Dominating defensive post presences have proven to win a great deal of basketball games — and championships — in the sport of basketball.
Bill Russell. Ben Wallace. Dennis Rodman. In the case of all three players, they were the pieces that fueled their respective teams into championship contention, and eventually, were the defensive centerpieces of their title-winning units.
To be fair, it’s only 20 games into the season — but EJ Onu’s ability as a defensive presence down low has allowed Shawnee State to put itself squarely into the fight for a conference championship.
With a No. 25 ranking in tow and victories over three ranked opponents in Mid-South Conference action alone so far this season, the Bears have put a target squarely on their back. However, SSU, and Onu, welcome that target — due to the vast strides that have been made within the basketball program.
“It’s meant a lot, especially seeing this program growing the way that it has from my freshman year until now,” Onu said. “In the present, many people don’t see the hard work that the coaches and the players put in behind the scenes. It feels great to be able to see it pay off.”
Onu, who didn’t start playing basketball until when he was 14 years old, is still a relative newcomer to the game of basketball. Back then, however, he was more than a project. He was a complete unknown to the game, in general.
“It was a crazy adjustment,” Onu said. “I didn’t know much about basketball as a game before playing it, so that meant I had to spend more time watching the game, learning the rules, and getting used to the rigorous workout schedules. The person who taught me how to play the game the right way would be (DeLano Thomas), he really revolutionized my game. I’d also give credit to my high school, Jason Priah, as well.”
Under Priah at Richmond Heights High School — a 25-minute drive from downtown Cleveland — Onu began to flourish, especially as his skills began to catch up with his growing body. By the end of his senior season, Onu had earned Division IV AP All-Northeast Lake District honors in basketball, and even ran cross country, where Onu, along with Keenan Hodges, Aaron McCarver, and Brandon Booker, finished seventh in the 4-by-400 meter relay with a 4:01.76 as a junior and added in a 57.49 in the 400 meter dash.
“It was a great experience, and I learned a lot about the fundamentals of basketball,” Onu said of his high school basketball playing days at Richmond Heights. “However, I mainly learned how important it was to have team chemistry, and how it can change the whole team dynamic.”
Despite his potential as a relative newcomer to the sport, Onu didn’t attract massive college attention. That proved to be at the advantage of Shawnee State, with DeLano Thomas landing the promising big man.
“On my visit, I noticed that it was a pretty small institution, which makes it easier to know everybody,” Onu said. “I liked the family aspect of that, how the school presented it, and still do today.”
No one, however, not even Onu himself, could’ve predicted how fast that success would come.
An unflappable figure down in the low post, Onu immediately started his career with a 15-point, six-rebound, two-block performance while shooting 6-of-9 from the field against the 2017-18 season’s No. 3-ranked unit in the NAIA Division I Preseason Poll, William Penn (Pa.). After a 10-point, seven-rebound, four-block performance on 3-of-5 shooting the following week against Ohio Christian, Onu built on that early impact, blocking at least two shots in eight out of his first nine contests as a SSU men’s basketball player.
The hype, however, only continued to build as Mid-South Conference play came around.
Against Cumberlands (Ky.), Onu, in his third-ever Mid-South Conference game as a freshman, collected 12 points, seven rebounds, and a school-record 11 blocks to obliterate the single-game shot-blocking record, which still stands today. Onu went on to have double-figure outings in 13 affairs and posted four or more blocks in 15 of Shawnee State’s 31 games en route to leading the nation in blocks per game (3.4) and finishing in second overall in total blocks (103), which allowed Onu to take home the Mid-South Conference’s Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Awards all in one fell swoop.
With a full offseason inside a college weight room, one could’ve only predicted that Onu’s game would get better — and it did.
Offensively, Onu improved his field goal percentage by more than five percent, shot exactly nine percent better from the three-point line, and tallied up 1.3 rebounds more than the year prior as he totaled 20 double-figure scoring contests in 30 affairs and added in three double-doubles to boot. His performance was more than good enough to obtain Second-Team All-Mid South Conference accolades and the nation’s second-best block total (94) and blocks per game (3.1). In accomplishing the latter pair of feats, Onu obliterated the record books by setting the program’s all-time record in career blocks.
It’s safe to say that Onu has only added to that total this season.
Through 20 games in the 2019-20 campaign, the 6-11 big man is putting together a defensive campaign that is set to rank among the best in NAIA history when it’s all said and done.
Two-thirds of the way through the regular season, Onu’s averaging 10.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and a staggering 5.5 blocks per game while denying 109 shots. The current average that the junior big man holds has only been bested twice before going back to the 2003-04 season, when Dakstats records were kept. Jeral Davis’ six blocks per game and 162 denials in 2006-07 and 7.2 blocks per game and 186 swats in 2007-08 are the high standards. He’s amassed these numbers due to excellent discipline — keeping his feet on the ground prior to the actual release of the ball from the offensive player’s hand — and impeccable timing that aids his frame.
“I still fall victim to pump fakes, but I’ve definitely developed over the years,” Onu said. “It’s definitely helped me with (DeLano) Thomas yelling at me every time I fall for a pump fake.”
Beyond that, however, Onu’s presence is felt all over the box score. Through the middle of January, Shawnee State is only giving up 62.2 points per affair while holding opponents to a 34.9 percent shooting stroke from the field. Those numbers, along with SSU’s seven blocks per game and 140 total blocks as a unit, are national-bests.
Those numbers, however, are something that Onu credits to the preparation of his teammates and coaches — as evidenced by the fact that the Bears’ totals in games, where SSU has held the opposition to 38 percent shooting or lower in 15 of its 20 contests this season.
“I feel as if our team has a different defensive mindset,” Onu said. “As reiterated before, it all starts at practice. We emphasize our defensive performance heavily, therefore, when it comes time for the game, it’s just like another high-level practice. Our coaches are great people and great coaches as well. They coach us pretty hard, and have very high expectations for us. Each member of the staff brings a different component to our team.”
Even with its 15-5 record (5-2 Mid-South) and the men’s basketball program second-ever NAIA Top 25 ranking at its back (Jan. 22, 2013 being the only additional time), the Bears aren’t satisfied with just that. They want the men’s basketball’s program’s first-ever appearance at the NAIA National Tournament stage.
“We want to be a 20-plus win team this season, and continue on this winning streak while taking our team chemistry to a higher level. We have our aspirations on a national tournament appearance. Individually, I want to obtain Mid-South Conference Player of the Year honors and earn the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year Award for the second time.”
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