After dominating Michigan State, Kansas Ochai Agbaji won’t be considered the second best Jayhawk for long

NEW YORK — Almost a month ago, on October 13, the Big 12 announced the winners of the preseason award. To the surprise of many, Remy Martin Jr., a Kansas graduate, won the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year honors.

It took exactly one game for that forecast to look… shall we say… misplaced.

Martin could win a few games or three or five this season with his entertaining and raw scoring ability, but it’s hard to see how he will be Kansas’ best player. Because KU senior Ochai Agbaji made a compelling argument on Tuesday night that he will not only be Kansas’s best player, but also a potential All-American. The third-ranked Jayhawks casually made it to Michigan State, winning 87-74 at Madison Square Garden, hinting that this team could be deeper, stronger and more physically agile than the Jayhawks group that went 21-9 and failed in it. managed to get out the first weekend of the 2021 NCAA tournament.

“I’m surprised,” Self told CBS Sports. “We had it under control. I thought I would win 65 first.”

Central to this convincing season-opening win was Agbaji, a senior, who finished with a game-high 29 points (9-of-17 from the field) and zero turnovers. He also pulled seven fouls – by far the most he’s ever caused. As a result, Agbaji was perfect from the charity line (8 for 8) and helped Kansas on his way to one of the best wins in the 11-year history of the Champions Classic.

“That’s what you should write,” Kansas coach Bill Self told me as we walked back to the victorious Kansas locker room. He was thrilled with the direct evidence of Agbaji’s growth. He couldn’t have put on this kind of performance seven months ago. There is clearly increased aggressiveness – which is the characteristic most lacking in Agbaji’s game.

Yet it is understandable to some extent. As Self reminded reporters after Tuesday’s win, Agbaji was a three-star recruit rated well into his 300s when Kansas offered him. He eventually moved up to No. 132 in his class of 2018, but this was not a player expected to do much in his first or second season with the program. Self loved Agbaji’s long term potential. Now that foresight is what has legitimately ranked Kansas as a top three team to start the season.

Agbaji — who often found his way through the folds and cracks of Michigan’s defenses — exemplifies what patience, discipline, humility, and years of quality minutes entail. Tuesday night certainly looked like a star performance. Agbaji averaged 14.1 points and 3.7 rebounds last season, when Kansas had one of its worst campaigns statistically in the past 20 years. So he wasn’t exactly a shining light at the center of the college hoops universe.

But he was good enough that he seriously considered leaving Kansas and turning pro. He came close. How close?

“Very close,” he said. “I made the right decision.”

One game in, that’s right. The truth is, Agbaji was told what he needed to hear from NBA reviewers. Not only was he very unlikely to be called up, he still had time and opportunity to improve his game in a number of areas that still needed significant improvement. To the Spartans, he showed how seriously he took constructive criticism.

Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Trevor Keels had big college debuts at MSG, and Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe was a monster. But no player had a more important outing than Agbaji.

“I also think when the NBA basically tells you you’re not good enough — I hate to say that,” Self said, “I never told him he’s not good enough. I told him that he won’t be good enough unless he gets a killer instinct. But when they confirmed it, I think he and Jalen (Wilson) both really benefited from the process.”

It’s not that Agbaji was put in the position of being The Guy, as he’s the only returning key veteran. Not at all. Kansas has four starters back (along with Christian Braun, David McCormack and Jalen Wilson). Braun and McCormack combined for 16 points vs. Sparty, while Wilson served the first of his three-game suspension on a DUI charge.

“There’s one more step he has to take to be an elite player, which is that he has to become a hit man, from a confidence level and all, and he definitely did that tonight,” Self said. “He looked great.”

The truth is, Self knows that Agbaji is knocking on the door to become an elite defender. If he gets there, Tuesday’s game probably won’t even be registered as one of his five or six best games this season. For a man who can be “a little too sweet” on the pitch with his style, there’s no denying that Agbaji has incorporated a toughness groove into his mentality. That’s big for a Kansas team that missed a certain something last season and needs an alpha to compete in a very good Big 12.

Seniors always deserve a little more shine and respect than they get in college basketball these days.

We have the habit of paying a lot of attention to the new faces on opening night as well.

In the undercard at the Champions Classic, the latest example of why seniors will always be special, valuable and irreplaceable. Agbaji can be an inspiring story for many. A man who has barely started for his starting team now may well become an All-American this season. If Tuesday’s Agbaji is the player we’ll be getting for the next four months, we’ll probably see him on an NBA roster in a year as well. But let’s not rush that.

There’s still all that potential to be fulfilled from now through April.

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