It has taken two years, but it seems that Francis Okoro has introduced himself to the world as a force to be reckoned within the Atlantic 10. The Junior big man anchored the Billiken victory over St. Bonaventure yesterday in the A10 championship quarter-final, providing the first half scoring punch needed to keep pace, and the defensive intensity to quell the Bonnies star big man to just 6 points.
For most of the season, the Billikens strength when it came to the center position was its depth. Being able to throw multiple high quality big men at opponents, always having someone who can provide high quality minutes and intensity in the paint, regardless of foul trouble. But now, Francis Okoro has simply grabbed the spotlight and ran with it as the defacto star big.
After having been dominated in the previous two matchups with St. Bonaventure, allowing the Bonnies star center Osun Osunniyi to tally a combined 33 points on 15 of 18 shooting and 9 blocks in the two meetings this season, Okoro changed his approach to both attacking the rim and guarding the paint on the A10 defensive player of the year.
The Nigerian transfer from Oregon scored Saint Louis’ first eight points in the semifinal, and 12 of the first 18. Tack on 7 rebounds and a steal in 18 minutes and Francis was the most impactful player on the floor in the first half. He cleaned up the offensive boards, grabbing four offensive rebounds in the first half on route to his 8th double-double of the season and second in two games in the Atlantic 10.
“Since mid-February on I don’t think there’s been too many better. He’s played amazing for us” Travis Ford said of Okoro after the Semi-Final win. “Frank O …he don’t get the credit he deserves. He a big part of our team, without him we wouldn’t be in this position” star point guard and defacto team captain Yuri Collins added.
The scoring touch was an added bonus but what ultimately made the difference in the game was his ability to completely neutralize Osun Osunniyi. Making the necessary changes to eliminate what was the greatest weakness SLU’s defence had all season.
Osunniyi, post game, said that the Billikens defence was successful in getting him out of his normal positions and making him uncomfortable. Mark Schmidt, St. Bonaventure’s head coach focused on SLU’s ability to deny their opportunities to get Osunniyi into open space on pick-and-rolls and alley-oops.
“(Osun’s) not a back to the basket guy.” 2-time A-10 coach of the year Mark Schmidt said in his post-game presser, “All the stuff he gets is on rolls and dunks. We had a much easier time getting the ball deep on them in game one and game two. We didn’t get those lobs. He’s not a guy you can throw the ball into and he’s gonna back somebody down…he’s not that type of player. But they did a good job on ball-screen defence and made it more difficult.”
While defending ball-screens and particularly the pick-and-roll combination of Kyle Lofton and Osunniyi is a team strategy option, Okoro perfectly played his roll. Instead of helping on the screen and picking up the point guard on the switch, he dropped back time and time again to deny the easy alley-oop and roller pass into the paint.
“We watched a lot. Saw it, talked about it. But it’s not easy,” Travis Ford reflected on what might be his best game plan adjustment made all season. “, It’s one thing to talk about it and it’s another to go out there and do it.”
Francis Okoro is no stranger to big moments. Before transferring and sitting out due to injury, he helped Oregon reach the Sweet 16 as a freshman. Becoming the de facto starting 5 due to the late injury to NBA draft prospect Bol Bol. The Ducks 10 game winning streak including a miraculous four-day run to the Pac-12 championship coincided with Okoro taking over the job. And while he was not the featured player on that team, his presence was made felt in major ways.
Now, three years later, Okoro seems to be finding that X-factor again, but this time it would be his name on the Marquee. KenPom’s player rater has found Okoro to be the MVP of both A-10 tournament wins thus far, and he will be essential to getting over the hump to another A-10 championship.
But perhaps what is most exciting, is that it seems like this is just the beginning for Okoro. Who is now poised to compete to be the dominant center in the A-10 next year…
But I don’t think anyone’s thinking about next year this weekend.
Carter Chapley has burst onto the scene becoming one of the most trusted voices in Billikens Athletics and beyond for Scoops with Danny Mac.
Starting at the University News, Carter joined Scoops in 2019 and has provided coverage primarily on Saint Louis University Athletics, including Basketball, Soccer, and Baseball. He has also written on such major events as the NCAA Tournament, Arch Madness, the NHL All-Star Game, the founding of STL City FC, and the NCAA reaction to the Covid-19 Pandemic.
You can find Carter more on Twitter at @ChapleyMedia where he will always be talking Billikens, Sports, and More!