Men’s Basketball | December 30, 2022
FOR THE PAST TWO GAMES, Kevin Obanor has sat on the bench needing just one more rebound to secure a double-double. With 22 points and nine rebounds against Houston Christian, Obanor was subbed out with 5:44 remaining in the game. Texas Tech won by 44. He had 24 points and nine rebounds with 9:24 to play earlier this week against South Carolina State when he went to the sideline for the rest of the night. Tech won by 39.
“As a younger player, that could have ticked me off not getting the double-double,” Obanor says. “I’ve played a lot of basketball now though. Have checked a lot of boxes. I want to do my job on the court, lead this team, and win games. Getting our younger guys in at the end of the game to get more reps to prepare for Big 12 play was more important in those moments. I was on the bench supporting my guys and full of joy seeing them doing well. The only thing that matters to me at this point is winning.”
Obanor already has 36 double-doubles on his career resume, with one coming through 12 games this season when he went off for 25 points and 10 rebounds against Eastern Washington. That list of accomplishments now also includes 100 games scoring in double figures, 1,875 career points and 965 rebounds. His next game will be his 50th game as a Red Raider – a New Year’s Eve game at 11 a.m. on Saturday against TCU to begin Big 12 play. It’ll be the 136th game of his career – 86 of those coming while he was at Oral Roberts for three seasons to begin his career. He’s currently leading Tech with 16.6 points per game, including averaging 21.4 points and 7.4 rebounds in the past five games. Fighting for anything that’s needed from him in the moment.
“Whatever it takes for us to win is what I care about,” Obanor says. “If it’s going to take me scoring a lot, that’s what I’m going to try to do. If I need to facilitate more in a game, I’ll do that. I’m always going to go for the rebounds and know that I have to play tough and composed all the time. Our team deserves that from me.”
Being consistent has been one of his strongest qualities since arriving in Lubbock. His 50th game at Tech will also be his 50th start. Hasn’t missed a single game. His 24 points against South Carolina State on Tuesday came with him going 5-for-8 on 3-pointers, giving him 188 made 3-pointers in his career at a 39.4 percentage. He’s currently shooting 54.0 percent from the field – which ranks fourth in the Big 12 behind his teammate Daniel Batcho who is at a staggering 68.5 percentage and Keyontae Johnson (58.0) of Kansas State and Mike Miles (57.6) from TCU. Those 24 points were the fourth time this season he’s been over 20, the 29th in his career and gave him 11 straight games in double figure scoring. Reliability.
“Kevin has looked around and understood that he would have to embrace this role,” Texas Tech coach Mark Adams says. “He has been a vocal leader in practice and is always out there working on his game. He’s always shooting. No one works harder than KO does. He’s leading by example, but will also need to continue getting us rebounds and taking charges. We need him to be a lot for us, but part of that is him doing the little things that other teams are not willing to do.”
Obanor didn’t start playing basketball until he was about 15. We chronicled that part of his life last season in this feature. He acknowledges that path probably set him back some. A growth spurt gave him the height that basketball players need but developing athleticism doesn’t just happen as you sleep at night. “Trials and tribulations can build character,” Obanor said in that article. “There have been a lot of sacrifices I’ve made in my life to get to this point. My tough times have made me into the man I am today.” He worked on his game at prep schools (in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina) and would then find himself a spot on a college roster in Tulsa, Oklahoma for three seasons. He shined for the Golden Eagles, averaging 14.9 points and 7.4 rebounds as a freshman in the 2018-19 season, 12.3 points and 6.9 rebounds as a sophomore and then exploded for 18.7 points and 9.6 rebounds per game as junior during the 2020-21 season. That season was capped by a run to the 2021 NCAA Sweet 16 and him recording double-doubles with 30 points and 11 rebounds in a first-round upset of Ohio State, 28 points and 11 rebounds in a second-round win over Florida and then 12 points and 11 rebounds in a Sweet 16 loss to Arkansas.
After going through the NBA Draft process, Obanor decided to transfer from ORU to Tech following intense recruiting. He was ranked by ESPN as the No. 9 transfer that summer. Once he decided to return to college and narrowed it down, Tech became the clear choice. Last season, Obanor was a senior surrounded by other seniors. He was on a team that had Marcus Santos-Silva, Bryson Williams, Adonis Arms and Davion Warren – all who were fifth year seniors. He finished last season with three double-doubles in the NCAA Tournament, including 10 points and 11 rebounds against Montana State, going for 15 points and 15 rebounds in a win over Notre Dame in the second round and then 10 points and 10 rebounds in the Sweet 16 loss to Duke in San Francisco. Now a fifth-year senior himself, Obanor is applying lessons from last year’s run to the Big 12 Championship Final and NCAA Sweet 16 to form the player and person we now see.
“My approach to the game is different this year,” Obanor says. “Every person out there goes through things mentally and in their lives. I’m no different. Adversity comes when you least expect it but I’ve been able to keep perspective. I may not have handled everything this well in the past. There’s a joy that I have now that I’m really enjoying. God has been answering and putting me in place in life where I’m having fun and making a difference. I’m giving everything my all. On the court and off.”
