Throughout last season, Pitt basketball’s Femi Odukale served as a backup to Xavier Johnson, the team’s point guard of three years.
However, once Johnson left the program, Odukale saw his opportunity and took full advantage of it, scoring as much as 28 points in a game in his rookie season and providing hope for the future of Pitt basketball.
This year, Odukale has much higher expectations running the point for Pitt. Among other preseason accolades, the 6-foot-5 New York native was named as a preseason College Basketball breakout candidate by Sports Illustrated, and everybody around the program is now looking for him to shine.
“I think he has matured a lot,” Pitt head coach Jeff Capel said of Odukale after the team’s exhibition victory over Gannon. “When he plays with energy, talking, animated, we are a lot better. He is a lot better, and we are a lot better. I think he is shooting the basketball better, I think he has a better understanding of what we need from him. Defensively, I think he is better than he was. I just think he is better all around. He had a full summer to work out, he didn’t have an accident which he had last year which he was out for a while, and so, knock on wood, he has been able to be there every day for us, and to really help us and to get better.”
Odukale did it all in the victory on Monday, leading the team in scoring with 20, grabbing seven rebounds, and dishing out 3 assists, all without committing a single turnover. He went 6 for 10 from the floor, including 1 for 2 from three-point range and 7 for 9 from the free-throw line, two areas in which he struggled last season.
“It is impressive because he’s only a sophomore, and technically this would be his first year, since last year was COVID,” said teammate Mo Gueye. “But I can see him being a team captain, if I am being honest. He is really vocal. He is a funny guy. The jokester of the team that just makes everybody laugh. But he really looks out for everybody. Makes sure everyone’s morale is high, you know, he’s always looking out for everybody. In terms of being a leader, he is one of our biggest leaders.”
Ithiel Horton and Mo Gueye talking about Femi postgame.
— George Michalowski (@MichalowskiCBB) November 2, 2021
“When he has energy, you know, practicing, playing, because his energy is infectious,” Capel went on. “He is a guy that everyone likes, and he is really funny, and he can be very charismatic. We need that from him all the time, and I think he is starting to understand that now. There are some things we do in practice [to spark that energy], there are some conversations we have. A lot of tape, a lot of one-on-one meetings, individual meetings. Talking to him constantly. His teammates telling him how much we need that, because it is very different, it is very, very different when he is not that way, and we are not as good that way.”
During the exhibition, Odukale’s energy was obvious. Whether he was hitting a three or driving through the lane, he was laser-focused, thinking ahead with every step, and ready to celebrate a big play. In one of the highlights of the game, Odukale crossed over his defender at the top of the key, rumbled down the lane, and finished an and-one bucket, lifting the Pitt crowd off its feet.
“And on top of that, he’s a sophomore so technically this is his first year, and he has shown a lot of responsibility,” Ithiel Horton added on Odukale. “The coaches are looking to him to be a leader, to talk, to be that kind of guy that pulls the team together. And he has handled it very well. I think joking is probably one of his coping mechanisms for the lot of responsibility he has, but he is definitely coming along.”
Odukale and the Panthers open their season on Nov. 9 against The Citadel at the Petersen Events Center at 7 p.m.