Steady freshman Ochai Agbaji has been turnover-free in one Big 12 home game and one road contest since having his redshirt lifted at Kansas.
That’s mistake-free basketball in 46 total minutes against TCU and Baylor heading into a Big Monday battle against Texas at 8 p.m. in Allen Fieldhouse.
“Ochai had the most poise of anybody out there down the stretch,” KU coach Bill Self said of the 6-foot-5 Oak Park High School graduate, who scored 10 points and grabbed three rebounds while playing 21 minutes in Saturday’s 73-68 victory at Baylor.
He kept his composure in the final minutes as Baylor cut KU’s 23-point lead with 6 1/2 minutes left to just four points during crunch time.
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“He’s got the hardest job, to throw it in, and so when guys aren’t open, he’s got the count in his head (to avoid a five-second call on the inbounds pass),” Self added. “He made the great pass to Dedric (Lawson, who was fouled and hit one of two free throws with 19 seconds, giving KU a 73-68 lead) which resulted in missed free throws. We just jacked around (at end of game). Still, he’s done extremely well and we’re going to need him to continue to play at a high level.”
Agbaji — his redshirt was burned in response to Udoka Azubuike’s season-ending hand injury on Jan. 4 — scored seven points with three rebounds and again no miscues in his first game, a 77-68 victory over TCU on Wednesday at Allen Fieldhouse.
He played 25 minutes in his major-college debut.
“It was obviously different,” Agbaji said of playing at home and then on the road. “I stayed together with my teammates. It’s what I emphasized in the locker room (before Baylor game), staying together. They helped me. They kept me comfortable.”
Agbaji has made 7 of 10 shots (2 of 4 threes) and 1 of 2 free throws entering Monday’s game between the No. 7-ranked Jayhawks (14-2, 3-1 Big 12) and unranked Longhorns (10-6, 2-2).
“He’s been terrific. He’s been great,” Self said, noting Agbaji, “is becoming one of our best players.
“He’s going to continue to play more and more. He needs to get his wind a little bit. But, certainly, we’re more active and athletic when he’s in the game.”
Agbaji’s athleticism alone figures to guarantee him significant minutes against the Longhorns, who fell to Texas Tech 68-62 on Saturday in Austin.
“They are so long and athletic. It worries me so much,” Self said, referring to strengths of a Texas team that outrebounded Tech, 37-30. KU was outboarded by Baylor, 49-30.
“We have room to improve on that,” Agbaji said of hitting the boards. “It’s a mindset thing really. Defensive rebounding … everybody locks in, everybody’s emotions are going at the same time.”
Guards Kerwin Roach (13.6 points per game), Matt Coleman (10.1) and Elijah Mitrou-Long (7.5) and forwards Jaxson Hayes (10.1) and Dylan Osetkowski (9.5) provide balanced scoring for Texas.
“Texas should be a fun game,” Agbaji said. “They are a good team, really athletic. We’ll have to match their athleticism. I’m excited for that. I think it forces us to step up.”
KU freshman point guard Devon Dotson, who played against Coleman on the AAU circuit, knows all about Texas’ raw, physical ability.
“That’s a good team,” Dotson said. “Every Big 12 game, we have to take it as it’s the last game (of season). We’ve really got to come out and play hard each and every night. To win the Big 12, you’ve got to win on the road and protect the home court.”
Sure it’s early, but a KU loss on Saturday at Baylor would have dropped the Jayhawks two games behind Texas Tech in the standings after four contests.
Instead, as of now, Tech (4-0) is one game ahead of the second-place Jayhawks. Seven teams — Texas, Iowa State, TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Oklahoma State — have two losses. West Virginia is 0-4.
“They obviously have a good team,” Self said of Texas. “Everybody is chasing Tech. They got a great win today over Texas. Texas can beat anybody in the league which is evident by them winning at Kansas State by 20 (67-47 on Jan. 2 at Bramlage Coliseum).
“We’ve got to be a heck of a lot better and more competitive (than Saturday) when we have to play this small,” Self added.
Though dissatisfied with his team’s composure down the stretch and rebounding through the entire game at Baylor, Self remains hopeful for a strong performance Monday.
“The story shouldn’t be us playing terrible the last four minutes, the story should be that we got a good road win,” Self said.
The Jayhawks will have some time to rest after Monday’s game, next meeting West Virginia at 1 p.m. Saturday in Morgantown, W.Va.