Final Four Notebook: Azubuike Has A Special Cheering Section


SAN ANTONIO – NCAA president Mark Emmert artfully and cleverly tap danced over and around the landmines that have been exploding around college basketball. Emmert, who earns nearly $2 million in compensation, held his annual “state of the union Q and A Thursday. He bobbed and weaved like Ali trapped in a corner.

Nothing substantive was said about the FBI probe that has been a black eye for college basketball. An organization that set a record for income still clings to the amateur model that started failing the moment it was originally invented. Between the “cup police,” the scripted nature of everything but the games plus the increasing corporate influence it’s easy to brand the NCAA as most corrupt organization outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

However, the college sports cartel based in Indianapolis occasionally overcomes its ham-fisted image by doing something worthwhile.

In January 2015, the NCAA announced a program that would fund the travel for parents of players participating in the men’s and women’s Final Fours. (The College Football Playoff has a similar program.) The NCAA provides $3,000 to $4,000 for parents to travel to the Final Fours. That’s a pittance for an organization that banks over $1 billion a year (yes, much of that largesse is distributed to member schools.)

Kansas sophomore Udoka Azubuike, who is from Nigeria, will benefit from the NCAA charity. If Florence Azubuike’s flights are on time, she’ll see her son play basketball for the first time in Saturday’s semifinal with Villanova. It will also be the first time that son has seen mother in six years.

“It would really mean a lot. I have not seen her in a long time,” said Azubuike, who has kept in contact by phone and occasional FaceTime chats. “She has never watched me play basketball ever. She doesn’t know anything about basketball. She really doesn’t understand it. It’ll be fun for her to see me play.”

Azubuike, who is 18, came to the United States with his mother’s blessing. He said she put a bible in his hand and told him to let God be his guide. He lived with a host family in Florida, worked on his basketball skills and earned a scholarship at Kansas.

“We had a lot of hardship back there,” said Azubuike, who averages 13.1 per game and leads KU in rebounding. “There was a lot of bad stuff happening. When the opportunity came for me to travel to come to the U.S. to play basketball and go to school, I didn’t think twice about it. My mom was excited about it too. She was raising five kids (he is the youngest) without a dad, just my mom.”

From a strategic point of view, Azubuike’s power game and ability to avoid foul trouble could be huge factors against the Wildcats. From an emotional point of view, the mother and son reunion might trump anything that happens on the court at the Alamodome.

“He lost his father, I think, when he was in seventh or eighth grade,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of his sophomore center’s background. “If you can imagine, she loved her son so much that she sent him away when he’s 14 or 13. How hard would that be?

“We want to win the game, but is winning the game more important than to make sure there’s not a little distraction for Doke? Of course not. … Can you imagine, you’ve never seen your son play basketball and the first time you do it is in front of 70,000 people at this thing? I can’t even imagine what’s going to be going through her mind.”

Loyola bucks the system … for now

No. 11 seed Making the Final Four would not have happened if the Ramblers had not won the Missouri Valley Conference’s automatic bid. That three-game winning streak made it possible to win four NCAA Tournament games. The pressure of winning conference tourney games to gain entrance is far greater than what follows.

And imagine this: the nation could have been deprived of the Sister Jean Phenomenon.

Your Veteran Scribe is convinced there’s unofficial collusion in college hoops. The top seven conferences have no reason to schedule teams like Loyola or Stephen F. Austin or Marshall or Buffalo … or any other teams that could be a dangerous foe. It’s all about the units and the more schools a power conference can place in the field, the more chances to advance and gain more units (and, eventually, more money.)

Loyola coach Porter Moser didn’t use the “C” word but he made it clear Friday that scheduling for his program has been and will be challenging. Success doesn’t always breed success.

“I had a Power Five school buy out of a game this year not to play,” he said. “The last three weeks, my coach that’s in charge of scheduling, it’s even harder. It bothers a lot of other coaches in the country with the scheduling at our level is they, like, blame us for our schedule. Like, well, ‘He scheduled really weak’ That is not the case.”

Moser, whose team won a “buy” game at Florida in December, said he has a list of over 100 calls his staff has made to schedule home and home series and have been turned down.

“We want a hard schedule,” he said. “And that’s what I think bothers us the most where it’s like you’re blamed for not having a tough schedule. It’s like that’s not — we’re trying our tails off.”

Tony Bennett: good humor man

Virginia coach Tony Bennett was named The Associated Press coach of the year Thursday. The Cavaliers’ coach rarely attends the Final Four but he was in San Antonio to pick up the hardware and will probably add honors from at least one other organization this weekend.

The 48-year-old Bennett was named AP coach of the year in 2007 when he was a rising star at Washington State. And it appears the Biggest Upset Ever in NCAA Tournament history has not left visible scars. Two weeks ago, Virginia was the overall No. 1 seed but became the first top seed to lose to a No. 16 seed when UMBC dominated the Cavaliers, 74-54.



At the news conference Thursday, the second question asked the AP representative about the voting and it was explained the ballots were filed at the end of the regular season.

“I thought it was for the NCAA Tournament Coach of the Year,” Bennett said, evoking laughter. “I didn’t get that? I wasn’t sure.” He later told a small group of reporters that he has been overwhelmed by the number of coaches who contacted him with uplifting messages. “I think they were just glad that it was me who was the first to lose as a one seed,” he said.

Fast breaks

  • Michigan picks up the villain role previously played by Kansas State in the regional final. The third-seeded Wolverines will try to end the season for Gryffindor – sorry, Loyola – the 11th-seeded Cinderella story. “What else is new,” Michigan’s Moe Wagner said when asked about being the team wearing the black hats. “I mean, at a certain point you have to embrace it and have fun with it. The whole Cinderella story is cool but we’re just trying to win basketball games.”

  • A virtual high five to Villanova coach Jay Wright. In his opening comments Thursday, Wright mentioned veteran Associated Press college basketball writer Jim O’Connell, who has been battling health issues. “I would also like to throw a shout out to a good friend, Jim O’Connell, who is not here,” Wright said. “It’s not the same without him. We miss him.” Concur and co-sign that 100 percent.

  • Of the 59 “experts” who made Final Four predictions for ESPN, CBSSports, Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports, Yahoo Sports and The Athletic, only two predicted No. 1 seed Kansas would make it to the San Antonio.