KU’s McCormack ‘sorry’ Azubuike is out for season, ‘but now it’s time to step up’

By Gary Bedore gbedore@kcstar.com

David McCormack didn’t actually see fellow Kansas big man Udoka Azubuike’s painful hand injury at practice on Friday.

“I was in a different drill, a little bit farther away. Once he said it was nagging him, bothering him (after getting it hit), I was there for emotional support, asking him if there was anything I could do to help,” said McCormack KU’s 6-foot-10, 265-pound power forward out of Oak Hill (Va.) Academy.

The freshman once again was there for 7-foot, 270-pound junior pivot Azubuike on Sunday, when it was revealed that the Delta, Nigeria native would miss the rest of the season because of a torn ligament in his right hand.

“I told him, ‘We are here for you of course for any emotional support, to hang out, anything,’” a concerned McCormack said.

While feeling sorry for fellow McDonald’s All-American Azubuike, McCormack also realizes injuries are part of the game of college basketball and the show, as they say, must go on.

He said he’s prepared for an increased role Wednesday when the No. 7-ranked Jayhawks (12-2, 1-1) take on No. 25 TCU (12-1, 1-0) in an 8 p.m. tipoff at Allen Fieldhouse.

“I’m sorry of course it happened, but now it’s time to step up. The team needs to be even more collective, be more of a group,” said McCormack. He has averaged 2.5 points (on 51.9 percent shooting), 2.4 rebounds and 7.2 minutes played per game.

“We got together, had a meeting,” McCormack revealed of the KU team, which is seeking a 15th straight Big 12 regular-season title. “It was general … just to step up as a team. When any one person goes down in any type of organized team, everybody has to become one unit even closer just to fill in that gap. That’s what we talked about.”

Of his own role, McCormack stated: “I think I’ve been productive in the time I get out there, but now when I get more time, I’ll just keep that same consistency, stay productive and do what I can to bring energy that I always do.”

Whether coach Bill Self decides to go big with McCormack or 6-8 Mitch Lightfoot (2.0 points and 2.4 rebounds per game) playing next to 6-9 Dedric Lawson — or goes small with 6-5 Marcus Garrett starting at the 4 spot — KU’s coach will be asking multiple players for increased productivity.

“It’ll be a collective effort by everybody. Everybody could do more,” Self said. “This is not a lost deal by any means, but certainly not the ideal situation to kind of have to revamp who you are after conference play starts.”

KU enters the TCU game 9-0 in games in which Azubuike appeared; 3-2 in games without the 7-footer, who missed four games because of a severely sprained right ankle as well as Saturday’s loss to Iowa State because of the hand injury that will keep Azubuike off the court until this summer.

“Doke didn’t give that verbal leadership or anything like that. He did give us a security blanket when he was out there,” Self said of Azubuike, KU’s third-leading scorer (13.4 points per game) and second-leading rebounder (6.8).

“We’ve got to have somebody willing to get out of their comfort zone and attack it,” Self added.

Self mentioned freshman point guard Devon Dotson as “probably the best prospect to do that.”

Dotson, who has averaged 11.3 points and 2.9 assists, said he and several of his teammates are ready to embrace the upcoming challenge.

“I mean really it’s next man up,” Dotson said. “As a team you have to have the mindset of next man up. It could be anybody. Anybody could step up (for the team) to move forward.

“I feel we all can have a moment where we can bring guys together,” Dotson added. “It doesn’t have to be one person all the time. It can be a team thing, just come together as one, all of us playing together.”

McCormack said KU’s big men now must concentrate on “rim protection.” Azubuike had 14 blocks in nine games played; Lawson has 14 blocks, Lightfoot eight and McCormack six.

On the offensive end, McCormack said he’s been taught by assistant Norm Roberts “many ways to just slow down, look around and see what’s going on. Once he tells me, I can feel it in the game and that becomes a bit more evident. That (slowing down) helps my game as well as the ball movement on the court.”

Azubuike hit 55 of 78 shots this season for 70.5 percent. Lawson has cashed 50 percent of his shots and Lightfoot 55 percent to McCormack’s 51.9.

“Our low post presence has been eliminated in some ways but not totally,” Self said. “We’ve got to get David and Mitch where they are doing a good job in executing what we are trying to do. We can do that.”

TCU, which has won nine straight games, opened conference play with an 85-81 win over Baylor on Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Horned Frogs lead the Big 12 in field-goal percentage (49.9) and also in assists (20.2), thanks to distributor Alex Robinson, a senior guard who averages 8.7 assists a game to go with his 13.5 scoring average.

“The ball is in his hands and he’s really, really fast. He’s experienced,” Self said of Robinson.

Junior guard Desmond Bane averages 14.4 points and 5.5 rebounds. Junior guard Jaylen Fisher, who did not play against Baylor because of a knee injury, averages 12.2 points and has cashed 30 threes in nine games played. Sophomore forward Kouat Noi contributes 13.2 points per game.

“Their guards are good,” Self said. “If you look at the matchup on paper, you may say that may be a situation that, obviously, we need to be concerned with. They’ve got enough guys that you’ve got to defend the post, but primarily they are spreading it and they are putting the ball in Robinson’s hands and letting him make plays. That’s hard to guard,” Self added.

“The thing about it is it is certainly a big game. We are playing another top-ranked team. We are playing a team at home.”

KU will travel to Baylor on Saturday for a 3 p.m. tipoff, then plays host to Texas on Monday in an 8 p.m. tip. That’s three games in six days, all without Azubuike.

“We do not need to say we are shorthanded any more. We do not need to say, ’Well you don’t have Doke. You are playing shorthanded.’ We are not shorthanded. This is who we’ve got. We’ve got it in us. This team has a lot of pride. We’ve got it in us,” Self said.

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