LAWRENCE — Minutes after a performance on the boards befitting of his 7-foot stature, Udoka Azubuike made sure to credit one group before all others for the career-best showing.
“The coaches,” Azubuike said.
The Kansas basketball senior center hauled in a career-high 17 rebounds in Tuesday night’s 95-68 victory over Milwaukee at Allen Fieldhouse, and after the contest, Azubuike was asked what allowed him to be so dominant on the glass. Rather than point to a change in strategy or technique that made a difference, Azubuike instead cited head coach Bill Self and assistant coach Norm Roberts for lighting a necessary fire ahead of the game.
“They challenged me to go out there and get more rebounds,” Azubuike continued, “and I also challenged myself.”
More on Azubuike challenging himself later.
First, consider the Jayhawk coaches’ attempts to motivate Azubuike in this area, which took the form of both public and private remarks.
Speaking to the media Monday, Self labeled his team “decent,” even “above average” at rebounding — the No. 2-ranked Jayhawks (8-1) now sit 31st nationally in total rebounding percentage (55.1). Still, there was one area he saw as an ongoing flaw: Azubuike’s own aggressiveness on the boards.
To illustrate this, Self referenced then-opponent Colorado’s first bucket in last Saturday’s game, which came on a second-chance attempt. KU had three players go after the initial defensive rebound, but one was Azubuike, who Self said gave a half-hearted effort and simply “waited for a guard to get it.”
“And so when the guard couldn’t get it, it was a loose ball and they end up shooting a 3 and making it,” Self said. “Well, that’s a ball that your big guy has to forget about the guard getting it. I told our guys: I remember Thomas Robinson used to want to fight a guy that on a free-throw miss, if anybody else ever got the rebound. That was his way to pad his stats. If a guard ever went in there and took his ball, no, he would be, I mean, visibly mad at them.
“Our big guys don’t think like that. I hope that we start doing that. That’s the thing that we need to be doing as much as anything.”
That critique also, of course, took shape at the Jayhawks’ practices leading up to Tuesday’s game.
Azubuike said Roberts, who specializes in coaching the team’s frontcourt players, was especially critical of Azubuike’s recent performances — the Delta, Nigeria, native totaled just nine combined rebounds in KU’s previous two contests and had only two double-figure rebounding efforts across the team’s first eight games.
“Coach Rob (Norm Roberts) was really on me. Like, we had a conversation about getting more rebounds and stuff,” Azubuike said. “Past few games I didn’t really go after the rebounds like I should. ... He was like, ‘You don’t need to let all these guys get the rebounds and stuff. You can actually go out and grab the rebounds yourself and be selfish about getting rebounds.’ So that’s what I did.”
As mentioned earlier, though, pride in his own performance also played a role in Azubuike’s career-best outing on the glass.
“Going into this game, I didn’t want to worry about nothing else, I didn’t want to worry about scoring, about nothing,” said Azubuike, who had 10 rebounds in the first half alone Tuesday. “I just wanted to go out there and just rebound the ball and that’s pretty much what I did.”
Azubuike may not have worried about his scoring, but it came anyway — he posted 15 points on 7-for-7 shooting against the Panthers and is now connecting on his field goal attempts at an eye-popping 82.2% conversion rate this season, tops in the nation by more than 10 percentage points (FIU's Osasumwen Osaghae and Arizona's Zeke Nnaji, 71.8%).
Self’s evaluation of Azubuike’s performance Tuesday? “Oh, I thought he was great,” he said.
“The first half he went after every ball,” Self added. “I was really pleased and impressed. Thought he played extremely well.”
“He just said, ‘Good job,' " Azubuike recalled of Roberts’ postgame message. “ 'Way to go after rebounds.’ ”
Truthfully, it wasn’t just Azubuike clicking early against the Panthers.
KU raced out to a 30-point lead in the lopsided affair, going up 45-15 on a point-blank make by Azubuike with 6 minutes left in the opening half.
When the Jayhawks are playing as they did across the game's first 15 minutes, with Azubuike's rebounding playing a starring role, is the team essentially bulletproof?
“Oh yeah, for real,” affirmed Azubuike, now averaging 14.8 points and 8.4 rebounds. “When we come out the way we came out and play the way we played, we’re really an unstoppable team, offense and defense.”