The No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks are 8-0 and have looked pretty good so far this season. Another Final Four is a likelihood at this point and a big reason for that was because of the big man in the middle, Udoka Azubuike.
The 7-footer shored up the defense for sure, but he also clogged up the paint on offense. The guards might appreciate him colliding with all the other big men and absorbing all the contact in there, but he did make life tough for them when they tried to drive. However, they found out real quick what life might look like without him as he suffered an ankle injury in the first half of the game against Wofford.
He didn’t come back for the game, and while it’s probably just a coincidence, the Jayhawks did go on a ridiculous 27-0 run in the second half (they were only up 29-26 at the half).
Bill Self has always gone with a traditional set of two big men, but now that he’s down one large Azubuike, it gives him a chance to experiment with four-guard lineups and some small ball rotations. It seems to have worked well so far, but that was against a considerably inferior opponent. With games against cupcakes like New Mexico State, South Dakota and Eastern Michigan, the Jayhawks will have a chance to become more familiar with those lineups and rotations.
That being said, the Kansas Jayhawks should get a real test when they play top-25 teams Arizona State and Villanova before tackling the Big 12 slate.
Azubuike is expected to come back by Big 12 play. Still, these next few games are a good opportunity for Self and the Jayhawks to do some experimenting for when they will undoubtedly get a lot of different defensive looks during the NCAA Tournament.
What you can expect to see from the team over this next five-game stretch should be much different than what we’ve seen so far. Point-forward Dedric Lawson will get a chance to be even more of a facilitator and playmaker, primarily while playing in the high post.
Lawson should have the opportunity to find guys open around the perimeter as well as make plays for himself in space. While there will probably be less easy buckets as the result of a good seal by Azubuike, the space now void should result in some easy drives and lane penetration these guards haven’t seen all season.
We got a little taste of it against New Mexico State on Saturday when the Jayhawks came out with a tight, 63-60, win. Doke’s defense was sorely missed — 36 of NMSU’s points came in the paint — and it looks like his offense was for stretches as well.
Kansas started the game hot, but endured a five minute drought in the first half before Dedric Lawson pulled the team out of it in the second half, scoring 18 of his 20 points during the final 20. For good measure, he chipped in with 10 rebounds. The Jayhawks as a team were outrebounded, which is less than ideal, and it will be probably a recurring issue with a four-guard lineup seeing the majority of minutes going into the rest of the non-conference slate.
What this “new” offense is hoping for, though, is that a guy like Quentin Grimes gets going as he’s been in a bit of a slump to start the season. It will give him some open space to get to the rim and hopefully get to the free throw line because of it. In theory, he gets some confidence in his shot at the charity stripe, then begins shooting better from everywhere else on the floor.
It’s also an opportunity for Charlie Moore to get some more playing time as he got the start against NMSU on Saturday, receiving 24 minutes of run. It was the second highest total for him after the Tennessee game (32 minutes). The team should also be looking at LaGerald Vick to get out of coach Self’s dog house, as he was not named a starter on Saturday for the second straight game.
While many are hoping this non-Azubuike lineup creates space for driving lanes and a more free flowing offense, it may prove to be a bit of a hindrance only because this is not an offense the Jayhawks have practiced or run all season.
Will it be good to have in the back pocket come March? Yes, of course. Is it going to look pretty every game before Azubuike gets back? Probably not. But if you want to go deep in March and into April, sacrifices have to be made and sometimes you have to be made uncomfortable to know what you’re really made of.
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