Past KU stars share in celebration, Agbaji joins elite group
WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - A school rich in basketball history is adding its fourth NCAA men’s basketball championship to the trophy case. The largest comeback in NCAA Tournament championship game history cements the Jayhawks as America’s top team.
KU won it all in front of a crowd of nearly 70,000 people, among them some of the best players to ever take the court for the Jayhawks. Men who went on to play professionally and are regarded among the elite college players in the game’s history never reached the promised land.
During the 1990s, Roy Williams led KU on an incredible run that had the Jayhawks emerge as perhaps the best program in the country. The elephant in the room when discussing some great teams through the decade is that the Jayhawks never broke through for a national championship.
A star on some of those elite KU teams was Paul Pierce who did break through to win an NBA title with the Boston Celtics in 2008. Now retired from the game, Pierce was all smiles after the final buzzer sounded Monday night when KU Head Coach Bill Self extended the celebration to the former players gathered in the Caesar’s Super Dome.
“This is great to see,” Pierce said. “…When they win, I win.”
Drew Gooden, who starred for KU before going pro in 2002, was on a Final Four team that fell short against eventual national champion Maryland during his final years with the Jayhawks. Gooden commended this year’s KU team for its “unbelievable effort.”
“They brought it the whole time,” he said.
The man who hit arguably the biggest shot in KU basketball history was also all smiles to see the Jayhawks break through again. In 2008, Mario Chalmers hit a game-tying three-pointer near the end of regulation in the championship game KU won against Memphis in overtime. The 2007-2008 team was the first national title for Bill Self and the first for KU in 20 years.
“Unbelievable feeling. These guys earned it, it’s amazing,” Chalmers said of watching the 2021-2022 Jayhawks cut down nets inside the Super Dome.
Another guard on one of the best teams in school history played with some of the players on this year’s team. Dynamic handler and shooter Devon Dotson was on the 2019-2020 KU team that many considered the nation’s best before the NCAA Tournament. March 2020 brought the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and with that, came the cancelation of the Big Dance. The championship for this year’s Jayhawks is viewed by some as the fulfillment of unfinished business by the 2020 team that was riding a 16-game winning streak when the sports world came to a grinding stop.
After the game, Self gave Dotson his championship hat, telling him he deserved it too.
“Man, this one feels good,” Dotson said. “It is unbelievable. I am proud of these guys.”
In echelon of historically great Jayhawks, KU senior guard Ochai Agbaji is the latest among first-team All Americans to represent the crimson and blue. He joins even more rarified air, joining the likes of KU and college basketball legends Danny Manning and Wilt Chamberlain as NCAA Tournament MVP.
Monday night, Agbaji ended what Self calls one of the best careers in Jayhawk basketball history.
This chapter in Agbaji’s basketball journey is comes to a close, but his journey is far from over. From the beginning of his time in Lawrence to leaving as the most outstanding player in the NCAA Tournament, those closes to Agbaji say they saw this coming.
The work he put in when no one was watching gave the Oak Park, Mo. native new opportunities he’s taken advantage of.
Among the greatest Jayhawks ever, Self said Agbaji is near the top of the list.
“I think Danny (Manning) was pretty good, too. But [Agbaji is] second,” Self said, comparing his senior guard to the man who led KU to an improbable title in 1988 on a team dubbed “Danny and the Miracles.” “[Agbaji is] the most accomplished player that we have had at our university since Danny. To think that for four years, win the national championship, win the league, win the Big 12 Tournament, with the NCAA Tournament, to be the most outstanding player… We may have had some guys that had comparable years, but never had anybody cap it off like what he has other than [Manning].”
Agbaji, also the Big 12 Tournament MVP this season, credited his teammates and had one message for the crowd gathered in New Orleans to celebrate the Jayhawks: “Rock Chalk.”
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