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Kansas Jayhawks hold off Tennessee Volunteers behind dominant effort from Udoka Azubuike

Udoka Azubuike had a day to remember on Saturday as his Kansas Jayhawks knocked off the Tennessee Volunteers 74-68 for KU’s fourth straight victory.

The senior didn’t have any depth behind him against the Volunteers, with both junior forward Silvio de Sousa and sophomore forward David McCormack suspended for their roles in Tuesday’s brawl with Kansas State. Despite foul trouble and heavy reliance on him on both ends of the floor, Azubuike made an impact that Tennessee couldn’t overcome.

While his ability to score at the rim was crucial, Azubuike was even better on the defensive end of the floor. He protected the rim phenomenally, racking up four blocks among several other key plays, including an intercepted lob near the end of the game.

That element of Azubuike’s game is one of the reasons why the Jayhawks are arguably the best team in the country, and coach Bill Self said after the game that he thinks his senior has evolved into one of the nation’s best defensive players.

“I think we have two players in my opinion, even though we didn’t play good defense today like we had, but we have two players who should be in consideration for Big 12 player of the year defensively,” Self said, referring to Azubuike and junior guard Marcus Garrett. “I think, to me, Dok is as good of defender as there is.”

Kansas needed that defensive effort and production desperately, because without Azubuike on the floor Tennessee was able to keep the game close and even led by as many as seven during the first half. The Volunteers took advantage against a smaller Jayhawks group without their center, but didn’t have an answer any time he came back out.

“It’s not like we’re going to change our offense because of one of their players,” Tennessee junior forward John Fulkerson said. “However, he is a great player.”

Between the defensive domination and scoring inside, Azubuike both took pressure off the rest of the team defensively, and opened up more opportunities for drives and open looks from three.

“When we had Dok in the game we were at our best, both offensively and defensively,” sophomore guard Ochai Agbaji said.

The Jayhawks were +19 with Azubuike on the floor this weekend.

As a last-ditch effort late in the second half, Tennessee attempted the “Poke-a-Dok” strategy, intentionally fouling him to force him to shoot free throws. That strategy last just one possession, however, after Azubuike sank a pair from the line.

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said the made shots weren’t why he went away from the strategy, rather other issues on the court forced his hand.

“You know what, maybe we made him better today,” Barnes said.

Self said that, subtly, those two free throws were among the biggest plays of the game.

Azubuike finished with 18 points on 6-of-7 shooting, and went 6-of-11 from three free throw line overall.

Due to McCormack’s suspension, this was the first time all season Azubuike was the lone starting big man for the Jayhawks. Senior guard Isaiah Moss made his first start for Kansas along with the regular starting group, which has actually been the most efficient lineup for KU this year.

Barnes said that Kansas’ four out, one in lineups are difficult to guard, but due to aforementioned foul trouble for Azubuike the Jayhawks had to play a five-guard lineup at times, with either freshman Tristan Enaruna or a combination of players handling duties near the rim.

Sophomore guard Devon Dotson said that it was a challenge to adjust to that lineup, but that it’s also something Kansas has practiced this year in case there are no post players available.

“It can be challenging, because you know how much of a presence [Azubuike] brings when he’s on the court,” Dotson said. “It was an adjustment, but it’s something we worked on in practice … I feel like we did a pretty good job.”

Dotson had another big game in his own right, scoring a team-high 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting. He also dished out seven assists, his third-highest total of the season.

Tennessee senior guard Jordan Bowden, who played for the Volunteers in a loss to Kansas last season, said that it’s Dotson and the guards who make the Jayhawks such a tough matchup.

“They still have good guard play,” Bowden said. “You know they’re still a great team and they continue to get better.”

The win for Kansas was significant for the sake of its record, adding a Quadrant 2 win and to get the program’s attention off the brawl at the Sunflower Showdown. Self said that the Jayhawks still didn’t start out as well as they could have, given their desire to move on from Tuesday night.

“I thought today would have been the easiest game of the year to get up for with the week that we had,” Self said. “Getting out of here with a ‘W’ is probably just what we needed.”

Kansas has a quick turnaround, with its return to conference play Monday night on the road against the Oklahoma State Cowboys. They won their Big 12/SEC Challenge game on Saturday as well, beating Texas A&M.

Click below to hear what Bill Self and the Jayhawks had to say after Saturday’s 74-68 win:

Bill Self

Ochai Agbaji, Udoka Azubuike, Devon Dotson


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