LAWRENCE, Kan. — Kansas coach Bill Self is optimistic that big man Udoka Azubuike will be available when the top-seeded Jayhawks open the NCAA Tournament against No. 16 seed Penn on Thursday.
The 7-foot sophomore hurt a ligament in his left knee on Tuesday, sidelining him for the ninth-ranked Jayhawks’ run to the Big 12 Tournament title. He returned to the floor for a light workout on Sunday and Self said he could practice with the rest of the team on Monday.
“His recovery he’s made so far has been even more than what doctors and trainers had thought it would be,” Self said. “We’re very, very optimistic we’ll have him this weekend. Whether we have him for Thursday — 48 hours can make a big difference. But we’re hopeful he can play Thursday and if we are fortunate enough to advance, we’re even more optimistic he can play Saturday.”
The Jayhawks begin their NCAA Tournament trek in Wichita, a couple hours’ drive south of their campus in Lawrence. That means they should have a massive advantage for their first-round game against Penn and a potential second-round game against North Carolina State or Seton Hall.
Azubuike has been a dominant force in the paint this season, averaging 13.7 points and 7.1 boards while giving the Jayhawks their only consistent low-post presence.
“I don’t know that he can be 100 percent,” Self said after learning the Jayhawks’ seed, “but there are a lot of guys who sprain an ankle and they’re not 100 percent and you still play because there’s not a risk of hurting it more. But they still play because they’re just a little sore.”
Some of the pressure to get Azubuike back on the floor was assuaged with the emergence of Silvio De Sousa during the Big 12 Tournament. The 6-foot-9 forward, who joined the team after graduating from high school in December, had 16 points and 10 rebounds against West Virginia in the title game.
De Sousa held his own against physical Mountaineers big man Sagaba Konate, giving the Jayhawks a certain toughness they might have lacked without Azubuike in the lineup.
“It could weigh into our decision” on how much Azubuike plays against Penn, Self said, “but we wouldn’t put him out there before he’s ready anyway.”
As for the Jayhawks’ draw in the Midwest Region, the affable Self stopped short of calling it a bloodbath. But he did point out that second-seeded Duke and No. 3 seed Michigan State join Kansas in the annual Champions Classic, and the trio was among the top four teams in the preseason Top 25.
“If Michigan State and Duke both play well,” Self said, “they would be two of the heaviest favorites to win the national championship.”
Kansas could be a strong contender, too, considering the road they would travel. If they get through the opening weekend in Wichita, they would head to Omaha for the Sweet 16 — another short drive for the faithful and a site where the Jayhawks have been successful in the past.
“The advantage is your fans get an opportunity to come see you play,” Self said. “We’ve never been to Wichita and look forward to doing that, but if we’re fortunate to win two games, Omaha is kind of home-away-from-home during the NCAA Tournament.”