Trust in his recovery from a sprained ankle was the challenge Udoka Azubuike faced when he returned recently from a four-game absence.
Consider the ankle trustworthy.
The Kansas junior center got in one tune-up before the start of Big 12 play and made the most of it, posting 23 points and nine rebounds in 20 minutes against Eastern Michigan. His output was an encouraging boost to the No. 5 Jayhawks' conference title defense as they begin Big 12 play Wednesday at home against No. 23 Oklahoma.
"All I had to (do was) go out there and trust my feet and my legs and take it one play at a time," Azubuike said, confirming his ankle, which he injured in a Dec. 4 win against Wofford was not yet 100 percent. "It's a process. I'm getting there, I've been working hard every time I go to practice," he said. "I still do rehab and go every time. So, it's still going to take me a little bit."
With Azubuike back in the lineup, Kansas (11-1) is not as dependent on four-guard lineups.
That could be viewed as positive or negative.
Junior forward Dedric Lawson, a Memphis transfer, generated four double-doubles with Azubuike out, but deferred more in the Eastern Michigan win.
The positive was that Lawson, a player Kansas coach Bill Self has described as one of his best passers ever, distributed five assists after moving into the high post offensively.
"We'll just get back to playing how we were playing earlier in the year," Lawson said. "That high-low action, guys come up, drive and knock down the open shot."
Lawson still averages a double-double with 19.6 points and 10.8 rebounds as one of three first-year starters looking to help bring Kansas a 15th consecutive Big 12 crown.
"We certainly will focus on the things you have to do to be consistently good over a span of two and a half months, which isn't easy to do," Self said of the 18-game league grind. "You need to be kind of even keel. There will be peaks and valleys, but they don't need to be spikes."
Oklahoma (11-1) has won seven straight behind a deep roster that features nine players averaging at least 14 minutes. The Sooners are led by senior guard Christian James with a 17.9-point average and double-doubles in four of the last five games.
Since a Dec. 21 overtime win at Northwestern, the Sooners have endured a long holiday layoff, though their nonconference success proved them capable of overcoming the loss of last year's scoring sensation, Trae Young.
"This group is going to do it as a group," Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. "I don't know that anyone is going to lead in scoring and assists as Trae did, but this group is motivated, and they are showing they can get good results."
Among six seniors who contribute is center Jamuni McNeace, who has recovered from an ankle injury. McNeace, an athletic senior with 18 blocks, returned to the starting lineup against Northwestern and will be counted on to contain Azubuike.
Updated January 2, 2019