those were good plays,” Self said. “I just thought (Konate) made a better play.”
KU neutralized Konate in the second half, coaxing the forward into foul trouble and holding him to no blocks in 16 minutes in the period. Still, Self came away impressed.
“We didn’t really do anything different because we didn’t have those same opportunities (in transition) in the second half,” Self said. “… He’s a force in there. He’s improved so much, and he’s a load.”
VICK COMES OFF BENCH — Junior guard Lagerald Vick lost his starting job against the Mountaineers and came off the bench for the first time this season. He scored nine points on 4-for-12 shooting in 36 minutes.
Self said the decision was the result of poor effort in the Jayhawks’ 30-minute practice Sunday.
“I didn’t think Lagerald was probably as focused in practice as what I thought we needed everybody to be, so I made a rash decision. I’m not saying it was the best decision,” Self said. “I said, ‘Hey, if you can’t get with it right now, we’ve only got 30 minutes. Everybody needs to be into it.’ I didn’t think he was, so I said, ‘You’re not starting.’ ”
Vick subbed in for his replacement Garrett just 79 seconds into the game as KU found itself in an early 5-0 hole.
“I will say this: In times past I think it would’ve affected him. I think it affected him in a positive way,” Self said “I thought he was really good, attitude-wise.”
DRESS VIRGINIA — Self and West Virginia coach Bob Huggins have traded playful jabs at one another over the years, but Monday took it to another level.
Huggins, whom no one would mistake for a fashion plate, presented Self with a custom-made black windbreaker-style shirt with a Jayhawk embroidered on the chest, similar to the look college basketball’s 13th-winningest coach all-time wears while patrolling the Mountaineers’ sideline.
Self actually wore the top during Monday’s game, the result of a promise he made Huggins.
“I guess I told him, ‘If you give me something to wear, I’ll wear it,’ ” Self said. “And sure enough he made me look like I was a NASCAR driver.”
Huggins has 762 all-time wins, while Self ranks 28th with 638.
“You should be able to have a little fun coaching, and I know Huggs does,” Self said. “I have a good relationship with him and we always give each other a hard time.”