The smile. Big, confident, sometimes accompanying a shoulder-shaking laugh, like the one he can't stifle when a teammate rises for a dunk, comes up short and falls with a splat to the floor.
“I'm sorry,” the proverbial mayor of Nebraska high school basketball said. “But that was hilarious.”
Center Akoy Agau sits on a bleacher inside Omaha Central's gym. He's dressed in red and black — colors of Louisville, his future collegiate home — to go to one of the two jobs that he works to help support his family. But the mayor has a minute. He usually does for just about everyone. Just like the smile.
“He got the same look on his face at all times,” said teammate Tra-Deon Hollins. “You wouldn't know that he's mad at you unless he tells you.”
Said Eagles coach Eric Behrens with a smile: “He's a popular kid. He knows how to work whatever room he's in. He knows how to talk to his 17-year-old friends and how to talk to the boardroom full of adults.”
Agau saves his best seminars — and postgame smiles — for the Devaney Center.
He heads into Thursday's state basketball tournament in Lincoln with a chance to win his fourth straight Class A title. In the past three years, Agau has shined on the March stage, where he sweeps shots away from the basket like dust in an attic.
After the state tournament, Agau plans to watch Louisville in person next week at the Big East tournament in New York. And then maybe watch the Cardinals at the Final Four in Atlanta.
The past year has been a whirlwind from the moment he posted a triple-double in last season's title game against Omaha South — 16 points, 13 rebounds and 14 blocks — until now, when Central (23-4) is healthy and thus the prohibitive favorite to four-peat.
Agau played a summer of club basketball in front of many of the nation's best college coaches. He ate a plate of lasagna he'll never forget. He gave a coaching legend a belated birthday present — and then wondered if he should switch to the new coach on the block. He got hugs from his five siblings. He helped his mom with her English classes.
And somewhere in there, yes, Akoy Agau almost left Central with the final chapter unwritten.
More than numbers
Agau's senior season statistics — 12.7 points and six rebounds per game — aren't flashy. Because of the Eagles' hounding press and strong guard play, they don't have to be. But the numbers lead to a few naysayers wondering about Agau's impact.
Not Behrens. Since Agau arrived and played a major role as a freshman for the 2010 title team, he's always been the final, consummate defender in Central's defense.
“If our press is working and turning guys over, he's not always getting those easy baskets,” Behrens said. “Sometimes, the more we're winning by, the less he plays.”
Agau's skill-set attracted the attention of college scouts years ago. Agau remembers being contacted by Kareem Richardson, then an assistant at Drake, in eighth grade. Richardson got a job at Xavier in 2011 — and kept recruiting Agau. In April 2012, he took a job at Louisville. Head coach Rick Pitino asked Richardson if there were any Xavier targets the Cardinals should recruit.
“One of the first guys Kareem said was Akoy,” Pitino said. So Louisville joined the hunt to watch Agau on the summer AAU circuit, where he played for Team Nebraska Express. Creighton — just blocks from Agau's home — “didn't go after him really hard,” Behrens said.
But Nebraska's Doc Sadler did, for years, and forged a strong bond with Agau, Behrens said. Sadler was also recruiting Agau's former Central teammate Deverell Biggs out of junior college. NU fired Sadler on March 9, 2012.
Two weeks later, Tim Miles took the job. A week after that, Agau said, Miles was on the phone talking to him and his AAU coach, Scott Hammer. Miles eventually signed Biggs and continues to evaluate Agau's current teammate, junior Tre'Shawn Thurman.
“My type of coach,” Agau said of Miles. “Enthusiastic, really funny, smart guy. He definitely knew his X's and O's. When I asked him things he could see me doing (as a Husker), he was really specific. He was truthful.”
Miles was also competing with Florida, Georgetown and suddenly Louisville, where Pitino had perfected a fast-paced, high-pressure style that mirrors what Behrens does at Central.
“Press and run and play fast — that's what we like to do,” Behrens said. “Pitino would be a coach I consider an influence in terms of somebody I grew up watching.”
Pitino said he liked that Agau had been “well-coached” and had a variety of skills. He could block shots, obviously. But he could pass, too. He had a good sense of timing.
“He was very unselfish,” Pitino said. “He has a healthy ego, but it's not an ego for himself. It's more for his team.”
Staying home — for now
Behrens thought Georgetown — which has a history of developing big men for the NBA — was the front-runner for Agau's services through the summer and early fall.
And it was the Hoyas' assistant coaches who lent Central an assist in August, when Agau strongly considered transferring to Montrose Christian School, a small, private institution best known for being Kevin Durant's prep stomping grounds. This after the Eagles finished last season 30-0, after Behrens had arranged for Central to play in a major tournament in Florida — featuring many of the nation's best prep teams — and scheduled a game with perennial national power Oak Hill Academy in Grand Island.
Why did Agau think about leaving? He made friends with several Montrose players during the AAU circuit, and they started recruiting him, Behrens said.
Said Agau: “I've won three state championships here — and obviously, I can win a fourth, and be one of the only people to do it — but why not go to a school where you get challenged every day, and all you do is school, basketball, school, basketball? No other, I don't want to say distractions, but other things going on.”
Hollins had been playing with Agau for five years. He found out that his friend was considering Montrose after a call from his uncle.
“My first thought was, 'Forget him, we're gonna win the state championship with or without him,'” Hollins said. “But then reality set in as we got closer to school and I thought: 'He can't leave. We can't do it ourselves. We need him.'”
Behrens printed off the schedules for Montrose and Central and sat down with Agau. Contrary to what Agau had been told, Montrose wasn't playing nationally ranked high school teams every game. Some of its opponents were overmatched private schools, while others were Washington, D.C.-area programs no stronger than the best teams in the Omaha metro. Georgetown, five miles from Montrose, did not always recruit players from the school just because it was close.
