LAWRENCE — Sucking wind and a tad frazzled, Ochai Agbaji returned to the Kansas basketball bench after a seven-minute stint the debuting freshman later indicated felt more like a marathon.
There, the teammate perhaps best suited to remark on Agbaji’s situation did just that.
“I was like, ‘I’m tired.’ I was breathing really heavy,” recalled Agbaji, relaying a conversion he had at that moment with sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa.
De Sousa, who like Agbaji was last year thrust into his first collegiate action in the thick of Big 12 play and, like Agbaji up until Wednesday, has watched the entirety of this season from the bench, offered a quick response that caused both to chuckle.
“He was just like, ‘It’s different being out there,’ ” Agbaji said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, it really is.’ ”
Thing is, Agbaji and De Sousa may have in that moment been the only two attendees of the seventh-ranked Jayhawks’ eventual 77-68 victory over No. 25 TCU to know the first-year player was experiencing anything close to resembling nerves or fatigue.
It certainly didn’t show on the court or in the box score.
Agbaji, who officially burned his redshirt when he checked in as the first Jayhawk off the bench at the 15:50 mark of the first half, exploded onto the scene with a rim-rocking dunk on a lob pass in his first offensive set and never looked back, showing few if any freshman lapses during a 25-minute appearance.
Entering the contest, KU coach Bill Self thought a double-figure minute total would’ve been within reason for Agbaji, but he later acknowledged he would’ve never guessed the guard would reach what became the fifth-longest appearance on the team. The 6-foot-5, 210-pounder out of Oak Park High School in Kansas City, Mo., was also trusted down the stretch, playing the final three minutes of what was at that moment a three-point game.
“I was just so happy for him because he’s such a tremendous kid, but I was also just very pleased that a guy put under those circumstances could respond in such a poised way,” Self said Thursday during the Big 12 coaches teleconference. “He only scored seven points, but he got four rebounds and he kept numerous other balls alive that stole us some possessions.”
One example of that was the floor burn Agbaji received diving for a loose ball that ultimately went out of bounds, a sequence that retained possession for his team. Coincidence or not, the Jayhawks (13-2, 2-1) reeled off an 11-3 run from that point to push their advantage to 64-53, meaningful separation in a contest that came down to the wire.
Agbaji rounded out his evening with 2 steals, 1 assist and 1 block, also draining a 3-pointer in the do-it-all debut.
A lightly-recruited prospect — he ranked in the 300s among the nation’s top players in the Class of 2018 until the Jayhawks swooped in and secured his commitment early last February — Agbaji and a redshirt seemed the perfect match for a program that unexpectedly returned both guard Lagerald Vick and center Udoka Azubuike in the offseason. Amid Vick’s recent up-and-down play and Azubuike’s season-ending hand injury suffered last week, however, that all changed.
Unsure of how often he’d actually play, Agbaji acknowledged he had some hesitancy when Self on Sunday mentioned the idea of burning the freshman’s redshirt midseason, essentially wiping away half of the guard’s first campaign. Those feelings faded, Agbaji said, when he realized the coaching staff trusts him.
“It all came really fast,” Agbaji said, “but it was good.”
Agbaji was most proud of his defensive work against the Horned Frogs, an area he’s always looking to improve upon — “It always starts defensively for me. I think the offense will come,” he said.
His head coach concurred.
“Obviously he’s one of our better athletes, if not our best athlete,” Self said. “He can slide, so defensively he’ll be a huge addition as well. ...
“He wasn’t known, and usually that means you haven’t probably been exposed to as many big opportunities and games. He was a good player for (AAU program) MOKAN (Elite) but not one of their standouts or leading scorers. To see him just act like he fits and the poise — I mean, we played him down the stretch when we had to win.”
An afterthought just one week ago from his position in street clothes at the end of the Jayhawk bench, Agbaji was front and center in his first collegiate action — and in the postgame locker room, where Self made sure to relay his appreciation for the team’s newest go-to guy, at least on this night.
“He just told him how proud he was of him,” recalled junior forward Dedric Lawson, who scored 31 points and added 14 rebounds in the victory. “He said, ‘Ochai you didn’t play good — you played great.’ He really did. He really came out and produced and gave us minutes and played very, very exceptional.”
The postgame locker room conversation continued, and De Sousa got another opportunity to weigh in.
“I asked Silvio, ‘Silvio, what was it like your first game coming in?’ I think it was against K-State at home. His first time he touched it he threw the ball to the fifth row behind the scorer’s table,” Self said. “But (De Sousa) said, ‘He was good, considering he had that much poise and everything.’
“He’s never been in a big game, ever. To come out and perform like that, I thought it was pretty special.”