OMAHA, Neb.—Immediately following Friday’s tight win against Syracuse, the Blue Devils were not sure what they would see on tape when scouting the top-seeded Jayhawks.
But two of the bigs that will battle Sunday were familiar with each other before preparations for the NCAA tournament even began.
The friendship between Duke freshman Wendell Carter Jr. and Kansas sophomore Udoka Azubuike blossomed back in high school on the AAU circuit when the duo competed for Team Georgia. Off the court, the two bigs have stayed close despite choosing different blueblood programs.
“He’s a really good player and he’s a big that can really stretch the floor,” Azubuike said. “We played on the same AAU team and won the EYBL Peach Jam together. We have such a good relationship with each other.”
In the title game of that tournament in 2015, Carter and Azubuike dominated the St. Louis Eagles—led by future Blue Devil Jayson Tatum—104-77 to claim the crown. The duo formed a devastating unit down low and proved to be nearly unstoppable in the paint.
Fast forward to Duke’s Elite Eight matchup against Kansas, and Carter still finds himself playing with another talented big man down low—fellow freshman Marvin Bagley III. But on the other end of the court, Azubuike is the primary big man for a Jayhawk team that has embraced a four-guard lineup.
After entering college as a five-star recruit, Azubuike has had some ups and downs early in his college career. The 7-foot big man’s freshman season got off to a strong start with a six-point, 12-rebound performance in a win against Duke in the Champions Classic a year ago. But the Delta, Nigeria, native suffered a season-ending injury in December when he tore ligaments in his left wrist that required surgery.
Azubuike has been much more effective in his second season in Lawrence and led the nation in field-goal percentage while averaging 13.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. Yet the big man sprained his left MCL late in conference play and missed the Big 12 tournament before making his return to the court in his team’s first-round win against Penn.
Although many had questions about whether the 7-footer could recover in time for the Big Dance, Carter was not one of them.
“When we were in high school, he got hurt also and he came back very quickly,” Carter said. “He’s a very tough kid and it was no surprise that he came back as quick as he did because he wants to do everything he can for his team to win, and that’s where he has my respect. He’s going to play hard—hurt, injured or healthy.”
Carter and the Blue Devils will enter the Elite Eight knowing the significance of Azubuike to the Jayhawks. With limited depth in the frontcourt, Kansas cannot afford for its big man to be saddled in foul trouble as he defends the Duke freshman duo down low.
Coming off a 14-point, 12-rebound performance against the Orange, Carter will look to continue drawing fouls and converting at the foul line. The Atlanta native attempted just six shots from the field in Friday’s win, but finished 8-of-11 from the charity stripe. Although Carter was occasionally hesitant to shoot short jumpers in the middle of Syracuse’s zone, the Blue Devils will need the freshman to be aggressive as he faces one of the few players in the nation that can match his stature.
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Whether the time Carter and Azubuike spent together on the court helps or hurts remains to be seen.
“You kind of get the sense that you know what he does on the offensive and defensive end,” Carter said. “Maybe that’s an advantage or disadvantage for me and for him. We’re just going to go out there and have fun.”
The stakes will certainly be high Sunday, as Kansas is looking to avoid a third consecutive loss in the Elite Eight and Duke is hoping to advance to its first Final Four since 2015. With the Jayhawks and Blue Devils rarely seeing each other outside of the early-season Champions Classic every three years, the Elite Eight showdown has a little bit of extra juice—not that it needed any—for the more soft-spoken Carter and the more boisterous Azubuike.
But the bond linking the two biggest players on the floor in Omaha is a special one that will remain strong regardless of which team advances to San Antonio.
“It’ll definitely be fun. For me, just at tip-off, seeing him on the opposite team, it’ll bring back memories. Once the ball goes up in the air, it’s going to become a clear mind where the only objective is to win," Carter said. "It’s not to make friends or communicate throughout the game or have fun with him.
"After the game, we can go back to being friends, but while we’re in between those lines, it’s win or go home.”