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New starter's goal no longer ocean away
Nigeria native Mobolaji Ajayi has been one of USF's most improved players this season.
By GREG AUMAN
Published February 13, 2008
TAMPA - The flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, was six hours long, but Mobolaji Ajayi had dreams of a much longer trip.
It was September 2004, and Ajayi, then a high school senior whose first name is pronounced mo-BAHL-o-gy, flew from his native Nigeria to South Africa for a "Basketball Without Borders" camp. It was an event sponsored by the NBA, intended to help African basketball players learn the game and showcase themselves for American colleges.
It did not matter that the big schools didn't call Ajayi; he was thrilled to get a scholarship to tiny Crichton College, an NAIA school in Tennessee with an enrollment of fewer than 1,000.
His father had concerns about letting his 18-year-old son go alone to another country. Ajayi saw a chance to be like his idols, such as Dikembe Mutombo and Nigeria-born Hakeem Olajuwon.
"I'm trying to be like them, to achieve more than I might have achieved in my country," said Ajayi, 6 feet 9 and 225 pounds.
He is grounded enough not to expect a Hall of Fame NBA career, but Ajayi is proud to be USF's starting power forward and enjoying the best stretch of his young Bulls career. In three games since moving into the starting lineup, he has totaled 26 points, impressive when you consider he'd scored a total of 26 in his first 19 games with the Bulls.
"It takes believing in myself, working hard and having confidence that nothing is impossible," he said. "My dream was to play in college."
Ajayi has found college basketball to be a small world. Three times this season, he has faced fellow Nigerians he played with in Johannesburg: St. John's center Dele Coker, DePaul center Kenechukwu Obi and Florida State center Solomon Alabi.
He's still less versed in basketball lore, an ignorance that can actually help him. In last week's loss at Georgetown, he tangled with Hoyas power forward Patrick Ewing Jr., boldly exchanging words in the paint.
"After the game, one of the coaches said, 'Do you know that was Patrick Ewing?'" coach Stan Heath said. "He says no ... 'Who's Patrick Ewing?' I don't think he knows a lot of things most of us would know, but I think that's a good thing. He just goes out there and plays."
Ajayi sought a higher level of competition after making his conference all-freshman team at Crichton and transferred to Palm Beach Community College, where he played last season, drawing interest from USF and Big East rivals Rutgers and Seton Hall. The warm Florida weather reminded him of Nigeria; New Jersey's climate, not so much so.
"It's way too cold for me in New Jersey. I didn't know how I would survive," said Ajayi, still shivering Monday from a trip to Chicago last week. "The cold is still affecting me now."
His assimilation has been an easy one, as he grew up speaking English in Nigeria. Though he grew up playing soccer, his high school had a basketball team, much like that of his USF teammates, and his hometown of Kano is a huge city, comparable to Chicago in population.
Changing cultures, then, wasn't as hard as elevating his game from junior college to the Big East.
"I have to match up to the speed level, the skill level and the strength level," Ajayi said. "For me to come from lower-level schools into a Big East school and play well, that means a lot to me. But there is still more to achieve."
USF continues to struggle in the Big East, losing its past 10 games, but Ajayi has helped fill a void at power forward, easing some of the rebounding burden on center Kentrell Gransberry.
"He's probably our most improved player this season," said assistant Reggie Hanson, who works with USF's frontcourt players. "Coming to Division I is a big change, and coming to the Big East, it's even twofold. It's not an easy adjustment."
His name means "wake up with prosperity," but teammates call him "B.J." for short. His progress is crucial to USF's emergence as the Bulls try to make their own transition in a difficult conference.
"In the Big East, the best players are power forwards, which leaves me to guard them most of the time," Ajayi said. "It's a lot of running, a lot of positioning, hands up. You can't take a play off. If you do take a play off, it's like a tree going down. It's hard, but it's the challenge I've been looking for."
Tonight: USFvs. Syracuse
When/where: 7; Sun Dome, Tampa
TV/radio: Catch 47; 1250-AM
Records: Syracuse 16-8, 6-5 Big East; USF 10-14, 1-10
Notable: USF's 10-game losing streak started at Syracuse on Jan. 5, and the Bulls hope to pull an upset with two big home games in four days; Connecticut visits Saturday. ... Syracuse ranks third in the Big East in scoring (79.5 points per game) and is third worst in scoring defense at 72.7 points. ... If you selected a Big East all-freshman team, three might be in this game in USF's Dominique Jones (15.5 ppg) and Syracuse's Donte Greene (17.9 ppg) and Jonny Flynn (15.4). ... A large crowd and night classes have USF officials urging fans to arrive early.