SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty career contests is all Kurtis Townsend needed to witness from Ochai Agbaji to learn one valuable lesson about Kansas basketball’s out-of-nowhere contributor.
If ever throughout the course of a game the Jayhawk assistant coach finds himself in the heat of the moment and in need of an update on how the team is doing, well, let’s just say the freshman guard’s face isn’t exactly the most reliable scoreboard.
“Here’s a kid that no matter which way it’s going, you can’t tell if we’re up 10 or down 10, because he’s smiling, playing as hard as he can,” Townsend said. “We’ve needed a guy like that. He’s been a breath of fresh air.”
As those both inside and outside the program have learned over the last two-plus months, the same can be applied to Agbaji's own personal status.
Agbaji burst onto the scene, the freshman’s redshirt pulled on the heels of a season-ending injury to junior center Udoka Azubuike and ahead of a 77-68 victory over TCU on Jan. 9 at Allen Fieldhouse. He played 25 minutes in that first tilt, and it was off to the races: Across his first 12 career games, Agbaji averaged 10.6 points and 5.2 rebounds while hitting 53.5 percent of his field goal attempts and 41.9 percent of his tries from 3-point range. Agbaji posted three 20-plus-point efforts in a five-game run from Jan. 29 to Feb. 11, a stretch that had some talking NBA Draft — as in, this year's NBA Draft.
To say the time since has been a struggle would be an understatement.
The Jayhawks’ last eight games have seen Agbaji average 5.5 points on 30-percent shooting with just a 19.4-percent clip from 3-point range, with his rebounds per game also dipping to 4.1. Across KU’s three-game stay in last week’s Big 12 Tournament, Agbaji scored 16 combined points on 7-for-21 shooting, his minutes played dropping each contest.
Agbaji acknowledged his 20-game season has been a whirlwind experience, both for good and bad.
“Obviously, you know, I haven’t been doing so good,” Agbaji said, “but I’m just trying to do the right things to help my team and put them in the right position to win.”
The 6-foot-5, 210-pounder out of Kansas City, Mo., has struggled so much of late that No. 4-seeded KU (25-9) may opt for sophomore Marcus Garrett in its starting lineup in the 3 p.m. Thursday opener at the NCAA Tournament against No. 13-seeded Northeastern (23-10) at Vivint Smart Home Arena. While that decision remains to be announced, Garrett isn’t expecting Agbaji to react poorly either way.
“He’s not worried about it,” Garrett said of Agbaji’s slump. “I mean, every time it’s a new game, he’ll still go out there, still shoot. That’s what he does. I think he’s not really worried about the makes right now. ...
"I don’t think his facial expression ever changes. You really can’t even tell what’s really going on.”
Townsend, who made that same observation about Agbaji, concurred.
“When you have a guy that, hey, it’s about the team and whatever is best for the team he’ll do, it’s really valuable,” Townsend said. “Those are the kind of guys that make your team. You have unity and you don’t splinter because one guy is a little upset because he’s not starting and he was before.”
Agbaji has been a member of the starting lineup since a Jan. 29 contest at Texas, a game which saw the then-budding superstar erupt for 24 points on 8-for-10 shooting. Agbaji’s freakish athleticism was on full display in that contest, with the guard throwing down a left-handed dunk on a fastbreak initiated by a Garrett block from behind on the other end.
Regardless of what his role will be Thursday against the Huskies, Agbaji said he’s identified positives in both. He also believes he's figured out the root of his recent struggles — “I think I just kind of felt kind of too comfortable when I was playing in there,” Agbaji said. “I’ve just got to come out aggressive.”
As he did sporting the redshirt at the outset of the season, Agbaji is once again flying under the radar, a label that could also be applied to the Jayhawks. It's an admittedly odd feeling for the preseason No. 1-ranked team, Agbaji acknowledged, but not one without its benefits.
“Coming in with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, it’s something new for us,” he said. “I think, you know, we’ve just got to keep fighting through it, keep grinding and we’ll be fine.”
Where does that chip come from?
“I think just a lot of people,” Agbaji responded. “Our expectations, we didn’t do a lot this year, so I think this last run is what we have.”
Regardless of what happens this March, and no matter how Agbaji performs in the potential one-and-done scenario Thursday, the once lightly-recruited prospect already has at least one member of the coaching staff bullish on the future.
“I hope he does finish on a strong note, but he’s a kid that’s going to be the face of the program for the next three or four years, three years for sure if he doesn’t redshirt and we bring him out again,” Townsend said. “He’ll be here. He’s a great kid and a good worker. People, they’re going to love him here just because of the way he plays and how much this place means to him.”