Listen closely enough, and Bill Self couldn’t have been more clear this past season.
While his Kansas basketball team had many injuries and departures in 2018-19, one was more costly than the rest: the loss of center Udoka Azubuike after he tore a wrist ligament in January.
“I don’t think there is a more dominant or powerful or better back to the basket player in college than Udoka Azubuike,” Self said during his team’s year-end banquet last week. “When he got hurt, it was a big blow to all of us.”
After Self and staff dreamed up ways to have Dedric Lawson and Azubuike complement each other, those plans had to be scrapped. The team adjusted some offensively following Azubuike’s injury, but it still wasn’t able to hit the same ceiling without him.
“What happened (in 2018-19)? We got our butts beat by teams that were probably better than us this one year,” Self said. “We didn’t talk about this when we had our full complement of players minus one (Silvio De Sousa). We were the best team in the country.”
It’s easy to push back a bit on Self’s words here. It’s true that KU was undefeated last season when it had Azubuike, though that misses some of a bigger picture; the Jayhawks weren’t dominating inferior teams like you’d expect of a No. 1-type team — needing a Lagerald Vick three to force overtime at home against Stanford was the best example — and was ranked between sixth and ninth in advanced metrics like Sagarin and BPI even before Azubuike first went down with an ankle injury in early December.
But Self’s main point still remains: Whether you thought the Jayhawks were first or fifth or 10th, they had to be considered among the elite when Azubuike was on the floor.
So how much will his presence help the team in 2019-20?
Probably even more than you’d expect.
For help with that answer, I turned to college basketball analyst Bart Torvik. On his website BartTorvik.com, he already has preseason projections posted while estimating the rosters for next season’s teams.
Right now, KU sits at seventh, with Azubuike and guard Devon Dotson both listed to return.
What would happen to KU’s ranking, I asked Torvik, if you took Azubuike off the Jayhawks?
Torvik not only responded ... he created a tool on his site to let fans answer this question themselves.
I was surprised by the result: Without Azubuike, the Jayhawks fall all the way from seventh ... to 56th.
That output could be either encouraging or scary for KU fans depending on one’s perspective.
Here’s the positive: Self could not have gotten a better player to come back. Azubuike is a dunk machine — Self correctly cited during the banquet that the big man had 50 more dunks his sophomore year (122) than Duke’s Zion Williamson had this season (72) — and having that sort of efficient option is a surefire way to lift an offense.
Azubuike’s presence also takes pressure off other players as well. Suddenly, Ochai Agbaji might not be forced into a huge offensive role, while David McCormack can continue to develop at his own pace.
Some of this is reflected in Torvik’s numbers. With Azubuike, KU’s offense is projected 5.4 points better per 100 possessions. Another way to look at it: The Jayhawks’ offense is expected to be 11th nationally instead of 63rd.
Defensively, though, Azubuike makes just as big of a difference.
A few years ago, Ken Pomeroy studied which aspects of college basketball the defense controls most. While he came away believing that offenses have a “frightening” amount of power in a majority of facets, he also was left with this takeaway that was backed up with data: “The defense’s tools are two-point defense and influencing shot selection.”
Azubuike thrives with both. Though he’s not an elite shot-blocker, he definitely changes how teams can attack the rim against KU, making opponents hesitant there thanks to his presence and size.
The center’s small-sample defensive numbers last year were ridiculous as well. According to Synergy Sports Technology’s logs, Azubuike ranked in the 99th percentile defensively, as the man he was directly guarding attempted 33 shots ... and made 7.
Sure, KU could face some challenges limiting opponents’ three-point attempts as it did this season. There’s no question, though, that Azubuike gives the Jayhawks both an anchor in the middle and also an identity to play to on that end, with the team attempting to force action away from the basket.
Torvik’s numbers see a similar defensive bump for KU as a team, as the Jayhawks are projected 10th defensively with Azubuike and 51st without him.
This exercise also seems to reiterate just how important it is for Self to fill out the roster in the next few months.
The seventh-place projection is a best-case scenario at this point, assuming that Azubuike remains healthy (not a guarantee) and that Dotson returns to KU (the Jayhawks’ ranking drops to 22nd if he stays in the NBA Draft).
Self can do a bit to raise KU’s ceiling with the next additions, but perhaps this will be more about improving the Jayhawks’ floor. Teams don’t necessarily need deep rosters to advance in the NCAA Tournament, yet KU is so light in numbers at this point it seems at least 1-2 rotation players haven’t even joined the team yet.
The worst-case scenario is different this year than last. Without Azubuike in 2018-19, KU went from great to good, still managing a four seed in the NCAA Tournament and 26 wins.
Without Azubuike? It’s not a stretch to say — without significant talent joining late — the Jayhawks would be much worse than that, looking more like a bubble team than one likely to win the Big 12.
Self has thrived with spring recruiting before, and it’d be foolish to think he’ll strike out with each of his top remaining targets.
However that plays out, though, the coach can take some comfort in Monday’s Azubuike news.
There literally isn’t an announcement — from any player — that could have benefited the Jayhawks more for next season.