NEW YORK – The longest journey in college basketball is not from the start of the season to the Final Four, although it will take us all 142 days to get to New Orleans. No, the longest and most perilous journey in the game is from contributing role player to give-that-guy-the-ball star, and it wrecked many fine players before the challenge was presented to Kansas wing Ochai Agbaji.
He played three seasons of college basketball before this one, a total of 82 games, and never did he have the responsibility of carrying the KU attack. For a given night, sure, when opponents set their defenses to shut down one of his teammates. He was Jayhawks’ leading scorer as a junior, but that was not the same. It was a balanced team whose offense ranked only 54th in Division I according to KenPom.com.
These Jayhawks have national championship ambitions. To get there, they need someone who can carry them, who can consume the pregame planning for opponents, who can score the kind of big baskets Agbaji did in Tuesday’s season-opening victory over Michigan State at the Champions Classic.
MORE: Banchero does not disappoint in Duke debut
“Really, coming into this year, I didn’t try to put too much pressure on myself,” Agbaji told Sporting News following KU’s 87-74 victory. “Like I said, like I’m always going to keep saying, I just relied on my teammates. They know my abilities. They see me in practice. They see how hard I work. And the positive attitude I come in with every single day in practice, just willing to get better.”
Kansas has an uncommon talent in transfer guard Remy Martin, a player opponents struggle terribly to defend in open space because of absurd quickness with the ball. Whether he is a point guard capable of running a championship squad wasn’t answered on this night, but it is early.
“We don’t know what we’re doing,” KU coach Bill Self said. “We’re hard to scout because we don’t know what we’re doing.”
It did seem as though Agbaji was making it clear he was ready to be a true first option. He scored 12 points in a tightly contested first half, making 2-of-5 from 3-point range, then joined Martin in unraveling the Michigan State defense as the Jayhawks broke from a 39-32 halftime lead into a comfortable double-digit advantage early in the second half. Agbagi established a new career-high with 29 points on 9-of-17 shooting from the field.
“He’s had some big games in the past, but I don’t know if he’s had a bigger game on a bigger stage, bright lights” Self said, “He just carried us. I was really happy for him, and he was really good.”
MORE: Dick Vitale hopeful he’ll be courtside soon
The transition to college star might have been even more challenging for Agbaji than most because he wasn’t that much of a star coming out of high school, at least in terms of his recruitment. He was ranked No. 339 by 247 Sports when he committed to KU, and the original plan was to redshirt him. That didn’t last. He joined the team in early January of the 2018-19 season and wound up averaging 8.5 points in 22 games.
He could have remained in the NBA Draft last spring and might have been chosen, though not in the first round. A dominant senior season, though, could change that, in the way it did for Oregon’s Chris Duarte last year. Although 24 years old when the draft was held, Duarte became a lottery pick by the Pacers and has started every game.
Agbaji told reporters he was “really close” to remaining on the early entry list, but he decided to achieve more at KU. The Jayhawks haven’t been to a Sweet 16 since he arrived, although the best team of which he was a part – the No. 1-ranked squad in 2019-20 – saw the NCAA Tournament canceled.
“I know I made the right decision,” he said. “I know I did.”