Behrens remembers one college assistant pointing out that the grass wasn't necessarily greener elsewhere. “Why would you do this?” Behrens remembered the coach asking Agau. “You go to a beautiful high school. You're the mayor of Omaha, practically. Montrose runs their classes out of a basement in a church. There's no school, no campus, 100 kids go there.”
But the final call came down to Agau's mom, Adaw Makeir, and dad, Madut Agau.
“We told him no,” his mother said.
Agau said: “They definitely did not want me to go.”
“Behind closed doors, I was like, 'Whew!'” Hollins said.
Akoy's parents — who have six children and emigrated from South Sudan a decade ago to escape civil war — gave their son a few reasons.
They wanted Akoy's three brothers and two sisters to see him finish high school and graduate at Central. Plus, Madut lives during the week in Denison, Iowa — he works at Farmland Foods as a meat cutter — leaving Akoy to help his mother around the house. Akoy helps his siblings with their homework, especially Magay, a sophomore at Central, and when their mother doesn't understand a word in one of her English lessons, Akoy explains it to her.
“I'm always busy,” Agau said. “I'm working, I got school, I got basketball. I've had to mature at a young age. It's only going to help me more later in life. My dad's doing as much as he can.”
Agau's parents also told him he could choose his college. Yes, his mother said, she asked him to consider Nebraska and Creighton. But they gave him the freedom to go elsewhere.
“It's called the American Dream,” she said. “And we wanted Akoy to follow that.”
Agau took several unofficial visits to Georgetown and an official one in mid-September to Louisville. Though the Cardinals' basketball arena — the KFC Yum! Center — isn't brand new like Nebraska's Pinnacle Bank Arena will be in the fall, it's only three years old, and several thousand seats bigger. UL has two players from Africa, and one, Mangok Mathiang, from Sudan.
“I was happy there,” Agau said of the visit.
Three days later, Pitino and Richardson made their in-home visit at Agau's girlfriend's house. Agau picked the meal: lasagna. His family was there, as were Behrens and Hammer. Unlike Georgetown, which sent an assistant for the in-home, Pitino intended to close the deal himself.
The coach's birthday was Sept. 18. Agau joked that he could give Pitino a late birthday present by committing Sept. 19. Then he committed.
“I don't think anybody was expecting that,” Behrens said.
Including Miles. The day after Agau committed, Miles called Behrens. What else could we have done? Six days later, Behrens said, Miles was in town for a speaking engagement for the Omaha Metro Coaches Association, and came to Central. Three days after that, Agau was on the sideline for the Huskers' football game against Wisconsin.
“That's when Nebraska jumped back in,” Behrens said. “You go to a football game, and all those fans start yelling 'Hey, Akoy, you should go to Nebraska,' and I think he was feeling it. Then it was game on.”
Said Agau: “I kinda had a moment where I was like: 'Did I make the right decision?'”
It's clear that some of his indecision revolved around his family. He worried about sister Magay. He'd miss the hugs from his 4-year-old brother, Akol. His girlfriend, Charlotte Sjulin, will play softball at NU. His mom and dad wouldn't see many of his games at Louisville.
But everyone close to Agau — including teammates — told him to make the best decision for him. So when Pitino convened a conference call to determine whether his power forward commit was still on board, Agau said he was. He signed with the Cardinals in November. During basketball practice, he wears a Louisville basketball T-shirt.
“I think there are many positives to moving away and being on your own and just kind of growing up and not being able to depend on your family,” Agau said. “Becoming more mature. An adult.”
Said Behrens: “I don't think it's a bad thing that he's leaving, because if he's close enough to come back for every little thing that happened, I think he'd feel a lot of pressure to do that. He's got one of those family situations where he wants to be there and help and do everything. If he's only 45 minutes down the road at Lincoln, or he was at Creighton, he'd be back here too much.”
One final push
Compared with the tension leading up to it, Central's actual season has been smooth, Behrens said. The Eagles won one game in Florida but lost two close ones — by three points each to Long Beach (Calif.) Poly and Chicago's Whitney Young. They dropped two more to their main challengers at the state tournament, Omaha South and Papillion-La Vista. But they beat Oak Hill in front of 5,500 in Grand Island, with Agau living up to the moment, finishing with 20 points and nine rebounds.
“I knew we weren't probably going to go undefeated,” said Hollins, a shut-down defender who missed the South and Papio games with an ankle injury but returned against Oak Hill. “But we wanted to open up everybody's eyes. That we're just not another Omaha team. By beating Oak Hill, we got the respect we deserved. We left everything on the floor. I woke up Sunday hurting. It was hard for me to walk.”
Agau flips a switch and raises the intensity in big-game situations, Hollins said, and it flows to the rest of the team. Though the guards in Central's defense do the lion's share of the hounding, Agau's confidence and drive are partially behind their effort.
“He demands respect,” Hollins said. “He demands that you play at the level he thinks you can play at. You won't meet too many people like him.”
Behrens won't argue with that. Though he's found a “happy medium” with Agau in four years, there have been times when the center was a challenge. Agau “has a little Eddie Haskell” in him, the kid who's smart enough to work the room — or push the occasional button.
But his on-court skills and presence — especially at the state tournament — make Agau one of the definitive players in the last 30 years of Nebraska high school basketball, in Behrens' estimation.
“What he's able to do defensively — with how many shots he blocks — and how he's able to score when we need him to, he's right up there,” Behrens said. “It's been a wild ride. I'll miss him.”
So will Agau's mom, though she has created a solid, straightforward plan to see her son play at Louisville.
“We're going to call him and he's going to tell us whenever there is a game on,” she said. “And we'll all watch it.”
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