KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas forward Udoka Azubuike sprained his left knee during a scrimmage this week, ruling him out of the Big 12 Tournament and putting his availability for the NCAA Tournament in question.
Jayhawks coach Bill Self said after a scrimmage at the Sprint Center that Azubuike sprained his medial collateral ligament near the end of Tuesday’s practice. Azubuike was going for a rebound and a collision occurred under the basket, leaving the 7-footer with a “Grade 1” sprain.
“We did an MRI as soon as practice was over,” Self said Wednesday. “It’s similar to an ankle or whatnot, there’s obviously a ligament that’s sprained or stretched and right now it’s too loose to put him out there, but these are injuries, I’ve been told, the healing process begins quickly.”
The ninth-ranked Jayhawks (24-7) open the Big 12 Tournament on Thursday against the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State winner, and Self said his sophomore big man won’t be examined by doctors until Sunday.
That means backup forward Mitch Lightfoot will start in the post, and freshman Silvio De Sousa — who became eligible a couple months ago — will be forced to play more meaningful minutes.
“Silvio is going to have to play at least Mitch’s minutes, and Mitch is going to have to play Doke’s minutes,” Self said. “I wish it had happened two days ago, we could have practiced playing five guards, but we’ll have to deal with what we have.”
Azubuike, who is averaging 13.7 points and 7.1 rebounds, missed most of last season with a wrist injury. And his latest injury, which Self called a “freak accident,” merely continues a rough streak of absences for crucial players by the time the Big 12 and NCAA tournament rolls around.
Last season, star freshman Josh Jackson was suspended for the Big 12 tourney opener for a series of off-the-court incidents, and the Jayhawks promptly lost to TCU in their quarterfinal matchup.
Big man Joel Embiid missed the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments three years ago because of a back injury. Fellow big man Cliff Alexander missed all of March the following season due to an investigation into impermissible benefits. And another big man, Cheick Diallo, needed stitches after taking an elbow to his mouth and wound up sitting out a game in the Big 12 Tournament in 2016.
Azubuike’s injury is nearly identical to a sprained MCL that Perry Ellis sustained a few years ago, causing the Jayhawks’ forward to miss just over a week prior to the Big 12 Tournament.
The Jayhawks are the No. 1 seed for the league tournament after winning the regular-season crown for a record 14th consecutive year. But they are hardly the clear-cut favorite in Kansas City, and the injury to Azubuike may not even make them the favorite in their opener.
They’ll either face national player-of-the-year candidate Trae Young and Oklahoma, which split with the Jayhawks in the regular season, or Oklahoma State, which swept them quite easily.
Asked whether the Jayhawks will be able to cope without their big man, Big 12 player of the year Devonte Graham replied: “We’re going to have to be. We don’t have a choice.”
“I just feel bad for him, last year having the injury,” Graham said. “Just terrible timing.”