University of Kansas

As Big 12 play approaches, Kansas gets even better with return of Udoka Azubuike

A guessing game unfolds annually in the Big 12 around New Year’s Day as conference play approaches. Find the team with the best chance to unseat Kansas.

Last year it was West Virginia. The Mountaineers got off to a great start and were the highest-ranked team entering league play.

Baylor the previous year, Oklahoma before that. It’s been Texas and Iowa State in recent seasons, as well.

Kansas State was that team entering this year, but Texas Tech has assumed the role and is a worthy candidate. The Red Raiders, underestimated as the seventh choice in the preseason, took Duke to the final minutes before falling for their lone loss.

The Big 12 plays this game almost exclusively because other conferences — certainly all the other major ones — produce a variety of champions. Not so in the Big 12. Wednesday, when conference season begins, the Jayhawks will bid for consecutive Big 12 title No. 15.

Nothing occurred in the season’s non-league portion of the schedule to strongly suspect a different outcome in 2019.

Kansas is a beast that got better Saturday in a 24-point victory over Eastern Michigan with the return from injury of Udoka Azubuike. The KU big man who missed the previous four games with an ankle sprain started against Eastern Michigan and provided 23 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and a nifty steal in 20 minutes.

Azubuike said he wasn’t 100 percent, but that stat line sings. The 7-foot tower of power is the player few can match. The Jayhawks can play well without him, but on the floor he changes the team’s approach.

“He opens up different opportunities for the offense,” guard Devon Dotson said. “You can just throw it over to him and get an easy two. He’ll clear up a lane.”

Defensively, he can also alter a game. “He was really good on the defensive end as well. He protects to paint,” Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy said. “He’s tough. I believe he’s the heart and soul of the program, a huge difference maker.”

Other Big 12 programs have had to manage without stud players this season, for longer periods. Kansas State’s Dean Wade, the preseason player of the year, could miss a few more weeks recovering from a slight tendon tear in his right foot.

Iowa State has played most of the season without Lindell Wigginton and Solomon Young. The Cyclones are at full health just in time for league play.

West Virginia shot-blocking artist Sagaba Konate has missed time with a knee injury. But that hasn’t been the biggest issue for the 7-4 Mountaineers. The team that’s led the nation in steals two of the past four years ranked last in the Big 12 in that category going into the weekend.

Texas has shown the widest range, beating North Carolina and losing to Radford.

Call Oklahoma the biggest surprise. Picked eighth in the preseason, the Sooners entered the Top 25 last week and are getting a huge season from guard Christian James. Put him on the Big 12’s midseason all league team along with KU’s Dedric Lawson and Lagerald Vick, Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver and Iowa State’s Marial Shayok.

Only Lawson was a member of the preseason team, and that speaks to something Kansas coach Bill Self has observed about the Big 12. The names change, but the strength does not because the conference develops talent.

“It seems like our league, as much as any league in the country, losses guys that were the best players and most dominant players in our league,” Self said. “So you think, ‘How can the league be as good next year?’

“We have done a great job in our league recruiting guys that aren’t the five-star names.”

Kansas lands more top-rated talent than other programs, but the previous two Big 12 players of the year, Devonte Graham and Frank Mason, got their lone major college offer from KU.

Kansas’ path to another championship, which begins with a Wednesday home game against Oklahoma and weekend trip to Iowa State, will be rugged. KU has played one true road game this season and lost it. A year ago, the Jayhawks lost two Big 12 games in Allen Fieldhouse.

But the Big 12 remains Kansas’ to lose. Given what we know about the league through non-league competition, the streak should continue.

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