Azubuike has willingly taken a lesser role his first two years at Kentucky while players like Keith Bogans, Marquis Estill, Gerald Fitch and Erik Daniels carried more of the scoring burden. Still, he averaged 11.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game last season and also developed into a "defensive stopper."
He averaged 39.1 points per game his senior year and led the state of Oklahoma in scoring both as a junior and senior. He finished his prep career with 3,530 points.
"He's worked very hard on his ballhandling and passing so that when he does put the ball on the floor and if he gets double teamed, or if he does penetrate, he can make the extra pass and find the open man," the Kentucky coach said. "He's had to learn that, and he's done a good job. He already does everything else well."
Senior Chuck Hayes and Azubuike are the only returning starters off Kentucky's team that entered NCAA Tournament play as the No. 1 seed only to lose to Alabama-Birmingham in the second round.
Kentucky will also rely on junior point guard Patrick Sparks, who sat out last year after transferring from Western Kentucky, for early leadership.
"Patrick is an excellent leader," Smith said. "He's a gutsy, hard-nosed kid who plays with a real passion. He's out there every day in the gym, shooting every day. He's a natural leader and that's one of the reasons we wanted him in our program because he brings all the intangibles to the team. He's not overwhelmingly gifted athletically, but he does all the little things to make the team better."
Smith said having Sparks at practices last year helped the Wildcats because he was so "competitive" on the scout team.
Smith has what many consider the nation's No. 1 recruiting class to go with Hayes, Azubuike, Sparks and other returning players. However, he warned not to expect too much, too soon.
"We're excited about the veteran players we have returning and with the new players we have to blend with them, we should be a very formidable opponent," he said. "But we know it will take some time after losing five seniors with basically 20 years of college experience. That's hard to replace with freshmen."
Smith wishes the NCAA would allow coaches to have contact with freshmen during the summer.
"You can have freshmen on campus during the summer, but you can't do anything with them. That's just ludicrous," Smith said.
Duke-less: Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart says it seems unlikely that Kentucky will get to play in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic to open the season and will miss out on a possible matchup with Duke in the tourney semifinals.
Kentucky has been waiting on a court ruling to let it and other schools play in the tourney which would not count against the regular-season limit of games, but the ruling remains in limbo.
"We are set with what we are going to do if the tournament does not happen," Barnhart said. "I don't know why anything is likely to change at this point, to be blunt. We are waiting on the courts, but we have been for months. I just don't see that changing."
Barnhart said Kentucky has just about reached the limit it set for waiting on the court ruling that would have allowed it to participate in the tournament. He says Kentucky plans to have its schedule ready to release by Aug. 1.
"Most people already have their schedules set and ready to go," Barnhart said. "There are very few opportunities to make changes now on such a short notice. I wish we had known something in March, April or May so we could have adjusted our schedule in different ways. But it's too late now and we'll just go with the backup plan we have in place if nothing changes."
On the Net:
University of Kentucky Men's Basketball