Saturday, February 9, 2019

Benton Smith: Ochai Agbaji has become key player for KU after just 10 games

Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji (30) celebrates a three pointer over Oklahoma State guard Isaac Likekele (13) during the second half, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji (30) celebrates a three pointer over Oklahoma State guard Isaac Likekele (13) during the second half, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse.


Ochai Agbaji wasn’t supposed to play this season. The Kansas basketball team, it appeared, didn’t need the freshman guard from Kansas City, Mo.

Sure, KU’s coaches loved his long-term potential. But Agbaji could take a redshirt year and the Jayhawks would be just fine without him, what with their McDonald’s All-Americans and returning players with Final Four experience.

That was the line of thinking three months ago, at least, when none of us knew what we know now.

Think about where the Jayhawks would be without Agbaji, the 6-foot-5, high-flying, energy producer extraordinaire. It’s not something KU head coach Bill Self is interested in visualizing.

Playing in the 10th game of his college career Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, Agbaji, the would-be redshirt, once again played far more like a veteran in the Jayhawks’ victory over Oklahoma State, and went for 23 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists in a turnover-free 36 minutes.

Following a must-win for Kansas that was no sure thing before the midway point of the second half, Self fielded several questions about Agbaji, whose fast-tracked first year has exceeded even the head coach’s wildest dreams.

“Yeah, it’s unbelievable. It’s incredible to me,” Self began. “You know, it just goes to show you what a bad decision I made initially in misreading the situation, because he is beyond his years.”

The coach, of course, had to alter his initial plan to redshirt Agbaji once Udoka Azubuike suffered a season-ending wrist injury the first week of January.

Other than a scoreless trip to West Virginia for KU’s rising star, the past 10 games have been eye-opening.

“I didn’t think he would get 23 in Big 12 games, no,” Self admitted. “I didn’t think that. But I thought, eventually he would be one of our best five players. Of course, it took about one game to figure that out.”

A reporter asked Agbaji after KU’s 84-72 win against the Cowboys whether he had to pinch himself sometimes.

“A little bit,” Agbaji replied, flashing his signature smile. “It’s definitely crazy to think that, last month, I wasn’t even playing. It’s just surreal. But I’m enjoying it.”

The Jayhawks (18-6 overall, 7-4 Big 12) are appreciating Agbaji’s contributions more by the day. They may have found themselves in a dicy situation versus OSU (9-14, 2-8) had Agbaji not drained three 3-pointers in the last 5:05 of the first half, allowing KU to hit the locker room tied with the Cowboys at 36.

The freshman’s long-range display wasn’t done there, either. Agbaji knocked down two more 3s in the second half to finish 5 for 7 from deep. His stroke had looked good enough in previous games, but he never had made more than 2 from distance in one game until Saturday.

The timing of his upsurge seemed significant, given that KU’s best 3-point shooter, senior Lagerald Vick, just took an indefinite leave of absence.

KU, currently shooting 36.3 percent from 3-point range as a team, has been looking for shooters to emerge all season. And now that Vick is officially out of the mix, the Jayhawks need a 3-point shooter more than ever.

Can Agbaji be someone they can trust from here on out in that role?

“Well, we will,” Self said. “We need to. But he’s had some really good games shooting the ball behind the arc.”

When Agbaji scored a career-high 24 points at Texas, he made 2 of 4 from deep, the same 3-point results he posted in a home win over Iowa State. Agbaji’s currently shooting 41.9 percent on the season (13 for 31).

It’s not quite Vick’s 45.5 percent (66 for 145), but it may have to suffice.

“There’s not too many freshmen doing things like that, so, yeah, I have as much confidence with him shooting it as anybody,” Self said following Agbaji’s fourth double-digit scoring outing of his young career.

Agbaji said the Jayhawks hadn’t really discussed of late the need for someone to become a go-to shooter.

“Just step up and be aggressive is really what coach is saying,” Agbaji said, adding that KU obviously needs players stepping up “in any way” possible.

But when he finds the ball swinging his way around the perimeter or kicked back out from Dedric Lawson inside, Agbaji will fill that shooting role the best way he knows how.

“If we have the confidence to shoot it, we shoot it like we’re going to make it every single time, then we have a better chance of making it, obviously,” Agbaji said of his mindset on his best 3-point showing to date. “That’s what I just kept in my mind. Didn’t really think too much. Just kind of shot it.”

His teammates trust Agbaji as a 3-point threat, too. When asked whether the freshman could replace Vick as a go-to option from distance, Lawson said he thought Quentin Grimes (2 for 6 versus OSU, 34.8 percent on the season) could fill that role, too.

“Both of those guys have great shots, great-looking shots,” Lawson said. “It’s all about them shooting with confidence. And we trust those guys to make those shots when the pass is delivered to them.”

