University of Kansas

High altitude a bit of a challenge as KU prepares for NCAA opener, Ochai Agbaji says

Kansas freshmen Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack preview Jayhawks’ first-round NCAA Tournament matchup

Kansas Jayhawks freshmen Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack preview their opening round NCAA Tournament matchup against the Northeastern Huskies on Wednesday, March 20, 2019.
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Kansas Jayhawks freshmen Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack preview their opening round NCAA Tournament matchup against the Northeastern Huskies on Wednesday, March 20, 2019.

Salt Lake City has an elevation of 4,226 feet above sea level, which means athletes sometimes are left gasping for air while competing in their respective sports.

Sports such as basketball.

“A little bit,” Kansas freshman guard Ochai Agbaji said, asked if he had felt effects of the high altitude during Wednesday morning’s practice at the Utah Jazz practice facility. He was speaking to media before a 40-minute afternoon shootaround at Vivint Smart Home Arena, home of the NBA’s Jazz.

“Coach (Bill Self) mentioned it. We were definitely feeling it going up and down court a couple times. We’ll be fine.”

Agbaji said the Jayhawks have been told “to stay hydrated. Our trainer has been telling us this week to lock in, stay focused and stay hydrated. I think we’ll be fine.”

KU will meet Northeastern in a first-round NCAA Tournament game approximately 3 p.m. Central time Thursday. It will air on TNT.

Freshmen having fun

Freshmen Agbaji and David McCormack say they are enthused about participating in their first NCAA Tournament. They were the two Jayhawks participating in the KU news conference with Self on Wednesday.

“It is really special. I’m excited to play,” Oak Park High School graduate Agbaji said. “Growing up watching this, (it) kind of came fast, but now that I’m here in the moment, it’s surreal. It’s been crazy. I remember when I was a redshirt on the bench, and next thing I’m being called up to play. It’s happened in the space of a month. It happened really fast. I’m enjoying it, though.”

Noted McCormack, who hails from Oak Hill Academy in Virginia: “Agreeing with Ochai. (It’s) a tremendous feeling being here, I have grown up watching it. Always playing basketball, you always want to be in the same footsteps as other players that you are very fond of. Now we are here, I’m taking full advantage of it.”

McCormack said KU’s freshmen do not feel nervous.

“It doesn’t feel like we are freshmen anymore. Expectations change,” McCormack said. “The more experience you have on the court, the better you have a feel for the game so things become easier and there is a better flow. When we face adversity, it brings us closer together as a team and unites us.”

Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self met with the media on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, ahead of his teams opening round NCAA Tournament matchup against the Northeastern Huskies.

Self knows Northeastern coach

Self is a fan of Northeastern coach Bill Coen, who is 224-196 in 13 seasons at the Colonial Athletic Association school in Boston.

“My first experience of knowing Bill was when he was with Al (Skinner) at B.C. (Boston College as assistant). I haven’t spent a ton of time with him or anything, but on the road we have been cordial and spoke. I have always been impressed with his thinking about the game. I mean, he would be a guy that would be great to sit on all the boards with the NABC and things like that because he gets it, at least from the way I see it, and he’s accomplished a lot.

“But certainly he does take me back to my earlier days when you’re playing four guards and they are all tough as nails, and playing around one big, and having about as much fun as you can have. You’re probably having as much fun coaching them as they have playing. And that didn’t happen each and every year.

“So I don’t know how old Bill is, he is younger than me I’m sure (57, while Self is 56). His career path is certainly on an upward tick, you know. I do think he’s thought of to be a very well respected and one of the better coaches in our business.”

Self on Lawson

Self’s expectations are high for Dedric Lawson this postseason.

“I expect him to be our best player. I think something that wins you tournaments, your best players play the best,” Self said of the junior all-Big 12 forward Lawson. “We expect him to be good tomorrow and expect him to be good as long as we are fortunate enough to stay around. If he is not, we have to certainly have others step up.

“But the reality of it is, our chances to be successful aren’t as high when our best players don’t play well. We expect to play through him and we are going to ride him like we have all year long.

Self on Vasa Pusica

Self on Northeastern senior Vasa Pusica, who graduated high school at Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kan. He hails from Serbia.

“I have watched a lot of tape on him. We have talked to people in Wichita. He is a fabulous player. He plays with pace, he’s a point guard with size, he’s got great vision and his stroke is pure. He’s a tough match-up,” Self said. “After watching him, he has to be one of the better unknown talents in America. He is a really good guard.”

Self added; “He’s got range. He can handle. He’s got size. You can tell probably at a very early age he learned how to be a point guard even though he’s tall because of skill set. We had a kid last year in Svi (Mykhailiuk from Ukraine) that I see a lot of similarities in the way they carry themselves on the court.”

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