Could This Be Chuma Okeke’s Last Season on The Plains?
Chuma Okeke dunks the ball against Tennessee Saturday March 9, 2019 in Auburn Arena (photo: Jake Crandall-USA TODAY Sports)
Auburn sophomore Chuma Okeke made a a personal statement in Auburn’s upset win over No. 5 Tennessee. His 22 points wasn’t his career best, but it was the biggest game of his career. Going back to the preseason, the question was how Okeke would fit into the grand scheme of things with Austin Wiley, Danjel Purifoy, and AnferneeMcLemore returning.
Okeke certainly had moments as a true freshman. He was a threat from the outside, for sure. And the 6′ 8″ forward had moments in the paint where he looked like a legit post player. But then he had moments where he just looked passive. It earned a lot of criticism from his head coach in post-game interviews.
Pearl wanted to see more. His comments raised eyebrows from fans who wondered how a bench player earned criticism over regular starters who didn’t have great games either. That’s because Pearl saw something in Okeke that the rest of the fan base hadn’t seen—yet.
Chuma was held under double-digit points eight times this year, but just once since the first of February, and that was because he wasn’t needed to score as Auburn decimated Alabama by 21. Okeke had three double-doubles in that stretch and at least one block in all but one of those contests. He’s also forced turnovers in bunches.
Saturday was a coming-out party for Chuma. Not Wiley, the supposed first rounder. Not the guard combo of Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, who were playing their last home game together. No, it was Okeke.
He stole the show on national TV, especially on defense with five rebounds, a block, and an astounding four steals. He can do it all, from playing defense to making the shots. Perhaps the most notable thing about his scoring outburst wasn’t his 9–14 shooting, including a 3–5 mark from downtown, but the fact that he scored 22 with just one free throw.
At the beginning of the year, Okeke was one of the last players fans might have expected to see play so well. Certainly, it was possible to expect that from Wiley or Harper, but not Okeke. However, Okeke has developed so much that Bruce Pearl urged the other 13 SEC coaches this week to consider voting for him as an All-SEC member of the league’s all-defensive team. “He’s as good as I’ve coached defensively,” said Pearl.
On Saturday, Auburn Arena saw Bryce Brown and Horace Spencer for the last time. It may have also seen Okeke for the last time, as well. Chuma could play himself into an early entry to the NBA with strong tournament play over the next few weeks.