University of Kansas

Why KU’s Ochai Agbaji will be worth watching in the Big 12 championship game

Bill Self liked KU’s second half in Big 12 Tournament win over West Virginia

KU coach Bill Self on the Jayhawks' win over West Virginia and what he expects in the Big 12 Tournament championship game on Saturday, March 16, 2019 in Kansas City.
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KU coach Bill Self on the Jayhawks' win over West Virginia and what he expects in the Big 12 Tournament championship game on Saturday, March 16, 2019 in Kansas City.

Ochai Agbaji’s eighth backpedal took him across midcourt, and Bill Self was ready for him.

“Come on, Och!” the Kansas coach screamed from a few feet away. “That’s terrible!”

Out of a media timeout, KU tried to surprise West Virginia with a full-court press, and the strategy worked for a couple seconds.

It wasn’t successful, though, because West Virginia’s Lamont West was physical with Agbaji, easily freeing himself to receive the inbounds pass.

This first-half sequence ended up as a minor footnote in KU’s 88-74 victory over West Virginia in Friday’s semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament. The Jayhawks had their hottest shooting night in three weeks, then later picked up their defensive intensity in the second half to build a comfortable lead.

Playing for a conference tournament championship and a ring is a nice team accomplishment, especially because it’s the first KU squad in 15 years that didn’t secure its own hardware with a regular-season crown.

Big picture, though, it also gives KU one more test run before the most important games next week.

And it would help Self’s confidence for sure if he was able to see more flashes of the Ochai Agbaji he had a month ago.

The first half was particularly rough, with Agbaji going scoreless in nine minutes.

“It was definitely a struggle,” Agbaji said. “Coach thought I didn’t come out to play, which I didn’t.”

It’s an unfair standard, no doubt, to expect Agbaji to play exactly like he was a month ago. The guard went from redshirt to potential future lottery pick in roughly four weeks, which has to rank among the fastest any college basketball player has ever risen his own personal stock.

After Agbaji’s ascent, though, there have been more blips than Self might’ve expected. Entering Friday’s game, Agbaji averaged just 5 points over his last six contests, which included a scoreless outing during a home KU win over K-State.

“It just came really fast — this whole last part of the season a little bit,” Agbaji said. “But I’m staying focused through all the ups and downs.”

A lot of this is understandable. It was so much so quickly, even for a freshman who seems mature beyond his years.

Self hasn’t been hesitant to talk about the recent slump, though. He’s spoken openly about trying to get Agbaji out of this, and before the Big 12 Tournament started, Self talked with former player Travis Releford — another talented guard from the KC area — while trying to understand how Releford handled playing games close to home at Sprint Center to see if he might be able to help prepare Agbaji.

The freshman’s performance Friday against West Virginia was inconsistent. Agbaji fouled too often defensively, and on a couple of occasions, he wasn’t able to scrap his way to loose balls and rebounds inside.

“I was kind of slow off the ball, slow getting to the basket and all that,” Agbaji said. “I just wasn’t playing my game.”

When this happens, Self doesn’t have many options. He typically goes to his security blanket Marcus Garrett, and he was pleased with the reserve enough Friday to have him start the second half over Agbaji as well.

This still has its own risks. Garrett’s an excellent defender, but his lack of shooting makes KU an easier team to guard on the other end. To Garrett’s credit, after a poor start Friday, he made his final four shots of the first half to take advantage of the lack of respect he was getting.

It’s still much easier if Agbaji is playing well. If he’s back to 30-ish minutes per game, Garrett (who’s also battling through an ankle injury) becomes a luxury instead of a necessity. The Jayhawks also can play to more athleticism, with Agbaji serving as the team’s best leaper and lob-catcher.

There were good moments Friday. Agbaji was smooth midway through the second half when dribbling into an 18-foot pull-up, then four minutes later, he held his follow-through after putting in a three from the corner. He also added a highlight-reel, one-handed alley-oop slam in the final minutes.

Agbaji finished with nine points on 4-for-9 shooting, but in 21 minutes he still wasn’t the player he’s previously shown he can be.

He’ll get one more trial run before everything is magnified.

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Jesse Newell — he’s won an EPPY for best sports blog and previously has been named top beat writer in his circulation by AP’s Sports Editors — has covered KU sports since 2008. His interest in sports analytics comes from his math teacher father, who handed out rulers to Trick-or-Treaters each year.