Why Ochai Agbaji quickly accepted a scholarship offer from KU
Kansas freshman guard Ochai Agbaji’s mom, Erica, hails from Wisconsin. His dad, Olofu, is from Nigeria, which also is the homeland of Jayhawks junior center Udoka Azubuike.
In the true spirit of friendship to a fellow countryman, Olofu has hooked up the 7-foot, 270-pound Azubuike with some old-fashioned Nigerian home cooking.
“That’s my dad. He will bring him back some goat meat. There’s an African dish called fufu. My dad … he’ll get it at an African store in Kansas City and cook it up. If I ever go back home, I’ll bring it back,” Ochai Agbaji said of a snack for Azubuike, his new college teammate.
Agbaji, a former Oak Park High standout who was born in Milwaukee, where his mom and dad played college basketball for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, described those Nigerian foods in detail for those unfamiliar.
“It’s good. It’s just like a beef,” Agbaji said of goat meat. “Fufu is like a pounded yam. You take it and roll it into a ball. There’s various soups it can go with, like stew.”
Agbaji — who averaged 27.6 points and 8.6 rebounds a game his senior season — said his dad, who is from Benue, likes to show hospitality toward Azubuike, who is from Delta.
“He knows Doke doesn’t have a lot of African stuff around,” the 6-foot-5 Agbaji said, noting his mom “doesn’t eat it (goat meat and fufu) as much, but my sister (University of Texas volleyball player Orie) likes it.”
Olofu Agbaji — who works as a city planner in Kansas City while Erica works as a teacher — said he loves to cook African dishes, especially for Azubuike, a person he calls a “gentle giant.”
Aside from the above-mentioned foods, he said he’s cooked “moi-moi, which is like a tamale,” as well as jollof rice and fried plantain for Azubuike.
“I came from Nigeria on the same scholarship as Doke (also starting in prep school). One of the hardest things for a student here is where to get African dishes,” Olofu Agbaji said.
“It’s one of the drawbacks. I know where all the stores are, and I learned to cook. He’s too young to cook. I bring it to him when I see him, take different stuff every time. I’ll bring lighter dishes from now on, nothing heavy,” he added with a laugh, wanting Azubuike to stay in shape.
An energetic Ochai Agbaji — his first name means “King of Children” — was a magnet for youths Tuesday at Brett Ballard’s Washburn University basketball camp. He was joined at the camp by KU teammates Quentin Grimes, K.J. Lawson and Silvio De Sousa.
Agbaji said he was interested in locating an update on Nigeria’s World Cup soccer match against Argentina when he was finished with his responsibilities in Topeka. Nigeria lost 2-1 and was eliminated.
“I’m cheering on Nigeria,” Agbaji said. “That’s who I’m watching the most. The USA obviously is not in there. I’m watching other teams. I love watching soccer. Obviously people can find it boring. The amount of work it takes and skill to that sport … it’s a lot.”
Agbaji played soccer from first grade through his junior year of high school.
“I decided to just focus on basketball. I mean all the work I put in, it was obviously showing,” Agbaji said. “There’s more work to do.”
He blossomed his senior season, attracting major interest from Texas A&M, Nebraska, Oregon, Oklahoma State, Oregon State and Wisconsin. He committed to KU on Feb. 8, just days after visiting KU.
“I mean I could have dragged it out,” he said of recruiting. “My plan originally was to wait until after my basketball season to commit. Once that (KU offer) came along, what else could I ask for in a school, with the distance and all that?”
He’s attended the first session of KU summer school. That means four hours of practice a week with coaches in accordance with NCAA rules and also playing in unsupervised pickup games.
“Obviously it’s a big difference,” Agbaji said of the competition level. “I mean it’s faster. Guys are more athletic. They’re the same speed, the same caliber as you. It’s different but it’s fun.”
He noted that “Charlie (Moore, sophomore point guard) is hard to guard, quick. He can get in there (the lane). He’s really confident. Now that Devon Dotson came in, he’s been guarding Charlie. I’ve been guarding Marcus Garrett, K.J., Sam (Cunliffe) and Quentin. They are solid, too. I’m getting better every day guarding them.”
Agbaji said he had not yet met with coach Bill Self to discuss his role for his freshman season.
“Whatever I can do to help better the team and the program,” said Agbaji, winner of the 2018 DiRenna Award for top player in the Kansas City area.
That would include considering a redshirt season if that’s what Self recommended.
“I’d be fine with it. Like I said, anything I can do to better the program and better myself,” Agbaji said.
Self has compared Agbaji to a former KU player from Kansas City — Travis Releford.
"Coach (Norm) Roberts went to watch Ochai play a couple times and was really impressed. I had a chance to go see him in late January and thought he was terrific," Self said after Agbaji signed with KU. "I love his demeanor. He has a maturity about himself. He has a terrific frame and is an explosive athlete who can shoot.
"When we offered Ochai a scholarship, he jumped on it and that also excited us because you want to coach guys who are excited to be in your program," Self added. “Ochai could be a high major defender early in his career and his skill set is such that I think he could be an immediate impact player for us. We're fortunate to get a player locally of this talent who possesses all the intangibles you want in a student-athlete."