Azubuike will have bigger role this year

November 02, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

Scoring is not something Kelenna Azubuike could always do. In fact, he remembers a time when his sport of choice was soccer, not basketball.

"I really didn't like basketball when I was young. I played soccer and was a pretty good player," said Azubuike. "It helped my coordination. But I always got banged up so much. People were always kicking me.

"Because of my brother, I got interested in basketball. If it wasn't for him, I might still be playing soccer."

Instead, Azubuike goes into his sophomore season at Kentucky being counted on to help offset the loss of last year's leading scorer, Keith Bogans.

Azubuike led the state of Oklahoma his last two years of high school. However, he averaged just 3.7 points and 8.4 minutes per game last year.


"I sort of expected that," Azubuike said. "I knew I would have a lot to learn, but at the same time I wanted to play more than I did. Yet I knew we had a lot of players that could play a lot of positions and I knew Keith was at my spot. That made it tough for me to get much playing time because he had such a great year. But it still turned out to be a great learning experience."

Apparently he's always been a fast learner.

"My role in high school was to score and that's what I did," Azubuike said. "But I can remember times when I was not a very good player. One time I was late for a YMCA game. As soon as I walked into the gym, I just ran straight into the game. I was used to playing, so when I saw the game was going on, I just ran right in. I didn't know any better.

"I can still remember when I scored my first two points, too. I stopped and starting jumping up and down like I had won a championship. Again, I didn't know any better. I control my emotions a little better now."

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith liked the patience Azubuike displayed last year. However, he would like to see him be a bit more intense this season.

"He's still got to understand the intensity it takes to play with on both ends of the court," Smith said. "We still have a lot of depth.

"You earn playing time in practice and he'll have to earn his spot just like everybody else. But he gained a lot of valuable experience last year, and there's no doubt he could be a huge help for us.

"He is a competitive guy. He also epitomizes what a true student-athlete is. Whatever he does, he does it with class on or off the court. He'll eventually be rewarded for that because he's willing to make sacrifices to make a team better."

Azubuike originally committed to Oklahoma before realizing that was not the best choice for him.

"I just sort of got caught up in recruiting," Azubuike said. "When I looked hard at Kentucky, I realized that was the best situation for me. I just said yes to Oklahoma too quick. Fortunately, I realized that and wound up here where I could learn more and become a better player."

He didn't worry him that Kentucky became "Team Turmoil" during his senior year of high school. He kept the faith in Smith and his decision to join the Kentucky program.

"For some reason, I was never worried about all the bad stuff even though I knew about it," Azubuike said. "It was always in the back of my head that it would not be like that when I got to Kentucky.

"I'm always optimistic. I just thought things would be fine and that we would have a chance to win a championship every year. There was nothing I could do but block it all out of my mind.

"I prefer to look for the positive in any situation. I was brought up a strong Christian and was taught that if you expect bad things to happen, they will. Just staying positive works better for me, and coming here has been just as good as I expected."

Perhaps that's why he's not worried about the expectations being placed on him as Kentucky's rising star by fans and the media. He showed flashes of brilliance last year and with Kentucky needing someone to fill Bogans' role, Azubuike knows the pressure some would like to place on him.

"I try not to think about any extra pressure, but it does make me feel good that people think I have the type of talent to help compensate for Keith's loss," Azubuike said. "I know you can't focus on what fans or the media think or say. You have to know what you can do and what your team needs you to do.

"You can't get carried away with what people say about you. If you do that, you are in trouble."

Junior teammate Chuck Hayes knows that is the best advice anyone could give Azubuike. A year ago Hayes was being counted on to assume a bigger role for Kentucky. He did and that was a major reason the Cats went unbeaten in Southeastern Conference play and won 32 games overall.

"What Kelenna has to do whenever he plays is just be consistent," Hayes said. "He has to do the things he does best. Whether it is a dunk or defense or something else, he has to do what is needed.

"He has to make sure he helps himself and the team. If he does that, we will get more confidence in him and he'll get more confidence in himself. There's no doubt he can play. He just has to make sure he doesn't press and try to do too much."

Azubuike already seems to have embraced that attitude.

"I am a better player than a year ago. I am a little smarter. I am way better on defense," Azubuike said. "But there are always things to work on and ways to get better."

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