AUBURN — Bruce Pearl has essentially taken the shackles off freshman forward Chuma Okeke.
“I’ve been telling you the only thing that is holding Chuma Okeke back is me,” the Auburn head coach said. “He can play.”
Okeke, who was the No. 50 rated prospect in the 2017 recruiting class according to ESPN.com, recorded his second career double-double in Wednesday’s win over Alabama with a career-high 16 points and 10 rebounds. Okeke is the fourth Auburn player to record multiple double-doubles this season joining Anfernee McLemore (three), Desean Murray (three) and Mustapha Heron (two).
With Auburn (24-4, 12-3 SEC) missing Heron (illness) and McLemore (injury) and junior starter Horace Spencer getting in foul trouble again, Okeke powered the Tigers through a critical stretch with near perfect pick-and-roll action with sophomore point guard Jared Harper.
“One of our leading scorers was down in Mustapha,” Okeke said. “One of our leading rebounders was down, Anfernee. I had to come in this game with an aggressive mindset and crash the boards a lot, and I had to do what I had to do to help my team win.”
Auburn will travel Saturday to the O’Connell Center with a chance to win its first league title since 1999 and an opportunity to extend Florida’s losing streak to four games. Another loss for the Gators (17-11, 8-7 SEC) could put Mike White’s club at risk for being on the outside looking for the NCAA tournament.
Harper, who led Auburn with 21 points, six assists and four steals Wednesday, realized early that Okeke is a matchup problem for any future power forward or center trying to guard Auburn’s ball screen action offense.
“He did great. When Chuma is playing like that, we are very hard to beat. He is definitely a matchup problem at the four and if he even plays the five,” Harper said. “If Chuma and I are in a pick and roll, they’re going to have to choose to stay, guard me or guard him. (Alabama) kind of switched it up, but I was able to get Chuma some shots.”
Pearl knows that in a majority of SEC schools and in even past Auburn teams, Okeke would be starting and averaging more than 20.5 minutes a game but the former four-star prospect says his role suits him just fine on a team that is just one more win away from a share of the league title.
“He was raised right. You do your job, you listen to you coach. If he asks you to do this, you do that. That’s how he was raised. Even though he was only playing 19 minutes and probably could have played more and deserved 25 or 26 or 27 minutes and have a larger role, he never complained,” Pearl said. “He just always answered the bell. So now, we have to have him play a larger role, because we don’t have Anfernee. And he’s ready. It wasn’t that he needed to be patient. That’s his character. It’s his character.”
And now the handcuffs are off and Okeke is free to take more shots and force bigger defenders to make the choice on how they want to guard the athletic big man. Okeke was 42.6 percent from 3-point range and 51.5 percent on any two-point field goal attempts meaning more offense is in his future as he prepares to take on a Florida team with a stretch forward in its lineup (Keith Stone) who has the skill and the size to compete in the post.
“Take my word for it, there's more to (his game) than what you guys see, I've seen it,” Pearl said. “You can either put the blame on me for that. When he starts to get a little more explosive to go along with what is just a really good feel for the game, he'll be one of the best in this conference next year.”