Tim Jankovich knows Semi Ojeleye, even though you might not.
The SMU Mustangs forward has a special place in his head coach’s heart just three games into the season.
The man in the shadows emerged for the third consecutive game. This time he helped his team eek out a win at Madison Square Garden, topping Pitt 76-67 in the opening game of the 2K Classic Championship Rounds. It won’t be long until he’s the man in the shadows no longer. He’s a 6-foot-7, 235-pound nobody from nowhere who has finally become comfortable at his most recent home. Though it’s early, the former five-star recruit might have inevitably found the place where he’d be a somebody from somewhere.
“Think about what he’s been through,” Jankovich said. “Think about his life. He’s in the shadows. He was a highly-recruited kid out of high school from Kansas. He goes to Duke and is kind of forgotten about, doesn’t have much of a role, transfers to us and he’s forgotten about for years.”
It’s been roughly two years since Ojeleye played in an NCAA men’s basketball game that meant something. As a freshman at Duke in 2013-14, he averaged 1.6 points and 0.9 rebounds per game, while Jabari Parker stole the spotlight. Ojeleye’s numbers were small, but not inefficient. The Ottawa, Kansas native shot 50 percent from the floor, 57 percent from beyond the arc, and 91 percent from the free throw line. In 2014-15 as a sophomore, Ojeleye lasted just six games before reading the handwriting on the wall. He enrolled at SMU that January.
“Deep down you know he wasn’t having any success so he doesn’t know [how good he his],” Jankovich said of his prized weapon. “But what he knew was, ‘I’m going to get in the gym more hours than anyone else in America.’ He deserves everything he gets and I never am surprised, and won’t be, in whatever he accomplishes.”
Against Gardner-Webb in the season-opening game, Ojeleye gobbled up a double-double with 26 points and 14 boards. Against Eastern Michigan, he scored 18 points shooting 63 percent from the floor. And against ACC-tough Pitt, Ojeleye exploded for 14 second-half points. His game speaks louder than he does, though. The big man stayed quiet and humble when discussing his second-half bonanza.
“Just staying confident, nothing changed in the locker room,” Ojeleye said. “It was normal so I didn’t think about what the stats were. I kept on doing the same stuff I was trying to do in the first half and just made my shots.”
Trust kept the Mustangs together as they eeked out the nine-point win, a tough but necessary skill for good teams to win come March.
“I really enjoy this team for a lot of reasons,” Jankovich, the SMU coach, said after Thursday’s win. “I really trust their commitment, I trust their work ethic, I trust their competitiveness, I trust their camaraderie and chemistry.”
SMU big man Ben Moore cut through the Panthers’ zone with an out-of-this-world jam, increasing the Mustangs’ from four to six points with 4:52 remaining in regulation. Through the final four-plus minutes, Southern Methodist University held on tight, resisting any late push by the Panthers.
Jankovich’s Mustangs outlasted a well-coached Panthers squad now under the tutelage of Kevin Stallings, who coached at Vanderbilt from 1999-2016. In Stallings’ first few seasons in Nashville, Jankovich worked on his staff.
“Kevin and I have been tremendous friends for years and years,” he said. “We talk a lot of basketball, spend a lot of time together and I have so much respect for him.”
The Mustangs take Thursday’s win as another way of closing out an opponent. Winning in different ways, through different strategies and avenues means that SMU has a special team that will finish the season as a strong NCAA Tournament player out of the American Athletic Conference.
“This is a big game,” Jankovich said of his team. “You’re at Madison Square Garden, you’re playing Pitt who was in the NCAA Tournament last year…and you’re out there playing real minutes…and we handled it so well.”