WACO, Texas — Kansas is the current favorite to win the 2020 national title for a few reasons, but Saturday afternoon provided the most obvious of all: Udoka Azubuike is a unique, dominant, irreplaceable and inimitable college basketball player. He has no current or recent analog.
Kansas’ national title chances would rest on his shoulders if his traps didn’t get in the way.
KU boasts a big no opponent can match. There are college big men — some of them really good — and then there is the Hulk they call “Doke,” a specimen handling, or hurling, destruction among the mortals. You know: 6-foot-8, 230-pound players. Those type of guys.
No. 3 Kansas avenged its 12-point home loss to Baylor on Jan. 11 by busting into the Bears’ home arena and strong-arming the top-ranked team with a 64-61 win. The outcome kills Baylor’s school- and Big 12-record 23-game win streak (last L: Nov. 8 to Washington in Anchorage, Alaska) and puts a knot atop the league standings. BU and KU are now 13-1 in league play, each with four games to go. Kansas now has the Big 12’s longest winning streak at 12.
After Saturday, it’s hard to see when or how it will lose again. It might take another game against Baylor. It might take a game in the Final Four.
Saturday reminded us, thanks to elite defense that can bow but won’t crack, that the Big 12’s two best teams also may well be the two best groups in college basketball.
Bears coach Scott Drew called it the hottest ticket in school history. All-American couple Chip and Joanna Gaines — of “Fixer Upper” fame — were of course on hand, as was 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and former BU basketball standouts Curtis Jerrells and Rico Gathers. “College GameDay” made only its second appearance in Waco for basketball, prompting approximately 850 students to camp out overnight for first-come-first-serve tickets.
They all watched Azubuike lord over the Ferrell Center. The 7-foot, 270-pound senior waited until Kansas’ biggest game of the 2019-20 regular season to have the best game of his career: 23 points on 11-of-13 shooting, a personal-best 19 rebounds, three blocks. No turnovers. Eight of his 11 made field goals were dunks.
The sense of relief in the building was palpable for Baylor and its backers whenever Azubuike would take a breather on the bench — which was rare; he played 36 minutes — and then the dread came as soon as he was tapped to head back in. One lob after another, catching bodies. A decisive sequence came when Kansas held a 58-53 lead with 2:45 left. Baylor big Mark Vital — one of the 10 best defenders in the sport — had no one coming to take a hand-off from him near the 3-point line. Vital, who’s strong as an ox, opted to push his way into the paint.
Azubuike was there for the stop.
On the next possession, Devon Dotson made a run to the hoop, missed, and it was Azubuike on time again to pick up the trash and throw it down to give Kansas a seven-point lead it would need just a couple of possessions later.
“I wouldn’t be able to do this my freshman year,” he said.
Doke learned how to defend a high ball screen. Uh-oh.
“We don’t score the ball as easily at five feet or seven feet like some other guys do,” Kansas coach Bill Self told CBS Sports. “So he needs to get an angle, and we were able to do that. So that was big. But they’re so good defensively and so sound, and they guarded us so well the first time that we just figured we needed to try some things much different than what we did the first time.”
“Azubuike was everywhere. He was everything for them today, much more than when we played at their place.” Baylor coach Scott Drew
Doke dunk after Doke dunk, the lobs from Dotson and others lashing Baylor’s attempts to cut into the Jayhawks’ lead, which it held for 37 of the game’s 40 minutes.
Baylor had not trailed in the second half but for one game in its past 19. It had not trailed by more than two points at home this season. Then Doke walked into the joint.
“Azubuike was everywhere,” Baylor coach Scott Drew told CBS Sports afterward. “He was everything for them today, much more than when we played at their place.”
Unlike Baylor’s win in January at KU, wherein Azubuike (six points, seven blocks) was screened to success multiple times and wound up gassed with five minutes to go, he rallied and held on Saturday. Huffing, puffing but still overpowering on many possessions in the final few minutes. Considering the stakes, opponent and defensive assignments he was given, Azubuike put on one of the best performances we’ll see from any college basketball player this season.
He was proud and a little defiant afterward. Had every right to be, too.
“I was just kind of emotional, a lot of people say, ‘Oh he can’t do this, oh he can’t do that,'” Azubuike said. “All my life l have been looked down on, every team. So to get out here playing and giving it all to my teammates and everybody, it just makes me emotional.”
His growth is one of the most impactful developments in college basketball. In the past year or so he’s shed nearly 20 pounds, taken a chisel to his body and become so much more versatile because of it. He’s no longer just huge and intimidating, a big that’s big and menacing and fundamentally flawed despite his dimensions. He’s cut, stronger than ever, improving in endurance and has more than a knack — it’s a full-blown habit — on how to work around the rim to most efficient means.
The man’s also an All-American candidate, having done so after losing the second half of his junior season to injury. Azubuike might turn into the national player of the year … if Dotson doesn’t beat him to it. Heading into Saturday’s game, Dotson ranked first, Azubuike eighth at KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings. When those refresh on Sunday morning, Azubuike is sure to jump.
“We’re solid and a team that can make a run late in March,” Dotson said. “We’re not going to get complacent from this one, going to build off it. We’re going to enjoy this win but build off it for sure.”
Kansas has two of the 10 best players in college basketball, a small man/big man combo that’s as valuable as any Self has coached in his 17 seasons with the Jayhawks.
Kansas’ Udoka Azubuike was simply to strong for Baylor on Saturday.
“They’re terrific,” Self said. “You’re looking at Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich or Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur. We’ve had some pretty good guys, some pretty good twosomes. I don’t know that we’ve relied on two guys more than what we rely on those two, though. They have help but they’re not getting near as much offensive help as what I think we’re capable of giving them. So it puts a lot of pressure on them. Dot, when he makes shots — he made six 3s last game and what did he get 29 or whatever — and today he obviously didn’t get as many looks and didn’t make as many shots. He’s so fast and he puts pressure on the defense. Even though he didn’t have a great offensive game, you look at the stat sheet and he still gets his 13 or 14 and plays 40 minutes.”
After an initial punch from BU put the Bears up 5-0, Kansas returned with a 9-0 run and never trailed again. It was only the second time since Dec. 1 that Baylor faced a halftime deficit. That edge wound up being important, particularly after Baylor almost sneaked in through the backdoor to force overtime. Baylor only held a lead for three minutes of game time; it led for at least 33 minutes of game time of every other home game this season.
But Kansas is different. The Jayhawks holding a lead for most of the day was important because that’s not a position Baylor’s accustomed to. It didn’t fold because of it, but in the next month we may come to learn that the only way to beat Baylor is to get ahead of the Bears and then cling to that lead any way possible in order to hang on.
“By no means did we control the game start to finish,” Self said. “But we did control it because we played with the lead a little bit. When they beat us at our place, they controlled the game more at our place than we did here. But it’s such a difference when you get to five and push it back to nine or eleven. Up until the very end, we were able to do that. That was big. We made enough good plays offensively when it looked like the momentum could turn to kind of keep them at arm’s length.”
Self opted out of fouling on the game’s final possession, a gamble that paid off, but had Jared Butler’s 3-point attempt gone in (Drew told me he and his team fully expected a Kansas foul in that spot), a foul-hampered Kansas might have run out of options. Azubuike and Dotson ended the game with four fouls; KU’s second best big, David McCormack, fouled out. Drew told me he thought that, had the game extended to overtime, Baylor would have had them.
Hopefully we’ll get lucky and see these teams play at least once more, perhaps even twice. If we’re to get the rare four-time matchup in a season, that will require a Big 12 title game square-off and another head-to-head in the Final Four.
“I’d be fine not seeing them in the Big 12, but it would be great at the Final Four, great for our conference as well,” Drew said.
These teams remain top-two status in terms of NCAA Tournament seeding. Kansas leapfrogs Baylor for best résumé, while Baylor taking just its second loss keeps it ahead of undefeated San Diego State and one-loss Gonzaga. With how good both defenses looked, Baylor takes no reputation dent with this loss.
“I think Baylor is the best team that we have played against since I’ve been in the league the last 17 years,” Self said. “I think you could look at Oklahoma State in ’04 and you can look at Tech in ’19, but I think at the same stage Baylor has played better than both of those teams at the same stage.”
That’s a bit of a wow quote from Self; the Big 12’s been the best league in college basketball the past six seasons. But to watch Baylor this season is to see a team with arguably the highest floor in hoops. It didn’t even have MaCio Teague at full strength. Teague had missed real reps for nearly two weeks and, though it was right to play him, he’ll need another four or five days of practice to get back into his true form.
Sometimes national titles happen because teams have something about them no others can emulate. Kansas has been cruising as the No. 1-rated team in predictive college basketball metrics for weeks because of its brutally dominant defense and hyper-efficient offense, particularly from inside the 3-point arc. The common denominator is more than an uncommon player: Udoka Azubuike is a unique force all his own and Kansas’ best hope for a second national title under Self.