Pitt’s game at N.C. State on Sunday wasn’t Femi Odukale’s first start of the season, but those 40 minutes in Raleigh had a bit of a different feel for the freshman guard.
When Odukale started Pitt’s win over Virginia Tech a month ago or the Panthers’ loss to N.C. State two weeks ago, he did so in place of Xavier Johnson, who worked as a reserve after picking up technical fouls in the preceding games.
On Sunday, though, Odukale didn’t start so that Johnson could come off the bench; he started because Johnson was no longer on the team. When the junior guard entered the transfer portal last Wednesday, the most immediate impact was on Odukale, who went from averaging 17 minutes per game to playing a larger role as Pitt’s No.1 point guard.
For his first game in the lead spot, Odukale handled himself well. He scored a game-high 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting. He handed out five assists while committing just one turnover. He grabbed four rebounds. He made 5-of-7 free throws. And he drew a game-high seven fouls.
Not bad for a debut, of sorts.
“I thought he was terrific,” Pitt coach Jeff Capel said after the game. “I thought he was really good. Not surprised by that. I think he’s a really good player.”
Odukale has shown promise all season, but Sunday was his best game, by far. His previous high-water mark in points was 16; that came in the loss to Louisville in December when he logged a season-high 30 minutes with Johnson in foul trouble. Odukale followed that game with 10 points in a win at Syracuse, but he hadn’t reached double-figured scoring since then.
Now that the job is his, Odukale picked a good time to step up.
“I just know that I have to make better plays, don’t turn over the ball – just be the point guard that Coach needs,” he said after Sunday’s game. “I’m not trying to go out of my role; I just want to be a winner.”
The point guard that Capel needs Odukale to be is one who scores but also does more for his team than just put up points.
“I think he has a chance to become a very good point guard,” Capel said during the ACC men’s basketball teleconference on Monday. “I’ve always felt, and I might not be right, but I’ve always felt and I think most coaches would feel this way: as a point guard, you have to be a guy that ignites and inspires people. The really good ones, guys want to play with him. They believe in him. They want to follow him. There has to be a connection there. I think Femi has the ability to do that.
“That’s something he’s learning how to do, but I think naturally he’s a people person. I think people gravitate towards him and he has a skillset where he enjoys passing. I think as he continues to get more experience and continues to learn more about the position and how to play it on a very high level. I think he has a chance to do that. I think he’s done some really good things for us this year and for him to even be playing this year is amazing from what he went through back in the fall. But we’re excited about his future, excited about these last few games the rest of the season, I’m really excited about his future for us.”
Odukale’s future likely will see him spend a lot of minutes on the court. He did yeoman’s work in the loss to N.C. State, playing more than 38 minutes, and that will probably be the trend for the rest of the season, since he is the only scholarship point guard in the roster (walk-on Onyebuchi Ezeakudo logged two minutes at the point on Sunday).
“It feels good to be the lead point guard, but I’m just focused on winning right now,” Odukale said. “So I’m just trying to do whatever I can for my team and Capel.”