Goody Bag: Meet Ochai Agbaji, LSU’s Game-Changer, Hot Coaching Names & More

First came Udoka Azubuike’s season-ending wrist injury, then the NCAA’s decision to hit Silvio De Sousa with a two-year suspension. Marcus Garrett got hurt, LaGerald Vick left the team and now The Streak was history.

But a Kansas freshman is trying to make sure that it doesn’t die.

No, not point guard Devon Dotson, who has been damn good most of the season. Not fellow McDonald’s All-American Quentin Grimes, who has looked ordinary most of the time this season after a dominant performance in the opener against Michigan State. Not top-25 big man David McCormack, who has had minutes basically force-fed to him with the loss of Azubuike and De Sousa.

An anonymous freshman from Kansas City who was recruited by mid-majors a year ago at this time and didn’t get off the bench in the first 14 games of the season may wind up saving The Streak.

Ochai Agbaji, a 6-foot-5 frosh, sat on the bench for the first two months as the “other” frosh, the one who got virtually no attention when he became the fourth member of a class that featured a trio of top-25 players.

I’ll admit. I’d never heard of him and still butcher his name.

Och-eye. A-ba-gee.

Trust me, I’ll get right it if he keeps putting up 24 points and seven rebounds, as was the case a few weeks ago in Austin. Or going for 20 and 11 like he did earlier this week in a pivotal win at TCU, or making 5-of-7 from 3 to help save the Jayhawks from being upset by lackluster Oklahoma State.

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Kansas coach Bill Self and his staff decided to pull Agbaji out of his redshirt after Azubuike’s season-ending wrist injury, when the Jayhawks endured through a stretch of four or five games in which the team managed just a single dunk.

“We needed some athleticism,” Kansas assistant Norm Roberts said. “Badly.”

How in the heck did Agbaji remain a secret for so long?

Agbaji played in the summer with the Nike-sponsored MoKan Elite team that also had Jontay Porter, but Agbaji was more of a “3-and-D” guy – someone who could defend and make corner 3’s.

“He’s a late bloomer,” MoKan coach Matt Suther told me. “His shot was kind of slow, so he had trouble getting it off, and he didn’t really put it on the floor. He was a role guy for us.”

After missing out on Romeo Langford, Kansas was in need of a wing – especially with the expectation Vick was off to the professional ranks. Roberts fielded a call from a Kansas City area coach about Agbaji, who was putting up lofty offensive numbers in high school while flashing his athleticism and also an improved shooting touch. Roberts saw him a couple times and Agbaji was impressive enough to warrant a trip from Self.

The staff was sold.

Agbaji had started to garner high-major interest, but it had been primarily of the mid-major variety coming out of the all-important junior summer. Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi wrote in late-January that the offers came from the likes of Colorado State, Northern Iowa, Air Force, Fresno State, Loyola-Chicago, New Orleans, Missouri State and UMKC. Shortly after Kansas offered, Agbaji became the fourth and anonymous member of a star-studded recruiting class.

But this class hasn’t been quite as advertised – at least not McDonald’s All-American Quentin Grimes (7.8 ppg). Devon Dotson has shown himself as one of the top point guards in the Big 12, and big man David McCormack really hasn’t gotten enough playing time to effectively evaluate him. Grimes is shooting just 39 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep, and has been overshadowed by Agabji the last few weeks.

Kansas will still need some help in order to win at least a share of the Big 12 this season. The Jayhawks trail first-place Kansas State by two games in the loss column, but KU will host K-State on Feb. 25. Without Agbaji, there would be little to no hope of The Streak reaching 15.

And now Agbaji, KU’s most athletic player, has quickly gone from a bystander to being watched. Multiple NBA executives told me that he’s already become the Jayhawks top NBA prospect, and could even play his way into the first round this year with a strong finish to the season.

“He’s does a little bit of everything,” one exec told me. “He’s got NBA size for his position, an NBA body, good feel and he’s athletic and also skilled. It’s a small sample size, but he’s intriguing. Very, very intriguing.”

