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Uka Agbai

December 5, 2002 Columns No Comments

Hard to Think About Basketball In Chestnut Hill

by Phil Kasiecki

For Boston College fans, things seem to be going from bad to worse despite an exciting overtime win Wednesday night against St. Bonaventure. The Eagles are 2-2, but the losses include a blowout against St. Joseph’s where the Eagles played very poorly and a loss to Patriot League favorite Holy Cross that exposed some of the team’s weaknesses. The Eagles don’t have a proven outside shooter to help the post players that complement star guard Troy Bell, making the Eagles vulnerable when Bell has off games like he had in their two losses where he shot a combined 7-30 from the field.

As bad as things are on the court, there are concerns off the court that have arisen in recent days that make wins and losses seem very minor. After Sunday’s game, assistant coach Ed Cooley was hospitalized after complaining of chest pains. The 33-year old is not expected to rejoin the team for at least two weeks. My thoughts are with Ed and his family as they focus on his health first and basketball later. The next day, word came that senior forward Uka Agbai had suffered a neck injury during the game and would miss at least six weeks. Neck injuries are nothing to take lightly, and just yesterday, more was learned about this particular injury and for that matter, about Uka Agbai and the kind of player he is.

Agbai broke a bone in two places in his neck. He sustained the injury near the end of the first half against Holy Cross, but played most of the second half and scored all 15 of his points in the game. One never would have imagined he suffered such a serious injury watching the game; Agbai was his usual self, making plays at both ends of the court as the veteran frontcourt anchor for the Eagles. Agbai never had the neck checked out until the next day, when he saw a doctor after experiencing numbness while in class. This almost certainly means that his season is over and that he will seek a medical redshirt, but this is not likely to be an easy injury to come right back from. Nonetheless, Agbai is already talking as though he will be playing next season.

For those who have watched Agbai play the last three seasons at The Heights, his playing with the injury and subsequent plan to come back next season is not a surprise. Agbai has quietly had a nice college career and his development has been enjoyable to watch ever since he set foot on campus as an unheralded 6-8, 236-pound freshman out of Archbishop Molloy High School, a school whose alumni roster includes Kenny Anderson, Kenny Smith and Lou Carnesecca. Agbai is a classmate of Bell’s, entering as the team’s fourth and final signee in that class.

As a freshman, Agbai had to play major minutes right away. The Eagles were not deep and especially in the frontcourt, so Agbai gave them some much-needed size as he was thrown right into the fire of Big East competition. He played more minutes than any Eagle except Bell and led the team in rebounding with 5 per game, while showing the ability to operate on the high post as a passer and occasionally knocking down a mid-range jump shot.

In his sophomore season, Agbai was no small contributor to the Eagles’ success as they won a school-record 27 games. He led the team in field goal percentage and was a key to several big wins. Though his rebounding numbers dropped and he was in his share of foul trouble, the Eagles would not have had the success they had without him.

Last season was Agbai’s breakout season. He shared the team MVP honors with Bell, and deservingly so; in a season where the Eagles were very inconsistent, Agbai was a constant as he played well even in some of BC’s worst games. He averaged a career-best 11.9 points per game and hauled down 6 rebounds per game, while also setting a career mark in steals by far with 48 (1.5 per game). Agbai cut down on foul trouble and was one of the conference’s best defenders while continuing to develop his overall skills.

Agbai entered the 2002-03 season weighing in at 262 pounds, as he has gained strength during his collegiate days. As one of the senior leaders of a veteran team, he was poised to leave The Heights as a winner. While the Eagles struggled for most of their first three games, Agbai averaged 14 points and 6 rebounds; on an otherwise forgettable night in the season opener, Agbai scored 16 points, grabbed 9 rebounds and blocked 3 shots in an embarrassing home loss. In the third game of the season, he suffered an injury that nearly left him paralyzed, according to a doctor.

It should come as no surprise that Agbai’s development has coincided with the resurgence of the Eagles. Agbai entered after Boston College went 6-21 in 1998-99, the school’s worst season in many years, as it was still hurting from the black eye the program received in Jim O’Brien’s final season as head coach. The Eagles lost an excellent class of players to enter the following season due to questionable denials of admission and that helped lead to O’Brien’s subsequent departure from his alma mater, which he never wanted to leave. Agbai’s freshman season was not necessarily anything to write home about, as the Eagles went 11-19 and suffered through a 12-game losing streak along the way. His sophomore season was one for the books, as the Eagles went 27-5, though there was some disappointment from being knocked out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Last season, more was expected of the Eagles, so barely making the NCAA tournament with a 20-11 record was seen as a disappointment. But most programs would love to win 20 games and make the NCAA Tournament, so it was a successful season by many standards.

Eagle fans are hoping that Uka Agbai has not played his last game, even if it means he must wait until next season while getting a medical redshirt for this season. Agbai’s toughness, leadership, and knowledge of the game will be missed on the court for the remainder of the season. More importantly, it is my hope that he recovers from this injury for his own sake and aside from basketball. If Agbai never plays another game, his contributions will in no way be diminished and he was no less enjoyable to watch as he went from an unheralded freshman forced to play major minutes to one of the Big East’s better frontcourt players and arguably one of the nation’s most under-appreciated players. He has never received so much as honorable mention All-Big East honors in his solid career. When it’s all over, many will look at Troy Bell as the big reason for the resurgence of Boston College, but Uka Agbai deserves a great deal of credit for it as well as far as players are concerned.

Get well soon, Uka.

Hoopville senior writer Jed Tai contributed to this report.


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