LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Udoka Azubuike’s return from injury couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for Kansas. It couldn’t have played out much better, either.
Azubuike scored 23 points and grabbed nine rebounds after an ankle sprain sidelined him for the last four games, leading No. 5 Kansas past Eastern Michigan 87-63 on Saturday in its final tune-up before Big 12 play.
His return comes just four days before the Jayhawks’ (11-1) conference opener against No. 25 Oklahoma, so for him to get a chance to play in live game action — let alone in the dominating fashion he did — was invaluable as the team enters the throes of one of the nation’s toughest conferences.
“It was really important for me moving forward,” Azubuike said. “We understand that the conference (schedule) is coming and all that. This game was really important to me, to the team, to everyone else, just building my confidence up.”
Coach Bill Self said he spoke with Azubuike about the decision to start him this morning, and the junior said he was good to go. Self was hoping he could play around the 20 minutes he did, but didn’t expect as effective of a performance as this.
“He did about as well as I thought he could do,” Self said.
Azubuike’s presence opened helped Kansas thrive offensively as the Jayhawks racked up a season-high 25 assists and had 10 players score. Quentin Grimes was second on the team with 16 points, and Devon Dotson added 15 as well.
“He opens up different opportunities for the offense,” Dotson said of Azubuike. “When you get the angles, you just throw it over to him and get the easy two. He’ll clear up a lane.”
Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy said the Eagles (6-7) prepped and planned for Azubuike to go, but didn’t expect him to play 20 minutes and put up 23 points.
“We didn’t realize he would play as much, but he was super effective,” Murphy said. “Without him tonight, the game could’ve been different, and that’s how much of an impact he was on both ends of the floor.”
John Thompson IV led the way for the Eagles (6-7), finishing with 15 points and 14 rebounds. Paul Jackson had 15 points as well.
The rebounding was even at 42-42, but Eastern Michigan dominated the offensive boards, finishing with 19 to Kansas’ nine.
This was the first-ever meeting between the two schools. The Jayhawks are now 15-1 against members of the Mid-American Conference all-time.
Azubuike being back in the lineup meant a return to a consistent two-big look for the Jayhawks, as they had been switching in some four-out, one-in looks in his absence. This will certainly allow for offensive success like in today’s game, but Self acknowledges that it is a give-and-take.
“I think it’s our best offensive team to play two bigs,” Self said. “And I think it’s arguably not our best defensive team. So we’ll probably just to have to wait depending on the situation.”
Thompson once again feasted on the boards, leading both teams with 14, including seven on offense.
He now has 1,230 career rebounds, the most of any active player and good for No. 26 all-time. He now trails Kennedy McIntosh by 195 for the program record.
Grimes has yet to fully reach his potential as a highly-touted recruit since coming to Kansas, scoring in double figures just three times entering today. But he thrived against the Eagles, a good sign for the Jayhawks moving forward.
“He was great,” Dotson said. “He made the right plays when it was needed, and shot the ball pretty well.”
Eastern Michigan was consistently outmatched, but takes away valuable experience as it begins MAC play.
Kansas gets its inside anchor back in Azubuike and caps its non-conference schedule with an easy victory.
Eastern Michigan returns home for its first MAC tilt, facing another tough foe in No. 21 Buffalo on Friday.
Kansas opens Big 12 play with an early test against No. 25 Oklahoma on Wednesday.