“I always thought he’d be a really good player,” Bill Self told me. “I didn’t believe he would have the impact he’s had — both as a player and a leader.”


THE GAME-CHANGER IN BATON ROUGE

LSU’s Will Wade took another glimpse at the controversial play that gave his Tigers a surprising win over Kentucky in Rupp, the play in which Kavell Bigby-Williams appeared to have touched the ball while it was still on the cylinder, but officials were only able to go to the review to see if the tip occurred with time left on the clock.

“I don’t know,” Wade said on Wednesday while on the road recruiting down in Florida. “One angle looked like it was off the rim, another looked closer. It’s tough to tell, but we’ll take it.”

Wade, 36, said the win at Rupp was crazy for him because he worked Tubby Smith’s camp at Kentucky while a manager at Clemson about 15 years ago.

“It was almost surreal,” Wade said. “I was almost in shock.”

Everyone who follows recruiting knew that Wade has stockpiled talent this season, adding McDonald’s All-American Naz Reid to an incoming class that features three more players ranked in the top 75: athletic power forward Emmitt Williams, Baton Rouge native Javonte Smart and Darius Days.

But I was worried about the chemistry and how Wade, who hadn’t ever dealt with a situation like this, would handle the egos and personalities of guys who were either considered future pros, or thought they were future NBA’ers.

“That’s fair,” Wade told me. “I think our chemistry has been a separator. It’s been a game-changer.”

Wade said that after LSU lost to Sept. 12 at Houston in which the Tigers fell to 7-3, he called a team meeting with the players. They aired some concerns, Wade took accountability and then he simplified some things in order to help the players free their minds.

LSU has reeled off 13 of 14 since.


20 HOT NAMES COME MARCH

NBA GUYS

Fred Hoiberg – Hoiberg was fired just 24 games into his fourth NBA season with the Chicago Bulls. It seems unlikely he’ll get another NBA head gig, but his resume at Iowa State was impressive: four NCAA tourneys in five seasons and a 115-56 record. He’ll likely be in the mix for many of the big boy jobs, including UCLA.

Luke Walton, Los Angeles Lakers – This one is obviously speculative because Walton is currently employed by the Lakers. However, if Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka do make a move with Walton, don’t be surprised if his name surfaces at UCLA and Arizona (if something winds up happening with Sean Miller).

Ty Lue – Lue was let go by the Cavs early this season. Lives in Las Vegas, so could make a run at the UNLV gig – and also is a Nebraska alum, so that’s another one that certainly fits.

Jason Kidd – Some feel as though Kidd could be in play for the Lakers if/when a move is made. If Kidd can’t get back into the NBA, expect his name to surface at Cal, where he played in the early 1990s. If UNLV makes a move, look for the Runnin’ Rebels to try and swing for a big name – and Kidd could be in play.

 

MID-MAJOR GUYS

Nate Oats, Buffalo – The former Michigan high school coach is on track for his third NCAA tourney appearance in four years with the Bulls – and this one will likely come via an at-large berth (even if they don’t win the MAC tourney). Oats helped build the program as an assistant for a couple years under Bobby Hurley, and has sustained it after moving over one seat. I’d expect Oats to be in the mix for spots like Nebraska, Minnesota, Penn State and Boston College – if they open.

Eric Musselman, Nevada – The former NBA head coach has completely reinvented himself in Reno, turning Nevada into a top 10 team this season. Muss has toned it down on the sidelines, but there are still some programs who may be fearful of his past. That said, he’ll in the mix for high-major gigs and it’ll be hard for him to pass on them since he loses the Martin Twins and Jordan Caroline off this year’s team.

T.J. Otzelberger, South Dakota State – The former Iowa State assistant was regarded as a recruiter until he took over the Jackrabbits – and has taken them to the NCAA tourney in each of his two seasons at the helm. South Dakota State is in position for a third consecutive NCAA tourney berth. Otzelberger has west coast ties and also strong connections in the Midwest, so he can be in play with a variety of openings – Pac-12 and Big Ten in particular.

