Sunday, January 13, 2019

Benton Smith: Ochai Agbaji invigorating lineup as KU recalibrates on the fly

Baylor guard Jared Butler (12) shoots over Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji (30) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019, in Waco, Texas.

Baylor guard Jared Butler (12) shoots over Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji (30) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019, in Waco, Texas.


Replacing a 7-foot, three-year starter with a fresh-out-of-his redshirt 6-5 guard in the middle of a season isn’t a tradeoff any college basketball coach would seek out.

Not even Kansas mastermind Bill Self.

Even so, as fortifying as size, experience and undeniable talent can be for a team’s success, it’s sometimes easy to overlook how less tangible factors, such as the energetic style of one role player, can impact an entire rotation.

This isn’t an indictment on Udoka Azubuike, whose power moves in the paint often were unstoppable. KU’s season easily could have skidded into hazardous territory with its starting center’s season-ending wrist injury.

Azubuike’s absence, though, set the stage for an unpredictable, yet critical, subplot to the season: the emergence of guard Ochai Agbaji.

No one could have guessed the freshman from Kansas City, Mo., would be so ready to step into KU’s rotation and provide not only the type of hustle that Self loves, but also some much-needed scoring off the bench.

“I thought I did good — or all right,” Agbaji said, editing his train of thought after a Kansas win in Waco, Texas, during which he contributed 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting, as well as three rebounds and a steal.

The already reliable backup never had experienced a road game — it was just the second college basketball game of his career — and here was Agbaji, logging at least double the playing time of every other reserve on KU’s roster.

The Jayhawks, especially as they began refashioning themselves without Azubuike, needed some sort of chemistry-boosting alteration to help that process along.

Agbaji’s near effortless transition from a player-in-waiting who doesn’t even suit up for games to a reliable sixth man on a top-10 team has accelerated KU’s recovery from losing Azubuike.

“He’s given us hustle plays,” starting point guard Devon Dotson said of his fellow freshman, who also is averaging 8.5 points and 3.5 rebounds two games into his career. “Offensive rebounds, keeping balls alive, deflections. He’s been good.”

What’s more, the way Agbaji attacks every facet of the game seems to inspire KU’s other guards to follow suit. The Jayhawks have to play with greater activity on both ends of the court to maximize a lineup now built around junior forward Dedric Lawson. And Agbaji brings a type of no-nonsense edge that makes him a perfect teammate — one who both blends in and helps make those around him better.

If Azubuike were still healthy, the Jayhawks very well may be in the exact position they are now: 14-2 overall and 3-1 in Big 12 play entering a mid-January home matchup with Texas. But would you have been shocked if the 7-footer’s absence led to KU dropping a couple of games in the immediate aftermath?

The Jayhawks have avoided that type of flop, though, and Agbaji deserves as much credit as any player on the roster for the team’s vitality amid some potentially tumultuous circumstances.

KU is 2-0 since losing at Iowa State without Azubuike on a Saturday and learning he wouldn’t return this season on a Sunday.

“I just feel like we’re locked in,” Dotson said of the week that followed those blows, “and just really taking focus on each and every possession, really trying to lock in on the defensive end and just changing it up a little bit.”

The Jayhawks’ in-season reformation is off to a promising start because Agbaji burst onto the scene hellbent on exceeding everyone’s expectations.


Taylor Wright 2 years, 8 months ago

We are a better team without Azubuike clogging the paint. Yes, we won a lot of games with him but there were very few times were the offense had any flow to it. Since Agbaji dropped his red shirt we actually look like a team that wants to compete and knows how to play offense. Defensively, this team is one of the best in years. I think the ceiling on this team, even without Azubuike is higher than last year's teams solely because of the athleticism and talent we have. Regardless, there are some good young players on this team and it's exciting to think most of them will return next year.

Jay Scott 2 years, 8 months ago

While I agree generally, we'll see how good they are defensively against a real center.

Steve Zimmerman 2 years, 8 months ago

Good point. We got outrebounded - giving up 20 OR to Baylor. That's mostly no box-outs. TCU's Samuel, has already shown our weakness defending center. But we've been in the same situation, on the opposite side; so we can also learn from those previous games how they defended Dok.

Tom Jones 2 years, 8 months ago

We're a worse team without Azibuke, but we do rotate better on D.

"Defensively, this team is one of the best in years." Sadly, the bar was very low for this...

Edward Daub 2 years, 8 months ago

He needs a nickname for sure. How about Hadji? Hadji worked miracles with Johnny Quest and Bandit!

Mastermind Bill Self? Certainly, a new expression.

Robert Robinson 2 years, 8 months ago

I agree we are a better team without Doke. The games were painful to watch before. Ochai has brought new life to this team. It looks like a KU team again.

Dale Stringer 2 years, 8 months ago

We would be a better team with Dok... if we had two more guards that can make a 3-pointer.

Tim Orel 2 years, 8 months ago

I don't have the numbers in front of me, but commenters were posting that KU scored about 10-15 points more per game with Dok than without, based on the first part of the season where Dok was also missing from his twisted ankle.

It may have been the high-low with the traditional big man in the middle, and not the flowing offense we've otherwise seen, and Dedrick is doing SOOOO much better as the sole big man, but still, I'd like to have Dok in the middle. What we really need now is Silvio available.

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