Throughout this pandemic-ridden 2020-21 season, Pitt has used a handful of different lineups due to many different factors, including COVID protocols, transfers, disciplinary reasons, and more. Panther fans had become accustomed to seeing new faces in the starting lineup, which had included 17 year olds, seniors, and everything in between.
However, in the final game of the regular season against Clemson, the Panthers came out with another new look. This time, the lineup turned heads.
Onyebuchi Ezeakudo, Nike Sibande, William Jeffress, Justin Champagnie, and Abdoul-Karim Coulibaly.
The four players on the right side of the list are not so surprising. The first name? Very.
Outside of the die-hard Panther fans, not many casual supporters of Pitt basketball recognize the name Onyebuchi Ezeakudo, who goes by Onye, or “O.” The 6-foot junior point guard had played in just fifteen career matchups in a Pitt uniform prior to this season, and before the Clemson game had played more than ten minutes in just one game this season.
Ezeakudo was given an increased role after freshman Femi Odukale was benched to start the game for being late to a meeting, but head coach Jeff Capel has other options. He said he walk-on guard earned the opportunity.
A Fort Wayne, Indiana, native, Ezeakudo played for Homestead High School, where he averaged 13.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game his senior year. While he was a solid high school player, Ezeakudo received mostly Division III interest with no scholarship offers at the Division I level. He decided to enroll at Pitt and work his way onto the team as a walk-on.
Don't leave Onye Ezeakudo alone from deep; 8 pts; up 29-12 w/ 3min in half pic.twitter.com/FofKgXlxT9
— SummitCitySports.com (@260sports) February 15, 2017
“It is something I knew that I wanted to do,” Ezeakudo told Indiana media outlet Outside the Huddle a few years back. “The summer after my senior year at Homestead, I tried to contact the coaches (at Pitt) as much as I could. I just kept practicing and kept working.”
Fast forward to now, a day before the ACC tournament kicks off in Ezeakudo’s third season with Pitt, and head coach Jeff Capel is reminiscing back to the time when they first met.
“My first year we had open tryouts and I don’t think we kept anyone, but he caught our eye then,” Capel said about his first impressions of Ezeakudo. “I think we started using him as a practice player. And then he was doing really well, showing up, and just doing a heck of a job for us, and we decided to have him become a full member of the team.”
In his first career college start against the Tigers, Ezeakudo played 11 minutes, converted on his lone 3-point attempt, and dished out two assists. Overall on the season, he has made four of his five field goals, including all three of his 3-point attempts.
“He earned it,” Capel added on Monday. “He has helped us. He has played some really, really good minutes for us. I think he is as respected as anyone on our team, for how he shows up every day how he works, and how selfless he is in trying to help us be better.”
While Pitt is now up to four available roster spots for next season, it will come down to the 2021 recruiting class as well as the transfer portal to see who will make up the rest of Pitt’s squad for next season. While he is still currently a walk-on, if the Panthers were to give Ezeakudo a scholarship, it would not be a surprise. Justin Champagnie, Pitt’s first-team All-ACC star, agrees that Ezeakudo works just as hard, if not harder, than any of the other guys in the locker room.
“You’ve got to work hard,” Champagnie said about what Ezeakudo’s start shows him and the rest of the team. “I was extremely happy for ‘O.’ I told him before the game, don’t be afraid. Don’t be timid. You’ve got a shot? Take it. You got a drive? Take it. You’ve got a play? Make it. I feel like ‘O’ is a great player, I feel like he has worked hard. He has worked as hard as anybody on the team I feel. I am glad he got a chance to get out there and get on the floor.”
Ezeakudo and the Panthers will take the floor in the first round of the ACC tournament on Tuesday, March 9 at 2 p.m. in Greensboro, North Carolina. The game will be televised on ACC Network.