Kansas City, Mo. — Throughout his college career, Kansas junior Mitch Lightfoot has sort of become the unofficial spokesman for the idea that, when you sign up to play basketball at Kansas, you agree to take on all of the pressure that comes with it.
Starting today, a whole bunch of young Jayhawks will find out exactly what Lightfoot means and, more importantly, exactly what that pressure talks, sees, looks and feels like, when the No. 3 seed Jayhawks (23-8) open postseason play with a Big 12 tournament quarterfinal matchup against 6th-seeded Texas at approximately 8 p.m. at Sprint Center.
“I think it is a different type (of) pressure for them,” KU coach Bill Self said in a meeting with reporters after KU’s 40-minute practice on the Sprint Center floor Wednesday afternoon. “And we talked about that (Wednesday) morning a little bit. But I don’t think it’s a bad pressure. I think it’s a good pressure. But I think all young kids have to go through it.”
Pressure means different things to different people and can do different things to different teams.
But whether you’re talking about point guard Devon Dotson and the pressure of playing point guard for KU during its upcoming postseason run or Dedric Lawson and the pressure of being relied on as a go-to scorer and rebounder, each of the seven Jayhawks playing in their first postseason at Kansas figure to encounter some type of pressure that is unique to them in the next couple of weeks.
And then, there’s freshman guard Ochai Agbaji, who will face the kind of pressure tonight to which no one on his team can relate.
As a native of Kansas City, Mo., the Oak Park High graduate will be playing at Sprint Center for the first time in his life.
Sure, he was in the building and on the bench when the Jayhawks beat New Mexico State back in December, but he was still planning to redshirt at that point.
“I was kind of practicing (before the New Mexico State),” Agbaji said Wednesday. “And just being out there was kind of cool, but it was nothing like playing in front of all those people. It should be fun.”
Agbaji expects to have 10-15 people in the building specifically there to watch him. Most will be family. Two of his closest friends will be with them and a few of Agbaji’s former coaches have told him this week that they’ll be there, too, and they’re looking forward to watching him represent for his hometown.
Asked what it felt like to be out on the floor even just for Wednesday’s practice, Agbaji used the word “weird” to describe it.
“After watching all these years, and finally now, me being able to play in front of all these people, it’s kind of flipped,” he said with a smile. “It happened so fast. I know I’ll have a lot of adrenaline, because I know a lot of eyes will be on me, just being from here. But I also know all eyes will be on us, too, to see how we respond and how we’re going to do in this tournament. And I’m also excited about that.”
The Jayhawks practiced on Wednesday in preparation for Thursday's game against Texas.
So which part of the experience is Agbaji looking forward to most? That answer was easy. The starting lineup introductions, of course.
“Hearing that, being introduced, I think that’s going to be cool,” he said. “Hearing, ‘From Kansas City, Missouri.’ I’m excited about that.”
There’s another KU player from the not-too-distant past, who also loved that moment. His name was Travis Releford, another Kansas City native, and Releford, to whom people have compared Agbaji throughout his still-young KU career, always enjoyed career type of nights while playing at Sprint Center.
“I actually talked to Travis (Wednesday) morning,” Self said. “And I actually brought that up. He said he loved playing in the building, but I haven’t brought that up with Ochai in detail. And I don’t think I need to. You would think it would mean more to him to be playing at home, but it’s a little bit different with us. You know, Lawrence is basically in (Kansas City) already, so I don’t think it would be like it’s a one time a year deal where you actually get to travel to come back home. He probably thinks playing in Allen (Fieldhouse) is also playing at home.”
Home or away, starting lineup or not, the Jayhawks appeared to be pretty loose during Wednesday’s Sprint Center practice.
Freshman guard Quentin Grimes said there was a reason for that. It’s called confidence.
“I feel like we don’t have a lot of pressure, and we can just go out there and play like we know how to play,” Grimes said. “I feel like we’re one of the best teams in the country when we’re locked in and focused. That’s why there’s no pressure. We just (have to) go out there, play as one unit and we can beat anyone in the country for sure.”
Added fellow freshman David McCormack when asked about the pressure of the postseason: “I feel like there’s always going to be pressure, but we just have to kind of let it sit to the side and play for each other and play for the name across our chest and don’t let the pressure bother us.”