AUSTIN, Texas — Still sorrowful after his team’s double-digit setback Tuesday at Texas, Dedric Lawson was essentially asked whether freshman teammate Ochai Agbaji’s stellar showing in defeat could serve as a ray of hope moving forward.
Quite fittingly, the Kansas basketball junior forward lit up.
“Definitely,” Lawson said following Agbaji’s 24-point, seven-rebound performance in the No. 11-ranked Jayhawks’ 73-63 defeat to the Longhorns at Frank Erwin Center. “Twenty-four (points)? I mean, this is a guy who was redshirting at one point. He comes in the middle of conference play and puts up big numbers. This is the hardest part of your season. You’ve got to applaud him no matter what the outcome was of the game.”
“He played great,” he said. “We just hope he can keep it going.”
Appearing in just his seventh career college basketball contest, Agbaji became a first-time member of the Jayhawk starting lineup against the Longhorns, replacing senior guard Lagerald Vick in what KU (16-5, 5-3 Big 12) labeled a “coach’s decision.” His seven-point burst in an important 9-0 run to end the first half helped trim a double-figure hole to just one at the break.
Agbaji finished 8-for-10 shooting on an evening where his Jayhawk teammates shot just 34.1 percent from the floor. He drained a pair of 3-point attempts and converted an echoing fastbreak dunk in what became the game’s most exciting offensive highlight with a bullet.
KU coach Bill Self after Tuesday's outcome gushed that the 6-foot-5, 210-pound guard out of Kansas City, Mo., is “becoming obviously one of our go-to best players" and a "most-poised guy.” During his weekly radio show Wednesday, he spoke further on what’s pleased him most about Agbaji's debut stretch.
“He plays with no fear,” Self said. “I thought he did a great job of just putting himself in the game. He got four offensive rebounds, which is a pretty high number for a guard, and he converted three of the four into points if I’m not mistaken. I thought he did a pretty good job defensively. Offensively, he played downhill for the most part, made a couple of shots, but he was just aggressive.
“He was just out there playing and having fun, and that was so good to see, especially with his sister (Longhorn volleyball junior Orie Agbaji) going to Texas and everything. I know that meant a lot to him.”
Self said fans shouldn’t look too much into the decision to start Agbaji over Vick — “People make such a big deal out of nothing. You can only start five, period,” he stated. According to Agbaji, the decision was announced to the team in a film review session following the 71-63 defeat Saturday at Kentucky, and as Self described the situation, the team simply wanted to see if it could manufacture some early-game energy.
As for what the starting lineup will look like for the team’s pivotal 3 p.m. Saturday clash with No. 16 Texas Tech at Allen Fieldhouse, that remains to be determined — or, at least to be announced.
“I’d like to be able to say we’re going to start the same five guys all the time. That’s a perfect world,” Self said. “But it just hasn’t been working as well. Maybe some guys will be better coming off the bench. Maybe some guys will show a sign that maybe we haven’t seen consistently if they get an opportunity to start. I really don’t know. In Och we didn’t know, but it certainly didn’t hurt him at all to start. ...
“I don’t know exactly how (the starting lineup) is going to be two weeks from now or whatnot, but we’ve got to try some different things to try to get a spark or do something that’s a little bit out of the norm, because the norm hasn’t been working.”
If nothing else, Agbaji’s situation — redshirting a month ago; a key contributor on a perennial national championship contender three weeks later — is far outside the norm.
The once-lightly recruited prospect turning into a go-to guy for a Jayhawk squad currently taking on water would also be peculiar, but as Agbaji showed Tuesday, he may just be up to the task.
“Coach was talking about it in the locker room, which I agree with him — (it's) just a lack of leadership, really,” Agbaji said when asked about the team’s 1-5 road record. “I mean, this has been a struggle throughout the season, finding who’s our main guy to go to or to look (to) or whatever. I think that’s something we really need to work on, or someone needs to step up.”