LAWRENCE — Despite coaching the No. 3-ranked team in the country, Bill Self believes Kansas basketball still has ample room for growth.
“I think right now if I was going to grade us I would say we’re probably right where a passing grade would be,” Self said following the Jayhawks’ 60-53 victory over then-No. 16 West Virginia on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse. “We haven’t done anything special to get above that, and we certainly haven’t done much to get below it too.”
One of the biggest aspects holding KU (11-2, 1-0 Big 12) back from a higher GPA, so to speak, is its shooting.
That much was acknowledged when, asked to grade out his own offensive season to this point, sophomore guard Ochai Agbaji proved to be a similar grader to his head coach.
“I’d say, like, a C,” Agbaji said Tuesday. “Yeah, I know I can do better. I know I can be a lot more aggressive. But I feel like, you know, sometimes I’ll kind of flow into or play into the flow of the game and not really try to force anything. That’s when I kind of become passive.
“But you know, my teammates and all that, they’re confident in me making plays aggressively offensively, so I’m just going to stick with that.”
Improved shooting from outside, both Self and Agbaji recognize, is of paramount importance.
Entering its 7 p.m. Wednesday clash with Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa, KU sits third in the Big 12 and 106th nationally in 3-point field goal percentage at 34.8%. However, KU made just 3 of 17 against the Mountaineers and has hit at just a 28.8% clip over its last three games.
Furthermore, KU ranks 277th nationally in 3-pointers attempted per game (18.7), understandable to a degree due to the Jayhawks’ abilities in the paint but a number that still stands ninth in the league.
Self expressed the need for Agbaji and the team’s other expected 3-point weapons to take the next step forward.
“We’re not going to have a chance to have a special season unless, let’s just call it like it is, unless Ochai and Christian (Braun) and Isaiah Moss can shoot the ball from the perimeter,” Self said, “and (Saturday) that obviously didn’t happen.”
When relayed that comment from Self, Agbaji concurred.
“You know, between us three, every night we’ve just got to be productive, really,” said Agbaji, who is shooting 37.9% from 3-point range this season but has made just 4 of 15 across the Jayhawks’ last three contests. "Not so much shooting it better but just playing better as individuals and not so much really (being) worried about making shots.”
Agbaji went 1 of 5 from long range against the Mountaineers, Moss 0 of 2 and Braun 0 of 1. Moss, a senior guard and former Iowa transfer with a track record of success from beyond the arc, is shooting 40% from 3 on the season, while Braun sits at 34.8%. Agbaji averages 5.1 attempted treys per game, Moss 4.2 and Braun 1.8.
The Jayhawks’ issues from distance aren’t attributable to accuracy or volume, said Agbaji, who instead argued it’s been problems that cropped up on a game-by-game basis. He doesn’t need a reminder from Self on what he needs to personally improve — “I already know what he expects out of me every single game, so I’m just ready to bring it,” he said.
Agbaji cited defensive effort for his 33.7 minutes played per game, the team’s second-highest mark.
“Obviously, you know, if my offensive game isn’t working that night or something like that or I’m just being passive like I said, defensively (is) where I try to create my energy,” Agbaji said. “I think that’s obviously key to winning games. I just try to focus on that more. ... Eventually (the offense) is going to come together. I’m not really worried about that.”
Braun's own high activity level has led to a playing time uptick, with the freshman guard in for all 20 second-half minutes against WVU and finishing the game with five rebounds and two steals.
So, then, improvement from Moss, who tallied no points and one rebound in just seven minutes against the Mountaineers, appears to be most vital going forward.
“We’ve got to get something out of Isaiah,” Self said. “If we’re able to do that I think we can be a pretty good offensive team.”
Agbaji said Moss’ recent struggles haven’t bled over into Jayhawk practices.
“He’s been bringing it,” Agbaji said. “No matter how he’s playing on the court, every practice he’s coming with a positive attitude, and that’s something we need going into conference and going into these tough road games that we have. Just keeping positive and keeping that right attitude is good.”
Thirteen games into the season, KU remains a work in progress. That is true beyond simply the team’s 3-point shooting, with several players still looking to solidify their roles on the team.
Agbaji, actually, is encouraged by that fact.
“That’s kind of exciting seeing all that potential that we have, whether it’s Tristan (Enaruna) or Isaiah once he gets going,” Agbaji said. “Having those two guys come in and play later on would be good, or even now.”