Six scintillating dunks are, rightfully, going to steal the headlines from Wednesday’s game for Felix Okpara.
The native of Nigeria put up a career-high 14 points on six-of-six shooting – all dunks – in Ohio State’s 88-61 win over Central Michigan. But with those scoring numbers, he also posted nine rebounds, with an even spread of four on offense and five on defense.
After averaging 2.7 rebounds per game in the first three contests of Ohio State’s 2023-24 season, Okpara has rattled off four consecutive games with seven boards or more, with at least nine on three of those occasions.
“He’s growing in that and got to continue to grow in it,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said after the game. “He had a great tip out tonight that was critical. We’ve really tried to get better at that. He’s really shown more commitment on that end, and that’s been pleasing to see on both ends.”
Okpara feels that the biggest reason his numbers on the glass have improved is a change in mentality. As the team’s tallest player and starting center, he needs to be assertive down low and battle for each rebound.
“You’ve just got to go get it, man. It’s all about effort,” Okpara said. “I talked to one of the coaches, and he told me about one of the players he coached back at a different school. He told me his mentality was one versus nine every time he rebounded. Sometimes in games earlier in the season, I was like, ‘My teammate got it.’ I just laid down. But now I feel like I’m more aggressive, and I’ve just wanted it more.”
Okpara also showed an increased desire to put the ball in the hoop on Wednesday – and not in a gentle manner, either.
His night obliterating rims started early. Roddy Gayle Jr. drove into the lane and drew two defenders, which opened up Okpara along the baseline for a lob. Okpara caught the ball, brought it down, then rose back up for a two-handed jam for Ohio State’s second basket of the night.
It was far from the last time that Gayle found Okpara during the former’s career-high seven-assist performance against Central Michigan. Gayle again dumped it to Okpara for a slam after drawing a pair of blockers to expand the Buckeyes’ early lead to 22-18, Okpara throwing it down with one hand and posterizing Central Michigan guard Brian Taylor.
The most emphatic of their connections came following the tip-out that Holtmann mentioned above. Gayle caught the batted ball at the top of the key, drove to the hoop and again lobbed it to Okpara, who flushed down an alley-oop this time.
“We talk about it off the court. He tells me I’ve got to (boost) his assists, and I tell him, ‘I’ve got you, bro. Just lob it to me, man. I’ve got you,’” Okpara said of the connection he and Gayle share. “I feel like we, as a team, the group, we’re connected too. We play for each other. Tonight might be my night, the next game might be my night, we just try to feed the hot guy pretty much.”
Three more throwdowns capped Okpara’s offensive production, with each bringing a sparsely-packed Value City Arena crowd to an uproar.
“It’s fun, man,” Okpara said. “I have good teammates that are getting me open. They trust me. They trust me on offense.”
Holtmann feels that part of Okpara’s offensive development has come as a result of the team’s guards getting better in pick-and-roll and other ball-screen plays, reading defenses and attacking the right way.
"You’ve just got to go get it, man. It’s all about effort."– Felix Okpara on why he's improved as a rebounder
“I think (it’s helped) a lot, just because of the attention those guys get,” Holtmann said. “When you’re playing off of ball screens, you love to be able to get two on the ball as much as possible to create rotations and get the floor to collapse, and Felix can collapse the paint by his rim runs. Our guards can create attention by their ability to shoot the ball. ... It’s given Felix a chance to get behind the defense some.”
There’s still development to be done in Okpara’s game, Holtmann said, particularly going back to the rebounding side of things.
“He’s still got to get stronger. I got on him because he can’t get the ball knocked loose when he gets a rebound. He’s too big. And at 235 (pounds), he’s too strong,” Holtmann said. “He’s got to keep the ball higher. He’s got to chin it. He’s got to make sure that the ball doesn’t get knocked loose. Small things in a game like this, but major things when you get into Big Ten play.”
Okpara’s personality lends itself to betterment, Holtmann added. His expectations remain high after a nice string of games from the big man.
“Kids like him get better because they’re so open to coaching, and they’re great kids,” Holtmann said. “And he’s a good player. He’s going to have ups and downs like all of our sophomores, but he’s really gotten better.”