STILLWATER, Okla. — Ochai Agbaji burst onto the college basketball scene, and despite a recent rough patch, the out-of-nowhere key contributor hasn’t disappointed Bill Self.
That’s because Agbaji, the Kansas basketball coach indicated, is at this point playing with house money.
“Hey, Ochai’s given us more than I ever dreamed,” Self said Saturday following the Jayhawks’ 72-67 victory at Oklahoma State. “I’m not going to get hung up on that, at all.”
The "that" Self referenced was a mental error from the freshman guard late in the first half of the game against the Cowboys. Rather than backing off a ball skipping away from a downed Oklahoma State player, Agbaji touched it and, when the ball went out of bounds a split second later, returned possession to the home team.
It was a mistake born out of simply trying too hard, the kind of play Self and the No. 13-ranked Jayhawks (22-7, 11-5 Big 12) can live with from the energetic Agbaji. The first-year player is averaging 9.5 points and 4.8 rebounds since burning his redshirt midseason.
Agbaji acknowledged the pressures of KU’s conference title hopes — the Jayhawks are one game back of first-place teams Texas Tech and Kansas State entering the final week of the regular season — have ratcheted up the intensity and magnified the importance of every play he’s involved in.
“It’s definitely amped up. Even (from) when I started playing to now, it’s amped up,” Agbaji said. “The stakes are high. We have a lot to lose. Our backs are against the wall right now. ...
“Just trying to stay comfortable on the court, as much as I can.”
Finding the kind of offensive comfort he enjoyed out the gate has been a challenge of late.
After posting three 20-plus-point scoring efforts in a five-game stretch from Jan. 29 through Feb. 11, Agbaji has averaged 5.8 points across the Jayhawks’ last four games. That includes a two-point showing in KU’s 91-62 defeat at Texas Tech on Feb. 23 and a goose egg in the team’s 64-49 home victory over K-State on Feb. 25.
Self said the 6-foot-5, 210-pounder has “labored” over the past week. Agbaji scored 11 on 3-for-10 shooting in 29 minutes against the Cowboys, with Self most encouraged by the shot attempt total.
“He needed to have a couple of shots go down,” Self said. “But for him to shoot eight 3s in a time where he’s kind of struggling, I thought that showed some courage right there.”
The timing of Agbaji’s makes Saturday were on point.
His second 3-pointer was perhaps the biggest bucket of an 11-0 run early in the second half that helped erase a seven-point deficit. Another trey with 5:45 remaining kick-started a quick 5-0 run that tied the game at 62. Agbaji’s free-throw makes with four seconds left iced the must-win contest for the visitors.
“I thought Ochai showed some guts tonight because he’s had a rough last week, but he stepped up and made a couple of plays,” Self said. “Goes and grabs a ball that’s our ball when it’s out of bounds — just did some things that weren't great. But he responded well there late.”
Agbaji also notched 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block and a number of floor burns in the victory. When his shots aren’t falling, his contributions in other areas aren’t lost on his teammates.
“He brings so much energy, athleticism. Great teammate,” said junior forward Mitch Lightfoot. “It’s nice when he’s out there because he’s wise beyond his years. He’s great at being a leader. I would just say that he’s a positive when he’s on the floor. It doesn’t even matter if he scores or not. He just does a great job. ...
“He doesn’t get too high; he doesn’t get too low. He understands it’s a game of ebbs and flows. One game you’ll get 20 (points); one game you’ll get 11. Not going to complain about either one.”
A delighted Agbaji certainly wasn’t complaining in his postgame interview session.
“I think along with everybody it’s just high,” Agbaji said of his confidence level. “We’re going late into the season and we’re going to the Big 12 Tournament too. Everybody is I think just coming together and we’re having our pieces fall together.”
Agbaji credited his coaches for giving encouragement throughout what's been a wild debut season.
“They know my ability. They know what I can do and all that. They just want me to stay aggressive with the ball,” Agbaji said. “... (Self) wants us to stay confident while shooting and all that. A miss doesn’t really get me down as much. I know I have the ability to make it, so I just keep shootin.’ ”
Before Agbaji left the media scrum to sign autographs and take pictures with the dozens of KU fans packing the entrance area at Gallagher-Iba Arena, there was one more matter to address.
On what in an alternate universe could’ve been the game’s most important play, Agbaji and fellow freshman guard Quentin Grimes crossed signals, covering the same player and leaving sharp-shooter Lindy Waters wide-open on the Cowboys’ last significant possession. As Agbaji recalled, Grimes called out a switch, and by the time both realized the mistake, it was too late for Agbaji to get back to his man.
Waters missed the potential game-tying 3, and both freshmen let out a sigh of relief.
“It was kind of confusion, but it was kind of a hard action to guard. That’s what Coach said in the locker room,” Agbaji said. “But I’m glad he didn’t make that 3 because that would’ve been bad.”
Agbaji laughed, and a follow-up was asked: Did he have anything to say to his freshman counterpart?
“I was just giving (Grimes) some trouble about it, but it’s OK. We’ll obviously go over it,” Grimes said. “He knows that it was his fault.”
Agbaji laughed once again, and he was informed Grimes only minutes earlier said he’d be happy to shoulder blame for the sequence as long as the outcome was a victory.
This time, Agbaji grinned.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “He should take the blame."