LAWRENCE — Ochai Agbaji’s next steps are clear.
After a historic senior season of college basketball at Kansas, Agbaji plans to make his way out west to train in the Phoenix area. After helping lead the Jayhawks to a national championship earlier this month in New Orleans, it’s time for him to embark on a professional career. The NBA combine awaits in May, followed by the draft in June.
But before all that, Agbaji had another opportunity to celebrate the 2021-22 season with his teammates and coaches Thursday at Kansas’ banquet.
Inside Allen Fieldhouse, where he’s spent so much time over the past four years, he was able to re-live the run that led to the program’s latest national title — the second of head coach Bill Self’s tenure. Agbaji can now move on as one of the program’s most accomplished athletes.
“I’ll make this quick,” Agbaji told the crowd as the banquet drew to a close, “I want to start off by thanking coach Self for, obviously, recruiting me here. I know I was about to go on an official visit right before he offered me. I was going to go to Oregon State. But then, I canceled that visit right after he offered me, and took up the offer. But, I just want to thank everybody, thank my family, thank the coaches and obviously thank my teammates.”
Agbaji said closing this season out with a banquet inside of Allen Fieldhouse was like coming back to where it all started. As the last week unfolded — with the parade and more — it started to set in for him just what the team accomplished.
Agbaji said he remembers every play from the championship game against North Carolina. He points to the chemistry he and his teammates have, as well as their defensive effort, for enabling a title run to take place. Over the course of this season, he felt he learned what he’s capable of both as a leader, and as a talent on a team like Kansas.
Agbaji may not have been the favorite to be the Big 12’s Player of the Year, but he eventually earned that accolade and more. He became a consensus first-team All-American. He could be a lottery pick, when the upcoming NBA draft is held.
“I think we learned a lot about ourselves in the Big 12 regular season,” Agbaji said reflecting on his favorite memories of the season. “Then postseason it was just like no pressure, just go out there and play and just play for each other.”
Kansas handed out the team’s Danny Manning Mr. Jayhawk award during the event, an honor Agbaji shared with Mitch Lightfoot and David McCormack.
Agbaji wasn’t surprised by the honor, but Lightfoot said he was. He said it was special to be listed alongside Agbaji and McCormack.
McCormack said it shows how much everyone contributed to what the team accomplished. It’s emotional, McCormack explained, thinking about the journey he’s been on with Agbaji these past four years and how Lightfoot played a part in that as well.
“I was going to give it to seniors, and those guys have all given their heart and soul to this place for anywhere from four-to-six years” Self said. “And so, I personally thought it was a no-brainer. I think Mitch and (McCormack) and (Agbaji), obviously, represent us in every good way possible. So, I thought that was a pretty easy decision.”
Whenever Agbaji’s jersey is retired, it will bring another opportunity to relive his part of the postseason run that has made recent weeks so special for so many around the program. There aren’t many Jayhawks teams that can boast of what the 2021-22 squad can. There are fewer players who can cite a resume as impressive as Agbaji’s.
As Self introduced Agbaji at the banquet, he highlighted how determined Agbaji was when Agbaji decided to come back to Kansas for another season. There’s no other player, in Self’s time leading the Jayhawks, that Self thinks had a better senior year than Agbaji.
“Certainly, we loved coaching him every day,” Self said. “And he’s right here in our backyard.”
Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas Athletics at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.