Wes Miller, UNC Greensboro – He got the gig back in 2011 on an interim basis and has turned the program around, winning 25 two years ago, 27 last season and already 21 this year. He played at UNC, and the practice court at Wake is named after his father, so he should be on the short list if/when Wake makes a move with Danny Manning.

 

NOT SURE IF HE WANTS TO GET BACK IN …

Thad Matta, formerly of Ohio State – The big question is whether Matta truly wants to get back into the coaching ranks. His health has improved, but he has already passed on several jobs – including Butler and Ole Miss. His name will definitely be in the mix for jobs come March, but we’ll see if any of them can lure him out of retirement.

 

WANTS TO GET BACK IN, BUT CAN HE?

Rick Pitino – Currently coaching in Greece, the Hall of Famer would love to get back in – but the question is whether anyone can pull the trigger on him until the NCAA wraps up its investigation on Louisville. Just imagine Pitino in Vegas.

 

TRIO THAT SHOULD RETURN AFTER BRIEF HIATUS

Mark Fox – The former Georgia head man has helped out Jeff Van Gundy with the US team and spurned some mid-major opportunities last spring, but look for him to be in the mix due to his reputation for doing things the right way and also his ability to coach.

Andy Kennedy – He’s a terrific broadcaster, but I would expect the ex-Ole Miss coach to get back in it if the right opportunity presents itself. Well-liked, and did a nice job at a difficult spot.

Steve Alford – Fired by UCLA just prior to the New Year, don’t be surprised to see Alford’s name surface for some Midwest gigs – potentially even Nebraska if the Cornhuskers made a move on Tim Miles. It may be more realistic to see his name out there for good mid-major jobs.

 

AHEAD OF THE POSSE?

Shaka Smart, Texas – The honeymoon is over for Smart in Austin. The Longhorns are on track to get into the NCAA tourney for the third time in his four seasons, but they have yet to win a game in the tourney and are 29-37 in Big 12 play in his three-plus seasons.

 

BIG NAME MOVERS

Kelvin Sampson, Houston – He’s 63 and still won’t be hirable to some programs due to the five-year show-cause he received in 2008, but he’s got the inside track for the National Coach of the Year Award right now with the Cougars at 23-1 despite losing their leading scorer, Rob Gray, from last year’s NCAA tourney squad. Sampson could be a target at Texas A&M, but could he also stick at Houston – and try and make sure his son, Kellen, gets the head job when he retires.

Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech – It was a shocker when he left Marquette for Virginia Tech five years ago. He’s done an incredible job in Blacksburg and will take the Hokies to the NCAA tourney for the third consecutive season. Williams won’t leave for just anywhere, but we’ll see what happens in College Station, Tucson and maybe even with the vacant UCLA gig.

Chris Beard, Texas Tech – Beard fits Lubbock, but any top-20 job on the west coast should be all over him. He’s made the Red Raiders relevant and sustained it. If something happened at Arizona or Texas, Beard would have to be on a short list.

 

ASSISTANTS IN PLAY

Luke Yaklich, Michigan – The former Illinois high school coach spent four seasons under Dan Muller at Illinois State before being hired by John Beilein. In the last two seasons, the Wolverines’ defense – which had hardly been known as stingy – ranks third and second in the country, respectively. That should be enough to be hired this offseason.

Jason Williford, Virginia – Ron Sanchez got the Charlotte job last offseason from Tony Bennett’s staff. Look for Williford to be in the mix this year. He’s been selective, but there could be plenty of jobs in his wheelhouse.

Jon Scheyer, Duke – He’s played and coached under Mike Krzyzewski, and while Jeff Capel got most of the credit for the recruiting prowess, Scheyer has done plenty. He’s got the name, and it could be time for him to get a head job this offseason.


DUNPHY’S QUIET SWAN SONG

OK, I admit it: I’m rooting for Fran Dunphy and I’m hardly alone.

This is his swan song, the last hurrah for the 70-year-old Temple and former Penn head coach. After this season, he’ll step aside and let former Owls legend Aaron McKie run the program.