He’s played 251 minutes of college basketball and he’s averaging 9.9 points and 4.8 rebounds, and Agbaji, somehow, is as dependable as any player on the KU roster.

On a team constantly looking for improvements, the best above-the-rim finisher on the team also becoming KU’s best 3-point option would be a promising development as the Jayhawks try to stay in the hunt for the Big 12 title.


Creg Bohrer 3 years, 4 months ago

I'm still really impressed most with his decision making. Another zero turnover game for a freshman is absolutely amazing. All the talk about the one and dones, he could be a 1/2 and done the way he's progressing.

Steve Zimmerman 3 years, 4 months ago

How can he not even be in top 100 rivals?

Marius Rowlanski 3 years, 4 months ago

And he was red-shirted to provide playing time for Vick and KJ.

Not one of Self's best moves.

But maybe Self is better at evaluating talent as we have 2 commits for next year, nowhere near the top 100.

Steve Zimmerman 3 years, 4 months ago

Self is not dumb, he had a purpose. Agbaji is his hidden gem, Self wanted to keep Ochai for next year since he didn't want to lose him to NBA. I couldn't think of any other logical reasons.

Marius Rowlanski 3 years, 4 months ago

I agree with everything you just posted. It's just that his purpose was to give Vick and KJ more playing time.

Self is definitely not dumb but even the smartest will miss every now and again. If anything, Self deserves credit for seeing just how talented Agbaji could be.

Hidden gem? Agbagi might be the best player out of Kansas for quite some time now. Calipari and Coach K have come into Kansas and have left with some of the biggest names from this area. I pointed this out before that we already have two commitments for next year. Both are guards that aren't near the top 100.

Maybe lightning will strike twice. I'm guessing we will have either 4 – 5 scholarships available next year. Now can we get some Bigs?

Brianna Zaleski 3 years, 4 months ago

People aren’t talking enough about Q’s game today. Shooting in rhythm, driving the ball, great passing... He still had some boneheaded plays, but he looked much more relaxed and comfortable today.

Marius Rowlanski 3 years, 4 months ago

Probably because he cannot put to decent games together. I'm not sure he has ever put two halfs back to back.

Andy Godwin 3 years, 4 months ago

Last year Self pulled a rabbit out of the hat by acquiring free-agent De Sousa off the wires (graduate a semester early from High School and enrolled at KU). Without De Sousa, last year's team would not have won the Big 12 and made it to the final four. Now Self had an unheralded player, Ochai Agbaji, stored in mothballs who has been critical for this team to succeed. Hard to count on freshmen to do what they have been doing (Dotson and Agbaji), but please, please, keep it up. Now time for the two other freshmen (Grimes and McCormack) to step up their games and play beyond their years. Should be an interesting close to the 2018-2019 season.

Marius Rowlanski 3 years, 4 months ago

Man, Look at you... Making De Sousa look like a positive for KU!

I am impressed!

Craig Carson 3 years, 4 months ago

Maybe Self should play more McCormack/Lawson and Mitch/Lawson lineups since they are down 2 the 4 guard lineup isnt working to well right now

Brian Wilson 3 years, 4 months ago

Thumbs up on that and I agree the 4 guard lineup is miserable. The guards can't shoot, or play defense. Teams either drive right past us or shoot over us. We might as well go as big as we can, play zone, start McCormack, Agbaji, and KJ, and make it harder off the boards while trying to improve.

[''] 3 years, 4 months ago

Its not a coincidence that when Ochai joined the eligible team Vick went down He saw a kid who was hard working, played D, could rebound, make 3's, dribble and not turn the ball over...and it threatened him. Instead of using it to get better, Vick shrunk, became an even sh%##ier teammate and took his ball and literally went home. Buhbye. Good riddance. Ochai 2020 Big 12 POY

Edward Daub 3 years, 4 months ago

If the Greek Freak played for KU, Bill Self would try to red shirt him?

In all fairness to Bill, nobody expected this quick a rise from Hadji!

Popovich just turned 70 and is mulling retirement. Tyler Self is working for the Spurs. My prediction is that Bill Self is headed to San Antonio next year.

The new A.D. Jeff Long will then be in a real pickle! Turgeon or Manning will be his only realistic options.

Roger Ortega 3 years, 4 months ago

No way Turgeon and Manning are his only options. They are average coaches at best despite their roots. No way KU settles for that.

[''] 3 years, 4 months ago

Are you really calling Ochai - Hadji????

Edward Daub 3 years, 4 months ago

Sorry. I am getting a bit carried away by the Cartoon Show Johnny Quest. Johnny's buddy Hadji was quite the magician, seem seem salabeem.

Neither Brad Stevens or Steve Kerr are wanting to coach KU? Correct.

Bryce Landon 3 years, 4 months ago

Hell no, I don't want that liberal, Trump-hating, virtue-signalling Steve Kerr roaming the sidelines of Allen Fieldhouse!

