Wearing a dark Kansas basketball hoodie and black 2016 McDonald’s All-America Game sweats, sophomore center Udoka Azubuike visited with freshman big Silvio De Sousa following a two-handed dunk by De Sousa on Wednesday afternoon at the Sprint Center.
Azubuike was relegated to the role of pseudo-coach instead of player because of a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee that will keep the 7-footer from Nigeria from playing in the 2018 Big 12 Tournament and leaves his status in question for next week’s NCAAs.
“I got all the guys together and talked to them before Doke came down (to practice Wednesday),” KU coach Bill Self said of Azubuike, who was injured when a teammate ran into Azubuike, who was rebounding near the end of Tuesday’s practice at Allen Fieldhouse.
“When I got Doke there, I said, ‘Doke, these guys need help.’ He talked to Silvio for a time about certain things. He’s mature, (but) he’s still just 18 years old. He’s disappointed. He can help us win games, not as much as being on the court but he can put his handprint on it.”
Azubuike, as Self said, won’t play in Thursday’s quarterfinal between the No. 9-ranked Jayhawks (24-7) and unrated Oklahoma State (19-13), a 71-60 winner over Oklahoma on Wednesday. Tipoff is approximately 2 p.m. with a telecast on ESPN2.
If KU advances, Azubuike won’t play in the semifinals or finals.
The expectation, Self said in a release, is Azubuike, who has what’s been deemed “an isolated grade one sprain,” will “be back on the court next week.”
“That’s what the doctors have told me,” Self said after KU’s 40-minute shootaround at the Sprint Center, in which the Jayhawks spent some time scrimmaging. Normally KU’s shootaround before the Big 12 Tournament does not include much more than players taking layups and jumpers in drills while getting used to the arena background.
“They said no guarantees. You don’t know how fast ... some guys heal at this better. I’m hoping he’s like Perry (Ellis, who sprained MCL three years ago and missed nine days). Perry wasn’t full speed, obviously,” Self added, noting Azubuike will next be examined on Sunday, which is NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday.
Self explained how the injury occurred.
“The ball was shot. He kind of ran around his man to get the rebound. A body kind of crashed into his man (that Azubuike was blocking out) and knocked him off balance and kind of fell against him, total freak (play),” Self said..
Self said the Jayhawk players said, ‘“C’mon Doke get up.’ I was, ‘Let’s go to the other end (of court while Azubuike was treated).’ I could tell the longer he stayed down that Bill (Cowgill, trainer) was concerned. He didn’t have a lot of pain. We did an MRI as soon as practice was over. We got that read and had Dr. (Jeff) Randall examine him after he received the MRI. He basically confirmed everything.”
Self added: “There’s obviously a ligament that is sprained or stretched. Right now it’s too loose to put him back out there. These are injuries I’ve been told the healing process can begin very quickly at 42, 78 hours.”
KU’s coach said 6-8 sophomore Mitch Lightfoot (3.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg) would replace 7-footer Azubuike (13.7 ppg., 7.1 rpg) in the lineup. Freshman De Sousa, 6-9, who will come off the bench, has scored 25 points total and grabbed 18 rebounds while averaging 4.3 minutes in 12 games.
“Silvio (De Sousa) is going to have to play at least Mitch’s minutes. Mitch is going to have to play Doke minutes,” Self said, also joking, “Well, we’ve got a football player that’s out there (walk-on James Sosinski). We may have to play real small. We’ll figure it out. We’re disappointed for him more than anything else because it’s two years in a row.”
Azubuike missed most of last season — including the entire postseason — because of damaged ligaments in his left wrist.
“Definitely,” KU senior guard Devonté Graham said, asked by a reporter if he was “devastated” by the news of Azubuike’s injury. “I just feel bad for him … last year having to deal with that injury. It’s a terrible time. He wants to be out here playing. I just feel bad for him.”
Graham noted that last year as an injured freshman “he was down and depressed. He has a pretty good attitude (now). At shootaround he was real positive.”
Graham noted that not having Azubuike could affect the Jayhawks' offense. “Yeah you can’t throw the ball up to Mitch and Silvio,” he said, noting, “we had a talk this morning. It is what it is. It’ll take a little time (to heal). If it’s a week or two we’ve got to go on and figure out what to do without him, just go win.”
Thursday’s foe, Oklahoma State, defeated KU twice this season — 84-79 on Feb. 3 at Allen Fieldhouse and 82-64 on Saturday at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
“They played so much faster and athletic than us,” Self said of the Cowboys. “Hopefully we’ll respond more favorably next time, come out with a different mindset and different look.”
Graham said: “OSU got the best of us two games in a row. It’ll be a fun game to play them. We just have to play way more tougher and want it more.”
OSU, by the way, is the last team to beat KU three times in a season. It was in 1982-83, Bill Self’s sophomore season in Stillwater. OSU won, 90-83, in the Big Eight Tournament in KC; 75-69, in Lawrence and 85-74 in Stillwater.