LAWRENCE — One of Dedric Lawson’s biggest smiles Saturday came with the Kansas basketball junior forward flat on the hardwood, looking up at a figurative redwood.
Yes, Udoka Azubuike is back, and Lawson has the floor burn to prove it.
Lawson collided into the 7-footer midway through the first half of the fifth-ranked Jayhawks’ game against Eastern Michigan at Allen Fieldhouse, with both frontcourt players fighting for a defensive rebound. Azubuike, of course, got the better of that exchange, bringing in one of his nine boards on an afternoon where he also scored 23 points on 10-for-13 shooting and blocked a pair of shots in an eventual 87-63 victory.
Reminded later of the crashing-the-boards crash, Lawson laughed, knowing exactly what was being referenced before the question could even be finished.
“It’s just part of the game. You know, things happen,” said Lawson, smiling once again. “It’s just something that happens in basketball that you laugh off and move on to the next play.”
Azubuike did just that. Returning to the court for the first time since a right ankle sprain suffered Dec. 4, the junior center bowled over more than just teammates.
Azubuike made his presence felt from the opening tip — which the Jayhawks won, again thanks to the returning frontcourt force. Azubuike, who last season led college basketball with a 77-percent shooting clip, converted 6 of 8 shot attempts for a game-high 14 points in the first half alone. He drew and-1 attempts on each of his first three point-blank makes and blocked a 3-pointer, all before checking out for the first time at the 14:48 mark.
The Jayhawks (11-1) rode Azubuike to a 15-for-18 shooting start on 2s and a 28-6 advantage in points in the paint en route to a 21-point halftime lead. When the team struggled out of the second-half gate, the “big fella” again got his crew on track. KU was held without a field goal for the first four-plus minutes of the period, but Azubuike scored seven points and brought in five rebounds in the first eight minutes, connecting on a short attempt to widen the KU advantage to 59-34 with just over 11 minutes left.
Azubuike checked out for good with 5:36 to play, having logged 20 minutes. He received a roar from the Allen Fieldhouse faithful who it seems can shelve any concerns about Azubuike’s reintegration into the Jayhawk lineup — with the Delta, Nigeria, native’s help, KU outscored EMU (6-7) in the paint, 46-20.
“His timing hasn’t been very good in practice, but in practice you don’t have adrenaline, and adrenaline offsets your ankle hurting a little bit,” KU coach Bill Self said of Azubuike. “I was hoping he’d have decent timing, which I thought he did. He didn’t make a lot of baskets from 10-feet obviously, but I thought he ran well and he slid his feet OK.
“Obviously his conditioning is going to be an issue for the next week or so, but he did about as well as I thought he could do out there.”
Azubuike said his ankle stiffened at times of inactivity throughout the contest and observed he experiences the most discomfort while hedging. He wanted to play Dec. 15 against Villanova, but action in that game and the Jayhawks’ subsequent 80-76 setback at Arizona State a week later weren’t in the cards.
Admittedly still not 100 percent, Azubuike expressed hope he will be in “a week or two.”
“I think I’m getting there, I’m getting better,” Azubuike said. “It’s not easy having not played in long time.”
Asked whether the two-big approach will continue to be the team’s primary look, Self indicated that answer may be matchup-dependent.
“I think it’s our best offensive team, to play two bigs, and I think it’s arguably not our best defensive team,” Self said, “so we’ll probably just have to wait depending on situation.”
Quentin Grimes scored 16 points and fellow freshman Devon Dotson pitched in 15 to round out the double-figure scorers for the Jayhawks, who rebounded well from their first defeat of the season. James Thompson and Paul Jackson scored 15 points apiece to pace EMU.
Bracing for Big 12
KU begins its Big 12 slate with an 8 p.m. Wednesday showdown against No. 25 Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse, and there are yet-unanswered questions about how this inexperienced group will handle the test of conference play — “Guys gotta understand how hard it is to win a game, let alone a league, in our league. I don’t know that we totally respect that yet,” Self said.
“We still have a lot to fix and to learn from this game,” Azubuike said. “We’ve got to do a better job of rebounding the ball in this league and I’ve got to do a better job of rebounding. Everybody has to play defense. Right now if Lagerald (Vick) isn’t shooting the ball nobody is. We’ve got things to tighten up defensively, too. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Still, if Saturday was any indication, the Jayhawks will enter the New Year with their literal — and perhaps figurative — biggest weapon apparently rust-free.
“It felt great. It felt great,” Lawson said of Azubuike’s return. “Easy baskets, just throwing it to the rim.”