LAWRENCE — The factoid took Udoka Azubuike by surprise.
The same could be said for the Kansas basketball senior standout’s head coach.
Azubuike, the top-ranked Jayhawks’ 7-foot center and the newly crowned Big 12 player of the year, will be appearing in his first Big 12 Tournament this week after three years of hard-luck circumstances — Azubuike suffered season-ending wrist injuries midway through his freshman and junior campaigns, and as a sophomore, he missed the league’s annual postseason event with a sprained MCL in his left knee.
Asked Monday about whether playing in the Big 12 Tournament for the first time will serve as added motivation, Azubuike reacted with surprise.
“For real?” Azubuike asked. “You right. You right. Dang. Oh yeah, you right.”
“For sure it’s going to be exciting,” Azubuike said. “It’s going to be an exciting experience for me. I haven’t really thought about it, for real, (that) this is my first Big 12 Tournament for real. I mean, I’m excited and I’m looking forward to it.”
More than aware of the bad hand Azubuike has been dealt from a health standpoint, Bill Self nevertheless was also surprised when relayed the tidbit, though he believes Sunday’s player of the year honor from the Big 12 coaches will serve as Azubuike’s biggest driving force this week.
“I did not realize that. How about that? Four years and it’s the first time he’s been able to play in the tournament,” Self said. “I don’t know, I would think he’d be extra motivated in large part because of what happened (Sunday). That was really cool what happened (Sunday).”
Still, it remains to be seen just how much action Azubuike — and several key Jayhawk teammates, for that matter — will see in what has shaped up to be a low-stakes final tune-up for the NCAA Tournament.
Compared to most years, the Jayhawks (28-3) appear to have less on the line in this particular Big 12 Tournament — ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi declared over the weekend that Self’s squad is a lock for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, having “lapped the field at this point,” he said.
Couple that with lingering afflictions the Jayhawks have battled throughout Big 12 play — Azubuike’s ankle sprain; Devon Dotson’s hip pointer; Marcus Garrett’s foot — and KU’s most important players could potentially see a reduction in minutes in what may turn out to be a three-games-in-three-days scenario.
Besides the obvious mission of capturing another Big 12 trophy, continuing the momentum for a squad that has won 16 straight games is also a goal worth pursuing this week, Self said.
“You know, if you lace ’em up you might as well win. If you’re going to play you might as well win. At least that’s the way everybody looks at it, not just us. Everybody looks at it that way,” Self said. “Kids are competitive. I get a kick out of (people saying), ‘Well, you know, guys may not play as hard if you don’t need it as much.’ Well if that’s the case then you probably don’t have the guys you wish you had.
“So in our case I know we’ll go over there and try. Doesn’t mean we’re going to play great, but I would like to see us be jacked, I would like to see us validate the regular season in the postseason. I would like to see those things.”
That said, there’s one Big 12 Tournament reality that always seems to be true for the blue-blood program.
“I also know that as soon as the last game is over, whenever that is, nobody will be talking about the Big 12 Tournament again,” Self continued. “Everybody will be focused on the NCAA Tournament.”
Dotson is appearing in 34.9 minutes per game, with Ochai Agbaji (33.3), Garrett (32.2) and Azubuike (27.7) not far behind. The Big 12 Tournament may be an opportunity for freshman guard Tristan Enaruna (10.9 minutes per game) and junior forward Silvio De Sousa (8.2) to see extended usage.
“I’d like for sure to be able to play them both, Tristan for sure and to be able to play Silvio. Yeah, for sure. I do hope that’s the case,” Self said. “I’m not going to make any bold predictions but I think that would be best for our team. So I think you could probably anticipate us at least attempting to do that.”
Regardless of how KU chooses to approach the Big 12 Tournament, Dotson at least appears invested in its outcome — “Seasons not done with, so it’s a big week,” he said.
KU begins its Big 12 Tournament run with a 1:30 p.m. Thursday quarterfinal against either Oklahoma State or Iowa State at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
“It’s a new season, third part of the season,” Dotson said. “It’s postseason now, so everybody’s equal, everybody’s going to give their best shot and so I mean if you’re dominant in the regular season that’s good and that’s a good goal, but it’s postseason time so it’s all back to square one. So we’ve got to get it going.”