Life without Kansas center Udoka Azubuike started off sloppy in Saturday night’s loss to Iowa State.
In game two without the All-Conference junior, Kansas found more continuity in a 77-68 over TCU thanks to Dedric Lawson’s 11th double-double of the season and the emergence of freshman Ochai Agbaji.
Agbaji, the freshman from Oak Park High School in Kansas City, checked in with 17:30 on the scoreboard in the first half. Self drew up a backdoor lob pass for Agbaji to get him in rhythm early. Ten seconds later, Agbaji had his first points as a Jayhawk.
“I told myself ‘the best way to get rid of his nerves is to get him an easy basket’,” Self said.
Ochai said he got the call from coach on Sunday. Self announced Tuesday the team would pull the Kansas City native’s redshirt. His composure caught the attention of his teammates.
“It’s not easy to come into the Big 12 and play your first game,” Lawson said regarding Agbaji. “Things like that; he was comfortable, he wasn’t rushing, he was knocking down shots and he was making game-winning plays. You have to tip your hat to a guy like that, who wasn’t highly recruited with so much talent to come in and produce for us. I’m glad he’s here.”
In 25 minutes, Agbaji scored seven points on 3-of-5 shooting and secured four rebounds. Self said he wasn’t surprised how composed the young freshman was, but he didn’t anticipate him playing that many minutes this soon. “I thought he was great,” Self said. “Other than Dedric, he’s probably the second-best player we had in the game today.”
Coming off the emotional high of his first game in a Jayhawk uniform, Agbaji said he thought he held his own. That’s when Lawson and Marcus Garrett cut him off during the post game press conference.
“He played great,” Lawson said emphatically. “He played fantastic,” Garrett chimed in.
“He’s never been in a big game, ever, and to come out and perform like that was pretty special,” Self said.
Lawson, becoming the lone post player with Azubuike sidelined for the season, shouldered the load offensively with 31 points and 14 rebounds. The versatile big man had a monstrous second half, scoring 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting and snatching 10 rebounds. That second half included a stretch of 11 points to put KU ahead 66-59 with 5:03 remaining.
Coach Self said the four-guard lineup improved greatly compared to its debut on Saturday at Ames. The coach highlighted the improved cutting and spacing the team displayed tonight.
“I think it’s a product of us trying to play the right way compared to how we played at Iowa State, which looked like a night and day different team even though we were great tonight but we were so bad then,” Self said.
KU led by as many as 11 early in the second half. However, the Horned Frogs fought back by shooting 50 percent in the second half. TCU had the game at 55-53 with 10:33 remaining before Lawson caught fire. However, Jamie Dixon’s team weathered the storm and cut the KU lead to 3 with 1:41. The Jayhawks responded with a 6-0 run to finish the game.
Five Horned Frogs scored in double-figures, led by guard RJ Nembhard with 14 points. However, the KU defense forced 20 turnovers on the night.
“I thought we really pressured them hard the first half and they had some surprise, uncharacteristic turnovers,” Self said.
Kansas improves to 13-2 on the season and 2-1 in conference play. The team will travel to Waco to play the Baylor Bears on Saturday. Baylor is coming off a 73-70 win over Iowa State.