Bill Self loves energy players, and it’s not difficult to understand why.
A million things happen each basketball game, potentially making every detail important. Small ripples can sometimes create huge waves, and one never knows when an action that could completely swing a game’s momentum.
Ochai Agbaji helped turn the game for KU in Saturday’s 73-68 victory at Baylor. With the Jayhawks floundering at the end of the first half — and the team’s 16-point lead down to two — the freshman made an individual play.
But perhaps just as important, he put himself in position to be there.
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It would have been easily missed watching the game at home. ESPN’s cameras — following a Baylor foul on Lagerald Vick — focused in on the Bears. Before that, though, it’s worth watching KU’s K.J. Lawson, who circled to the lane to fist bump his brother Dedric.
When ESPN’s focus zooms back out to show Vick’s one-and-one free throw, it’s like a magic trick has taken place. Dedric is on one side of the paint ... and Agbaji is on the other.
This doesn’t make any sense on the surface. K.J. is 6-foot-8, and plays the forward position for KU. Agbaji is a guard, and only 6-5. The safe assumption would be that K.J. would be the better rebounder of the two.
So what happened here?
Agbaji simply decided he wanted to be there. In a few seconds, he walked up to K.J., told him to switch, then stationed himself between two Baylor players outside the lane.
“I just wanted to get after it,” Agbaji said with a smile. “K.J.’s a good offensive rebounder too, but I just wanted to get in there, do what I could do.”
The truth here: As eager as Agbaji was, the ball was unlikely to come to him.
For one, Vick entered as a 70 percent free-throw shooter. Also, based on the latest numbers I could find on offensive rebounding from the 2013-14 season, NCAA teams only track down offensive rebounds on 13.4 percent of their free-throw misses, making the play a long shot at best.
It appears someone on KU’s bench noted the mix-up as well. Just before Vick’s free throw, Agbaji looks down the sideline, pushing both palms toward the ground, as if to say, ‘Don’t worry. I got this.”
Self has repeated an old coaching mantra often in the past: “The ball finds energy.” In this case, when Vick missed, the ball caromed toward the person whose actions indicated he wanted it the most.
Agbaji held his ground against Baylor’s Mario Kegler, then deflected the ball with his right hand toward the middle of the court.
That seemed to spark teammates as well. Vick outjumped two Bears to get his own touch on the ball, then K.J. Lawson saved it from going out of bounds.
Later in the possession, KU played unselfishly to open up a shot, with Vick finishing the sequence with a three-pointer from the left wing.
It was the start of a significant stretch for KU. The Jayhawks — with an extra boost of defensive enthusiasm — forced two straight defensive turnovers. On the other end, Agbaji hit a three, and Devon Dotson drove to the basket for a layup.
Suddenly, KU’s lead was 10 at halftime again, and the Jayhawks’ advantage was never seriously challenged after that.
Self praised Agbaji after the game, going as far as to say he was becoming one of the team’s best players. In only his second outing after deciding against a redshirt, Agbaji played to his athleticism in his 21 minutes while remaining poised in difficult situations.
At a crucial time, he also did something I’m not sure any other Jayhawk would have done. He demanded to be in the moment, and without being told, inserted himself into the action.
Agbaji — in short — called his own audible.
And wouldn’t you know it ... the ball found his energy.