To say Chinonso Obokoh has had quite a month would be like saying the Bishop Kearney senior headed for Syracuse University is kind of tall.
Much like the Orange, who’ve put it all together in the postseason to reach Saturday’s Final Four, Kearney did, too. After a 9-7 regular season, the Kings captured their third straight Section V championship, then won the Class AA state title over New Rochelle, 45-39, on March 17. Syracuse beat Marquette, 55-39, on Saturday to reach its first Final Four since 2003 when the Orange won it all. They play Michigan next, and SU’s run has made Obokoh smile.
“I’m very, very excited and also I’m proud about being a Syracuse future player. I’m looking forward to that,” said the 6-foot-10, 220-pound Nigeria native who can play center or power forward. “I know that playing with these guys next year will get me better, make me a better player that I want to be. I’m going there to work hard.”
Kearney opened the season 5-7; Syracuse went 5-7 to finish the regular season, but has gone 7-1 since thanks to better offense but mostly its stifling 2-3 zone defense. It has held four NCAA Tournament foes to 45.8 points per game, shooting percentages of 28.9% overall (61-for-211) and 15.4% from 3-point range (14-for-91) and forced 67 turnovers (16.6 average).
“I knew they had it in them. They have good players,” said Obokoh, who grew up playing soccer. “You lose a couple of games and it makes you know that you have to work that much harder.”
Obokoh — whose name is pronounced Chee-NO-so Oh-BOW-koh — averaged 11.3 points, 15.6 rebounds and 7 blocks for Kearney. He missed several games with a foot injury and that contributed to the Kings’ slow start. With rest, he said it’s getting better but the injury kept him out of shape most of the winter.
“For me, it was a disappointment,” he said of his own performance.
Obokoh came to America four years ago thanks to a Nigerian foundation. The SU player he draws comparisons to is 6-10, 215-pound junior Baye Moussa Keita. He’s from Senegal and is in the U.S. on behalf of SEEDS (Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal). The organization offers educational initiatives and sports instruction to promising Senegalese students.
“We’re different players,” Obokoh said. “Baye’s a defensive player. I have my own type of defense. I like to block shots.”
His timing while swatting shots is one of the best things recruiters liked about his game. He’s a better shooter than Keita, too, able to knock down 15-footers — not that Obokoh thinks coach Jim Boeheim wants him shooting jumpers. He knows he has to prove himself. He also knows redshirting next year is possible.
“I talked about it with (assistant coach Mike Hopkins) when they recruited me,” Obokoh said.
Keita, 6-9, 242-pound sophomore Rakeem Christmas, who starts, and 6-9, 288-pound freshman DaJuan Coleman are all expected to return. Coleman started much of the year until he got injured and now is barely playing. Keita has come on strong of late with he and Christmas splitting time.
“If it’s going to help me, I might think about it and do it because it’s going to make my game (better),” Obokoh said about sitting out next season and just practicing with SU while retaining four years of playing eligibility. “When I picked Syracuse I didn’t think I’d go out there and just start playing (right away).”
He’ll head to Brooklyn on Tuesday to play in the April 13 international game of the Jordan Brand Classic, prior to the All-American game with another SU recruit Tyler Ennis, a guard out of New Jersey. Obokoh said he’ll likely watch the Syracuse-Michigan game at home. Sometimes, he turns the volume down so he can just study the action without distraction.
“I’m watching what everybody’s doing — the point guard, the forwards, the big guys — seeing the screen and roll, seeing how they help out (defensively), seeing how they crash the boards,” said Obokoh, who is a hard-working student.