Kansas senior Ochai Agbaji is the only player from this year’s Consensus All-American squad whose team is still alive in the NCAA Tournament.
On Tuesday, Agbaji received word that he was one of four finalists for this year’s Naismith Award, given annually to college basketball’s most valuable player.
The other three — Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis, Iowa’s Keegan Murray and Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe — also have been eliminated from postseason play.
The honor was the latest in a long line of postseason accolades that have come Agbaji’s way during his All-American senior season.
“I don’t see Och acting one bit different,” Kansas coach Bill Self said Tuesday during his meeting with the media to preview Friday’s Sweet 16 showdown with No. 4 seed Providence in Chicago. “I think he is focused on Kansas playing well.”
That has been the only thing that has mattered to Agbaji throughout his Kansas career. Working on his game, becoming more consistent and taking on different roles has always mattered to him. But all of the work he put in on those things was always about giving his team the best chance to win.
Because of that, his teammates have always found it easy to follow his lead and try to match his work ethic. And they’re all rooting for him to bring home the Naismith honor and whatever other accolades he can still collect before his career ends.
“If you don’t check Twitter and look for his awards, he won’t ever say anything to you so you’ll never know,” KU junior Christian Braun said Tuesday. “He doesn’t talk about himself ever. He’ll just send a couple texts here and there just about, ‘All right, guys, we’ve got to focus up, we’ve got a couple more games here.’ He knows what winning brings for everybody and that’s what he’s focused on.
“The further we go, the more recognition he gets. And that goes for everybody. He’s humble. He would never tell you that he wants to win (the Naismith Award), but we want him to win it.”
Self said Tuesday that injured forward Mitch Lightfoot had continued to make “great improvement” on his sprained left knee in the days since KU’s two wins in three days Fort Worth, Texas.
Lightfoot played in both of KU’s wins in Fort Worth, but his minutes were limited and his effectiveness was a tick or two below what it had been during his breakout performance in the Big 12 tournament earlier this month. Lightfoot suffered the injury in the win over Texas Tech in the Big 12 title game and has been wearing a brace and going through rehab throughout his recovery process.
“Hopefully he’ll be close to whole by Friday,” Self said of Lightfoot.
Throughout the season, Self has maintained that this team has another level it can reach. On Tuesday, he explained that while some of that has to do with the consistent production of the other four players around the suddenly-red-hot Remy Martin, another big factor was the health of Lightfoot and starting big man David McCormack.
“We need our two bigs healthy,” Self said.
When the bracket was revealed on Selection Sunday, some of the talk focused on how many fans fifth-seeded Iowa might bring to the United Center for a potential Sweet 16 matchup with Kansas. And then the Hawkeyes went out and lost in Round 1.
So now it’s top-seeded Kansas that figures to have an advantage in terms of the crowd on Friday night. But it may not be as automatic as many might think.
“I hope that they show up and bring the energy,” Self said Tuesday of KU fans in and around The Windy City. “Our alums in Chicago may not have had the foresight 12 months ago to purchase tickets for this site. So, there’ll be a lot of tickets purchased that aren’t team-affiliated. They’re just basketball fans. And I think it’s time for our fan base to hustle and get there. Because (their impact) does play a role in success.”
Self said Tuesday that his fondness of playing in the United Center goes back to his days at Illinois and a pair of NCAA Tournament wins there with Kansas in 2007.
“I love the United Center,” Self said. “We like it there.”
Last Saturday’s second-round win over Creighton in Fort Worth, moved Kansas into a tie with Kentucky on college basketball’s all-time wins list, with 2,353.
A win over Providence on Friday would move KU into first place all alone.
While Self said such a distinction could mean a lot for the Kansas program on the recruiting trail and in terms of promoting their blue blood status, he said taking over first place was not really on the minds of the KU players and coaches today.
“I don’t really think what happens now has a lot to do with what happened in 1915 and 1935 and years like that,” Self said. “We hope become that, but, for me and for our players, it’s only because that would have meant we would've won (on Friday).”
Another more recent tie to Kentucky also surfaced on Tuesday, when Self was asked about the importance of KU’s
80-62 home loss to the Wildcats back on Jan. 29.
“I think that was good for us because it humbled us to know that, in order to compete at the highest level, we’ve got to get a lot better in a lot of areas,” Self said. “It was probably as important a game as we played this year. I know we had some big wins, but I’m not sure any win was bigger or better for us than that loss was.”
When Self reached out to longtime Baylor assistant Jerome Tang to congratulate him on landing the Kansas State job on Tuesday, he discovered that Tang’s outgoing voicemail greeting already had been changed to include the words, “What a great day to be a Wildcat.”
Rather than hanging up, Self went through with the message and opened with the following words: “I beg to differ,” he said. “But I am very happy for you and look forward to us getting a chance to spend some time together.”
Self said K-State’s decision to make Tang Bruce Weber’s replacement was “a great hire.”
“He’s going to do a great job,” Self said. “He’s earned it. It was inevitable and he’s a good guy. It’ll be fun. It’ll be competitive and there’ll certainly be battles.”