Dunphy doesn’t want some farewell tour. He’s gotten a few gifts thus far – a variety of barbecue sauces while at East Carolina, golf balls while at Houston and a mini-statue of Wichita State’s logo.

“It’s been very much business as usual,” Dunphy said. “It’s been a little uncomfortable for me, but the kids are the focus.”

That’s the way it’s always been for Dunphy, who has been a Philly legend and also who has earned as much respect as just about any coach in the country for how he conducts himself and his program.

“He’s the most genuine guy in our profession,” Mike Krzyzewski said of Dunphy.

“Dunph is the gold standard, and in a profession where a healthy ego is essential, he has none,” St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli told Stadium. “He is and always has been about others – whether it’s an opposing coach, the players in his program or those he has competed against. He has positively impacted Philly hoops through his class and dignity. He’s one of a kind.”

He was basically running the Ivy League while at Penn, racking up 10 regular-season titles. Then he went to Temple in 2006, and he won a pair of A-10 tourneys and a trio of league titles. There aren’t many that could successfully follow John Chaney and last this long, but Dunphy has done just that. Temple went to the NCAA tourney in six of his seven seasons in the A-10, and the Owls have struggled a bit since moving to the AAC – going just once in the last five seasons.

Dunphy, 70, said he’s not retiring from work. His plan is to increase his teaching workload (he’s been teaching a management class for the last dozen years at Temple), and spend time with his first grandchild.

But there’s still a goal before he leaves the sidelines: try and make one final trip to the NCAA tourney.

“I think everyone in college basketball coaching is rooting for Dunph to get to the tourney this year,” Villanova coach Jay Wright told Stadium. “There has never been a coach that has combined competitive success while still being loved and respected like Dunph. It’s universal in our coaching fraternity for Fran.”

Temple is 18-7 overall, 8-4 in league play and are squarely on the bubble.


MID-MAJOR GOODY BAG

– UNC Greensboro coach Wes Miller said the best thing to happen to his team may have been the 73-42 drubbing at home to Wofford on Jan. 10. “That game woke us up,” Miller said. The Spartans have won eight straight, and will go on the road this week to Furman and 13-0 Wofford. Miller said the top of the SoCon is as good as it’s been with Wofford, UNCG, Furman and ETSU – and also said that Samford is dangerous enough to beat anyone. “I think our top four teams are all NCAA-caliber teams,” Miller said.

– While we are giving coaches some love, how about Vermont’s John Becker. The guy is 103-20 in America East play and the Catamounts are 19-5 for the third consecutive season. Becker’s best player, junior Anthony Lamb, is averaging 21.4 points and 8.0 rebounds. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen more growth and maturation from a player,” Becker said. “He’s a 6-foot-6, long-armed matchup nightmare.”

– UTSA’s Steve Henson has the most potent scoring backcourt in the country in sophomores Jhivvan Jackson (22.7 ppg) and Keaton Wallace (21.0 ppg). They are both Dallas-area kids and are completely different players. Henson describes Jackson as a little “wild,” quick, with fast release and takes some ill-advised shots. Wallace is steady, not as quick as Jackson, but has developed athletically. Jackson had 46 at Western Kentucky and two days later Wallace went for 45 at Marshall. They have the Roadrunners a half-game out of first place in C-USA.

– Love what Towson coach Pat Skerry and South Florida assistant Tom Herrion have done to raise awareness for autism. Most of the college coaches throughout the country this weekend will be wearing a blue puzzle-piece to raise awareness for autism. Skerry’s 10-year-old son, Owen, was diagnosed when he was younger and so was Herrion’s son, Robert. Autism affects an estimated 1 in 59 children in the United States. You can go to autismspeaks.org for more info.

– Villa 7 produced more than 220 D-1 men’s and women’s head coaches. Now, after a a three-year absence, a spin-off to Villa 7 will take place in Charlotte on May 15-16 called Next Chair. The coaches’ professional development/networking program will be led by the trio of Charlotte AD Mike Hill, Florida AD Scott Stricklin and one of the primary drivers of Villa 7 – Mike Ellis.