University of Kansas

Why KU, even without Udoka Azubuike, will likely be a fascinating team to watch

KU players Dedric Lawson, Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson on their 72-47 win over Wofford

KU players Dedric Lawson, Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson on their 72-47 win over Wofford
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KU players Dedric Lawson, Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson on their 72-47 win over Wofford

Let’s start with the Devon Dotson drive.

One could pull out many moments from Kansas basketball’s 72-47 victory over Wofford on Tuesday to discuss why the Jayhawks were so effective during a 27-0 second-half run, but this short sequence stood out in real time.

With the shot clock winding down, Dotson received a pass and took a couple dribbles toward the lane, getting by his defender before finishing with a layup at the rim.

The play’s brilliance was its simplicity. KU had spread out its players, and teammate Dedric Lawson — seeing Dotson coming his way — peeled off to open up more room also.

Dotson, as a result, was mostly unimpeded on his way to the basket, finishing the shot with a foul.

It hasn’t been like that often for KU. The Jayhawks coaching staff — understandably — has gone heavily to a two-big look this season with talented players Udoka Azubuike and Lawson on the roster.

So when Azubuike went down with an ankle injury in the first half, KU coach Bill Self was more free to use a four-guard lineup.

And man, for stretches, it looked awfully good Tuesday.

“It feels really spaced out. It feels (like) there’s endless amount of driving lanes,” Dotson said. “It’s great when we do that, I feel like. It just opens it up really.”

Self reported afterward that Azubuike will be out for an indefinite amount of time with his bum ankle. Just to be completely clear too: KU is a better team with the junior big man available.

But it was, no doubt, a refreshing change to see KU go to this different style against Wofford. In many previous games — all KU wins, it should be noted — the Jayhawks seemed to let the opponent dictate pace and tempo while often playing a passive brand of basketball.

The four-guard look altered that immediately. Marcus Garrett, while guarding 6-foot-8 forward Cameron Jackson, was active defensively and versatile enough to switch to Wofford’s guards on ball screens. KU was able to get steals that led to fast breaks, which also allowed the Jayhawks to show off their athleticism — a rare occurrence in recent close wins.

“That’s a hard group to score on,” Wofford coach Mike Young said of KU’s four-guard look. “ ... It created some problems.”

One of Self’s biggest recent gripes also was his guards not “getting downhill,” which is his way of telling them to be aggressive on drives to force help.

The reality here is that it was much easier Tuesday to do that without Azubuike anchored inside, with his presence bringing an extra defender into the paint to potentially clog up the middle. Quentin Grimes had his best game off the dribble with 14 points. Dotson had five twos, and Charlie Moore found openings as well.

“I thought all those little guards, all those young kids played well,” Self said.

That was a problem for Young and the Terriers. After catering most of the scouting report talking about Azubuike and the actions that KU uses to get him easy shots, Wofford all of a sudden was left scrambling as it tried to defend free-flowing players making their own reads.

“That’s a different offense to prepare for without the big one down there,” Young said. “They spread us out with the dribble weave. We didn’t guard obviously nearly as well in the second half as we did the first.”

There was a secondary benefit for KU as well. The Jayhawks have been turnover prone this season, with many of those coming from the team’s focus on involving Azubuike. Sometimes, it’s an errant pass trying to get it inside, and other times, it’s Azubuike not coming set on a moving screen, or making a move too quickly in the post that results in a travel.

The second half didn’t have that. KU, after commiting seven turnovers in the first half, had zero after halftime. The Jayhawks were efficient because of shot volume, increasing their offensive productivity even with a 2-for-13 three-point shooting effort after the break.

“When anybody can attack and drive and kick,” Dotson said, “we just play off each other and get it going.”

Self, as a coach would, has concerns about playing without Azubuike. The team’s rebounding should take a hit, and if KU can’t hit more threes, there’s the possibility that teams will sag in to dare the Jayhawks to make more outside shots.

This at least was promising, though. Following long stretches of ugly offense this season, the Jayhawks played a much more aesthetically pleasing type of basketball in Tuesday’s second half.

No, it’s not better for the Jayhawks to be without Azubuike.

It might be fun in the interim, though, to see KU’s potential with a new forced identity.

From early in the day until the moment of tip off for a game, Kansas basketball is steeped in tradition in Allen Fieldhouse.

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Jesse Newell

Jesse Newell covers University of Kansas athletics for The Star.

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