Tom Keegan: Udoka encouraged by pace of knee recovery

photo by: Nick Krug

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) gets up for a rebound over Seton Hall forward Sandro Mamukelashvili (23) during the first half, Saturday, March 17, 2018 in Wichita, Kan.

Omaha, Neb. — The moment Kansas center Udoka Azubuike earned 100 percent credibility on the topic of the fitness of his left knee was the moment he answered the question as to whether he had recovered 100 percent.

“Obviously, not 100 percent, but I’m getting there,” Azubuike said from his locker chair.

He had no reason to lie. He’s feeling a lot better, and is encouraged enough by the truth that he need not resort to trying to convince himself he’s better off than he really is.

He still wears a brace, even to sleep, removing it only when he showers.

“The doctor recommended me to sleep with it,” he said. “It helps my MCL stay together.”

An athlete trying to fool himself might say he doesn’t even notice he has it on.

“I’m still getting used to playing with it,” Azubuike said. “It takes a while. Running around, you feel that you have a brace on, and when I’m jumping, I kind of feel it.”

It didn’t keep him from making Kansas a completely different team for the 22 minutes he played against Seton Hall from the squad that Angel Delgado dominated for 18 minutes when Udoka sat.

Now that we’ve established his credibility on the topic of his injury, we can trust him to compare his health now to last Saturday.

“I feel way different,” Azubuike said. “My conditioning, my knee. The time we had between games really helped me a lot with rehab and with having time to get in better shape.”

He knows knee pain isn’t a thing of the past, particularly at certain moments during the game.

“On defense, sliding my feet kind of gets me a little bit,” he said.

And then there is the issue of conditioning.

In the Seton Hall game, his wind was noticeably compromised, compared to before the injury, and it will be tested by Clemson’s 6-foot-9, 251-pound center Elijah Thomas.

“He’s strong,” Azubuike said. “Thomas can really run in transition and he posts up really hard and can rebound. He can run. He can really run the floor. He’s pretty tough.”

So’s Azubuike, in every sense of the word. He has showed toughness in playing through pain and he’s tough to handle in the post. Let him anywhere near the hoop, and he’ll let his defender quickly know just how extraordinary is his jumping ability for a man his size, how long his arms stretch, the total reliability of his hands and, of course, his brute strength.

Experience has made him more decisive in the post, and if he’s not in dunking range and doesn’t have an opening to step his way into a hook shot over either his left or right shoulder, he has found another productive target for the ball. He spots re-emerging teammate Lagerald Vick cutting to the hoop and sets him up for an easy two points with a short pass.

Kansas senior guard Devonte’ Graham liked what he saw of his biggest teammate in practice during the week.

“He’s been looking great,” Graham said. “He’s trying to get back in shape. He’s been doing a good job of staying out on the floor. And his knee looks great. And he looks more explosive than he did last game. So he’s definitely going up.”

Looking at it in terms used for baseball starting pitchers, KU’s sophomore 7-foot, 280-pound center from Nigeria will be playing on five-days’ rest.

If Kansas can advance to the regional final vs. either Syracuse or, more likely, Duke, he’ll be playing on one days’ rest.

How did the knee feel the day after he played 22 minutes in Wichita?

“It was sore, but it wasn’t that bad,” Azubuike said.

He was back to running full speed in Tuesday’s practice, rebuilding his stamina sprinting up and down the floor.

“He’s doing great,” Kansas coach Bill Self said before Thursday’s practice. “He may be a little sore, but not much, not as much as they anticipated.”

Azubuike is rightly proud of how his recovery is progressing.

“A lot of people, even my doctor, didn’t know that I was going to come back in this little, short period of time,” Azubuike said.