IOWA CITY, Ia. — The first time I talked to Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery about Gabe Olaseni was in April 2011.
Olaseni, then a center a Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas, had signed a letter of intent with the Hawkeyes that day, and McCaffery was making an appearance at the Boone-Story County I-Club.
“I think his best basketball is ahead of him,” McCaffery said, raving about Olaseni’s potential and his 7-foot-2 wingspan. “We’re really excited about him.”
Today, the 6-foot-10 sophomore from London is still a basketball neophyte. He’s playing just his seventh season of organized basketball.
“Some of my teammates have double that,” Olaseni quipped.
McCaffery and assistant Andrew Francis were recruiting Eric Katenda when they first saw Olaseni during a workout at Sunrise. Now, Olaseni is the most improved player this season on an Iowa team that takes a 20-11 record into Thursday’s Big Ten Tournament opener against Northwestern.
Earlier this season, Olaseni was struggling to fight through mistakes and get on to the next play. He didn’t even play against Iowa State on Dec. 7 and was looking like a serious redshirt candidate in 2013-14. Now, he’s played his way out of that redshirt and has some wondering why he didn’t sit out last season.
Olaseni said the light went on for him in a Dec. 22 game against Coppin State. He scored 14 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked two shots while playing 18 minutes.
“That’s when I started to get a lot better,” Olaseni said.
In the last four games, with point guard Mike Gesell sidelined with a foot injury, Olaseni has averaged 18 minutes a game and has blocked 12 shots. He had a career-high three assists Saturday against Nebraska and threw down two powerful dunks.
Gesell’s absence has nothing to do with Olaseni’s improved play, McCaffery said.
“I think it’s a function of how he’s played,” McCaffery said of Olaseni’s extended court time. “He’s really played well, and he deserves more minutes.”
Until Saturday, Olaseni had never recorded more than a single assist in a college game.
“You could see him on the court, making all those assists and seeing he was having the time of his life,” Iowa forward Aaron White said. “I was so happy for him.”
White, from Strongsville, Ohio, and Olaseni were paired as roommates when they arrived on campus.
Two guys, shy by nature, spent that first summer together at the Mayflower dorm.
“I couldn’t understand a word he was saying,” White said. “Later, I found out he couldn’t understand a word I was saying. We had nothing to talk about. We were from different parts of the world. From then to now, it’s been a total transformation.”
Olaseni played a total of 90 minutes in 18 games as a freshman.
On paper, it was a wasted year of eligibility. But McCaffery was in a tough spot.
Senior Andrew Brommer, expected to get most of the post minutes , injured a knee in preseason drills, and it looked like he might be out for the year. The only other option was little-used senior Devon Archie. Brommer made it back but had trouble carrying things over from practice to games. Olaseni, raw as he was, was the most reliable backup.
“Now, as I look back,” McCaffery acknowledged, “I should have played Gabe more minutes.”
Olaseni said last season gave him a taste of big-time basketball and was proof that he could play at the Big Ten level. Now, the game has slowed down.
No longer hesitant, he’s reacting instead of thinking and using his physical skills to make plays.
“To his credit,” McCaffery said, “he just kept plugging away.”
GABE IS GROWING
Gabe Olaseni has shown flashes of excellence off Iowa’s bench as a sophomore:
- Logged career highs in points (14) and rebounds (10) during the nonconference campaign.
- Is shooting 53.4 percent from the field and 73.3 percent from the foul line.
- Recorded seven of the Hawkeyes’ school-record 13 blocked shots Tuesday against Illinois.
- Has averaged 18 minutes in Iowa’s last four games; played 90 minutes total as a freshman.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball