By Robbie Weinstein
All alone on one end of an empty UIC Pavilion, Flames center Tai Odiase was working up a sweat.
Odiase jumped and tapped a ball against the backboard over and over, finally dunking when a coach in his ear gave him the go-ahead. After a five-second break, he started it all again.
On the other end, 10 teammates opened practice with low-exertion shooting drills, yelling and joking much of the time. At one point, Flames guard Marcus Ottey stopped and turned to Odiase at midcourt.
“I see you, T.O.!”
Amid a renaissance season for UIC, rising stars like sophomores Ottey and Tarkus Ferguson have gotten much of the attention. Although Chicago media packed in around Odiase minutes earlier to hear about the Flames’ six-game Horizon League winning streak, he’s played a relatively low-key role as Ferguson’s return from injury has been a bigger story. Four Flames take more shots per game than Odiase, and the senior averages a modest 9.4 points on the season.
Not named to the All-League First or Second Teams, the tireless Glenwood, Ill., native continues to labor in the background at times. But he’s crucial to UIC’s success.
“I just want the fans to remember me as a hard-working player,” Odiase said after UIC’s senior night loss to Wright State. “Every time I get on the court, I left my blood, sweat and tears night-in and night-out.”
Odiase’s on-court impact goes beyond what shiny counting stats can illustrate. His second straight conference Defensive Player of the Year Award reflects his presence, and he ranks 44th in NCAA history in blocks after having smashed UIC’s career record. His intelligence, however, is just as important.
“He’s like one of our coaches,” Ferguson said. “A lot of our stops is because of him. I appreciate him, even though when I’m getting passed on defense by the other guard or something, I can always count on him to block the shot.”
According to KenPom.com, Odiase only finishes 17.1 percent of UIC’s offensive possessions with a shot, assist or turnover-seventh on the team. He hasn’t attempted a three in his college career, and he doesn’t handle the ball.
Yet Odiase rates among the team’s best offensive players by advanced stats that measure players’ effects on winning, such as Sports-Reference.com’s win shares metric. At 6-9, 240 pounds, he’s one of the Horizon’s best offensive rebounders and lob threats. When Odiase rolls to the hoop, defenders must stick to him. In a pick-and-roll, that opens up space for the ball-handler to shoot or attack the basket.
Pair that with a 21-percentage point improvement at the free-throw line over four years and 30 pounds of added muscle, and he’s transformed from an offensive liability to a key contributor. He isn’t a volume scorer, but he doesn’t try to be.
“You can have the greatest coaching staff in the country; if you don’t have guys that’ll work, it doesn’t matter. Tai works, and he’s reaping the rewards of it,” head coach Steve McClain said.
Perhaps as impressive have been Odiase’s leadership and academic performance. McClain noted Odiase “will graduate the minute he wants to” with a degree in psychology, and he’s helped promote an improving culture in a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2013.
“What Tai always brings is a positive impact in how he speaks to guys, how he encourages them when I get on them,” McClain said. “He knows I’m pushing them, so he’s behind them telling them they can do it and they will do it.”
As Odiase leaves UIC and begins his pursuit of a professional career, he’s helped take the program a long way. After a combined 15 wins over Odiase’s freshman and sophomore seasons, the Flames sit at 17-14 and hold the third seed in this week’s Horizon League tournament. The program is in the best shape since McClain was hired in 2016, and Odiase’s imprint on it is evident.
“Tai’s proud right now,” McClain said. “He’s the only guy left that I inherited. Credit to him; unlike a lot of kids, he stayed with it. He believed that we could get to this point, and now we gotta finish.”