[''] 3 years, 4 months ago

You don't see an issue with that Daub? How long have you worked for Trump?

Edward Daub 3 years, 4 months ago

Bryce (The Cedar Rapids Refugee) , I take him with a Boulder of Salt.

Lawrence McGlinn 3 years, 4 months ago

If Self goes to the NBA, which I doubt, there are a lot of coaches that would be interested in the KU job. Self is not an alum. Williams was not an alum. Unless the Adidas thing gets much uglier I think he retires as the KU coach. Going from college to the NBA is like going from being a plumber to being an electrician. It is still a house, and you know some of it, but it is a totally different job. That is why Pitino, Calipari, Donovan (meh), etc. have not been great. The NBA is harder. That is why very few coaches last. Another 10 years and another NC, and Self could have a statue. Very few NBA coaches have statues.

Dane Pratt 3 years, 4 months ago

I think he coaches here until he retires unless he gets fed up with college regs. As much as I like both, I don't think Danny or Mark have earned their way as next head coach. Would take Stevens or Kerr in a heartbeat but can't see either leaving their current gig.

Marius Rowlanski 3 years, 4 months ago

Coach Tony Bennett would be very high on that list unless he goes to UCLA first.

Jason Venable 3 years, 4 months ago

Can't hire a coach that lost to a #16 seed. No way.

Bryce Landon 3 years, 4 months ago

Anyone else feel like Ochai Agbaji might just be the basketball equivalent of Todd Reesing?As in, redshirt burned, season saved!

Dane Pratt 3 years, 4 months ago

Whoa there partner. Are you talkin' KU football? Thought that was off limits for you.

But yes, I see the similarities. If memory serves Todd burned his redshirt but Meier returned as starter for the rest of the season. The benefit from his performance off the bench was that he became starter the following season. And the rest is history.

Layne Pierce 3 years, 4 months ago

Fact is we won some games with Vick hot early in the season that otherwise we could have lost, but on the other hand, with Vick the team was not improving, he did not play defense, he did not drive, he is a turnover machine, and a terrible passer, and too often the ball stuck in his hands.

So now, we get to the real interesting question of the season, are we going to improve,now from this point on, play hard, play smart, move the ball, don't give up any easy shots, rebound like men, block out, and not be afraid to lose, but determined to win.

Then look out Big 12, the blue train is back on the line. The Oklahoma State game for the first time all season, we looked like a real KU team. Even more so than the TTech game.

Going forward, Mitch gets more minutes, and so does big Mac, but also, Garrett might be coming off the bench again. Lots to pay attention to.


Creg Bohrer 3 years, 4 months ago

If self leaves I would suspect Turgeon would get first call, love Manning but don't think he has shown he's good enough at the head coach spot. I personally would like to see some young talent if self leaves like Haas or Vaughn.

Brian Wilson 3 years, 4 months ago

OMG I don't like the thought of him leaving. But if it happened: Manning's name would draw talent but has a losing record. Turgeon has the best coaching record and would get first shot. I am sure he would take the job in a second. But here are others with connections:
Tad Boyle - Colorado
Jerod Haase - Stanford
Not likely but:
Joe Dooley - Florida Gulf Coast (former KU Assistant)
Tim Jankovich - SMU (former KU Assistant)
Kevin Stallings - Pittsburgh (former KU Assistant)
Barry Hinson - Southern Illinois (Former Director of Operations)
Tim Carter - South Carolina State (KU Graduate)
Mark Fox - Georgia (KU Master's graduate)
Rex Walters - San Francisco
and then just for fun I will mention Div II coaches Jeff Guiot and Jeff Boshee

I would have no idea who outside the Jayhawks family that we would consider.

[''] 3 years, 4 months ago

Brian - no one on that list is close to being the caliber of coach KU needs. Hell several of them have been fired for not being good enough before.

Brian Wilson 3 years, 4 months ago

Did I say any were of the caliber of HCBS? No....but if looking at just persons with KU connections Turgeon is the closest. Past that I couldn't guess who would be on the list. But thanks for criticizing and being a @#%%@ without call.

Marius Rowlanski 3 years, 4 months ago

Tony Bennett. A KU grad would be great but only if they are good enough to win. I don't see anybody in this list I would want to see coaching at KU as the HC.

Marius Rowlanski 3 years, 4 months ago

Brown, Williams, and Self all have some KU connection but none are KU grads. I say EVERYONE should be included no matter where they are from. Except missouri.

Mike Greer 3 years, 4 months ago

Coach Williams, had a very good run at KU, yet it was his first head coaching job. You don't always get a coach with a track record like Coach Self before he came to KU. Sometimes you get an Ochi Agbaji, sometimes you get a Josh Jackson.

Freddie Garza 3 years, 4 months ago

Pump that boy full of protein and turn him into Greek Freak 2.0.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.