Oct. 27, 2014
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- 24 Hawkeyes to Watch
Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Monday, Aug. 4, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2014-15 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The progression of University of Iowa men’s basketball senior Gabriel Olaseni is tied to his ability to overcome making mistakes.
“My freshman year if I made a mistake, I was done,” said Olaseni. “I couldn’t play through them. Now my game has expanded and I am not worried about making mistakes because I can make an instant difference in getting the ball back.”
When Olaseni arrived in Iowa City he had an athletic 6-foot-10, 220-pound frame. His shot-blocking and knack for rebounding were there, and now, three years later, his confidence and offensive repertoire have caught up.
“He is more confident with his offensive game,” said UI head coach Fran McCaffery. “You always trust his athletic ability, shot blocking, and rebounding, but he is so much more confident with his passing, catching, post moves, and facing the basket.”
Since averaging five minutes a contest in 18 games as a freshman, Olaseni’s playing time and production has increased with age and experience. He was Iowa’s Most Improved Player as a sophomore, averaging 2.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, and blocking 36 shots.
Last season, Olaseni’s numbers more than doubled across the board. He averaged 6.5 points on 50 percent shooting in 16.7 minutes per contest. He grabbed 4.9 rebounds, including 2.5 offensive boards per game, and blocked 43 shots — the sixth-most by a Hawkeye junior in program history.
“He is going to be an incredibly impactful player,” said McCaffery. “You’re going to see him get a lot more minutes. You saw his numbers improve last year, and you’ll see them improve again.”
Olaseni’s rise on the basketball court is astounding considering he didn’t seriously pick up the sport until he was 14 years old in East London, England. His focus was on soccer, and that is where, coincidentally, Olaseni got his first taste of basketball from across the playground.
“I have become of a man. I thought I was a man when I left home, but I am a man now. I see the bigger picture. Basketball is a great thing, but in the next few months I am going to get both of my degrees. I learned a lot of life lessons, and there have been a lot of ups and downs, but I am glad I chose to come here.”
UI senior Gabriel Olaseni
“I saw a lot of older guys playing,” said Olaseni. “One of the guys — Michael York — was shooting sky hooks and 3-pointers. I don’t shoot 3-pointers, but I was always interested in the way he played, and it looked more fun than playing soccer.”
With the help of his basketball mentor, Mike Speranza, Olaseni ended up in Kansas at the Sunrise Christian Academy. He averaged 10.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.2 blocks, and 1.2 assists as a senior, while shooting 72 percent from the floor as a senior in leading the school to the National Association of Christian Athletes Division I national championship.
UI assistant coach Andrew Francis went to Sunrise Christian Academy to watch one of Olaseni’s teammates — Eric Katenda — but Olaseni grabbed Francis’ attention. That led to a courtship by McCaffery and a few weeks later, Olaseni had his first Division I offer.
“I wanted to sign right then, but my high school coach wanted me to calm down because I was new to the process,” said Olaseni. “They wanted me to get a good scope on the recruiting system.”
Olaseni held off on committing, and during that time Wichita State, Oklahoma, and Xavier got in on his recruitment. It was the honesty displayed by McCaffery and the Iowa coaching staff that led Olaseni to Iowa City.
“Coach McCaffery told me it wasn’t going to be an overnight thing,” said Olaseni. “A lot of the coaches told me I was ready right there and then, but in the back of my mind I knew it was a process.
“It was going to be a daily thing, and they were going to work with me to get to the next level, and hopefully a professional career. That opened my eyes to the fact they were willing to take that time with me and not just give me the run of the mill recruiting pitch.”
Olaseni has been a part of the rejuvenation of Iowa basketball. Iowa won 18 games and advanced to the National Invitation Tournament in Olaseni’s first season; won 25 games and advanced to the championship game of the NIT in 2012-13, before winning 20 games and playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006 last season.
Olaseni believes the Hawkeyes can continue their rise.
“We can be one of the best teams in the Big Ten,” said Olaseni. “We have a lot of talent, but every team in the country has talent and every team feels they can win their conference. It’s a mindset of finishing plays, executing down the stretch, and making fewer mistakes than the other team. I feel like we can have a better team than we did last year.”
Looking back at his Iowa career, Olaseni says the moments behind the scenes — interacting with teammates on road trips, quiet time with the team, or the locker room atmospheres after big wins — are what he remembers most fondly.
That may change come March 7, 2015, when Olaseni will play his final game on Mediacom Court inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It will be his 75th home game, but it will have a different feel with his family in attendance in Iowa City for the first time.
“A lot of times that is what I think about when I don’t want to push the extra weight or sprint down the court,” said Olaseni. “I have that circled on my calendar. It will be a great experience for my family to come and watch me play, and hopefully I can make them proud.”
Olaseni has grown in more ways than being able to play through his mistakes during four years as a Hawkeye.
“I have become of a man. I thought I was a man when I left home, but I am a man now,” he said. “I see the bigger picture. Basketball is a great thing, but in the next few months I am going to get both of my degrees.
“I learned a lot of life lessons, and there have been a lot of ups and downs, but I am glad I chose to come here.”