The whirlwind progression of Ochai Agbaji as a key player for No. 4 Kansas is beginning to come full circle.
Unfortunately for the sophomore guard, that means coping with a shooting slump as the Jayhawks (3-1) prepare for the three-day Maui Invitational, starting with a first-round clash Monday against tournament host Chaminade (2-0).
BYU and UCLA also open play Monday on the same side of the bracket.
Agbaji — whose redshirt was shredded 15 games into last season, when he averaged 8.5 points and provided a high-octane burst — averages 9.0 points and 3.8 rebounds this season but is shooting 36.8 percent.
His average minutes (32.2) reveal Agbaji’s value has not diminished in the eyes of Kansas coach Bill Self.
“He’s just kind of been out there,” Self said. “He hasn’t made shots the last two games, and he’s pressing a little bit to do that, but I’m not worried about it. I want him to shoot it when he’s open, and I want him to be aggressive, and I think he’s going to be a terrific player.”
Armed with the least experience of any of the Jayhawks’ returning starters, the lightly recruited Agbaji did not have the same AAU opportunities as blue chips on the Kansas roster.
His infectious personality, though, won the hearts of teammates, coaches and fans.
He says the coach “sees me still as being younger, and I kind of took that, not really in the wrong way, but sort of in a good way,” Agbaji said. “I still have more room to improve and grow, and there’s a lot more experiences that I haven’t really been through.”
Projections for the field in Maui point to a final between Kansas and No. 3 Michigan State. Each team participates annually in the Champions Classic but faced different opponents this year.
The appearance will be the fourth for Kansas under Self, who guided the Jayhawks to a tourney title in 2015 after finishing second in 2011 and seventh in 2005. Self’s teams are 3-0 against Division II Chaminade, posting an average margin of 42 points.
“Most people will point to Michigan State (as the tournament favorite) because they’re rated so high, but it’s a great field,” said Self, noting first-round matchups on the other side of the bracket that have the Spartans against Virginia Tech and Georgia against Dayton. The only defeat suffered by any of those teams this season is Michigan State’s loss to Kentucky.
As part of an agreement implemented last year, Chaminade is back in Maui after playing in the “mainland bracket” of the tournament in 2018. The Silverswords, responsible for some memorable upsets in the past of teams such as Virginia, Texas and most recently Cal (2017), now play in Maui during odd-numbered years.
Chaminade, based in Honolulu, has not played since beating two Division II Alaska teams on Nov. 9-10 in Anchorage. The Silverswords fell against Hawaii in an exhibition game.
Senior guard Tyler Cartaino was named the Pacific West player of the week after averaging 20.5 points, five rebounds and four assists, while going 18 of 27 during the Anchorage tournament.
–Field Level Media