OBANOR KNOWS THE RIGORS of playing in the Big 12 after going through it last season. Eighteen games. Nine at home. Nine on the road. Three months. It’s a grind that can wear players and teams out. He was part of the group that went into Waco and knocked off No. 1 Baylor. He hit five 3-pointers at home in the win over Texas and then had 23 points and 13 rebounds in the home win over Baylor. Obanor finished his first season at Tech averaging 10.0 points and a team-best 5.0 rebounds in conference play – earning him All-Big 12 Honorable Mention. Tech went 9-0 in Big 12 play at home last season. Tech also went 3-6 on the road in Big 12 play. It’s about surviving. Continuing to fight.
The Big 12 has the best NET Ranking average in the nation coming into the start of conference play. Combined, Big 12 teams are 100-19 coming into Saturday’s slate of games. Obanor knows the challenges that are coming. Up first, No. 18 TCU. Then, it’s No. 4 Kansas on Tuesday at home.
“Playing in the Big 12 is no joke,” Obanor says. “There are no more days off. We never take any of our opponents lightly, but that’s even more true and important now. Our schedule from here on out is really tough. We know that. Everyone told me that last year before it started, but I wasn’t completely sure of what they were warning me about. It’s a battle every night. Tough 18 rounds like we say. It’s also exciting. We’re ready and I’m excited about what this team can do. We’ve been preparing for this.”
Obanor experienced the grind last year and how it can create ups and downs. Following his 17 points with five 3-pointers in the home win over Texas, Obanor scored just two points against West Virginia and was held scoreless in the home win over TCU. In 26 minutes against the Horned Frogs, he was 0-for-4 from the field. He followed it with his 23 points and 13-rebound double-double against Baylor. He also finished the season with seven straight games in double figure scoring, finding consistency that Tech needed to make its postseason push.
“There have been highs and lows here for sure,” Obanor says. “I learned through last season and other times in my life that you have to lead others and help them become better than they think they are. It’s about a mindset. Showing love to one another. There are times when all of us may not be playing or living with our full confidence. That’s when it takes others to lift them up. I’m about encouraging.”
A year after being surrounded by experienced players in their last season of college basketball, Obanor now finds himself 12 games into a season where he was the only returning starter. Of the 13 players on the roster, he’s the only one in his last season of eligibility. Fardaws Aimaq and De’Vion Harmon both transferred in this season, but still maintain two more years. Five freshmen and sophomores Jaylon Tyson and Batcho give the team tons potential, but also challenges as every program has learned when going into Big 12 play as a young team. “He’s been a great teammate for me since I got here this summer,” Tech freshman Lamar Washington says. “I appreciate everything he’s done for me. Showing me how to prepare my body and how to play the game.” Pop Isaacs, who has started all 12 games to begin his freshman season along with Obanor and Harmon, adds, “I feel like he’s ready to lead us if it gets roughs rough in conference. He’s been here before. He’s really been stepping up.” That’s what makes Obanor so important on this day before Big 12 play starts. This game at TCU. The 17 others that will follow.
“Our culture is all about playing hard and with intensity,” Obanor says. “Sure, we have a younger team, but these guys are fighters. I believe that. I’ve seen it since this summer when we first started practicing together. We believe in each other and have to stay connected.”
FOR THE PAST TWO SEASONS, Obanor has embraced everything about being part of the Red Raider basketball program and community. Two weeks ago, standing in front of a grocery store, he rang a bell for the Salvation Army for over an hour. He greeted everyone with a smile, shouting as they approached from the parking lot. From young children to unsuspecting elderly who had no idea who he was, the pure joy he showed during that time spread. “Are you a basketball player,” one lady asked about 30 minutes into the afternoon. “You’re really nice too. I can tell you’re having fun,” she added.
The community service commitment was from noon to 1. Obanor kept ringing the bell for another 10 minutes. He would have stayed all day.
This year, through 12 games, Obanor is appreciating every moment. From practice, to games, to interacting with kids. His coaches can tell that the game is slowing down from how he responded at times last year. Adams pushed him hard last season. He had recruited a consistent player who came to Tech with 30 double-doubles. Everyone knew the potential Obanor had, even with a step up in competition from his days at ORU. They also saw what his personality could do for others. That if he became more consistent in both areas, he could be one of the best players in the conference.
“He’s a guy that we have nothing but confidence in,” Adams says. “He came here last season with a lot of experience from playing at Oral Roberts and embraced getting better from the start. He lives in the gym and loves the game. I can really see the growth he’s had over the past year though. He’s matured as a player and has become a real leader. It’s translated to the way he plays the game. He’s not out there being selfish with the basketball and doesn’t take plays off. I’m looking forward to seeing him play in conference and where his game can get to.”
Not every story is about overcoming adversity. It’s been a long time ago since he worked through a speech impediment and was cut from his junior high basketball team. It’s been years since he moved from Houston as a freshman and then three different states throughout high school. This time, this story is about stacking success. He’s played in two straight Sweet 16s – one with ORU and the other at Tech – recording double-doubles in all six tournament games he’s played in. It’s about the present with Obanor building on a nearly flawless non-conference schedule where his performances match up against the elite throughout the nation. It’s about performing and leading. Being secure and confident enough in yourself to leave a coveted double-double out there needing only one more rebound and remaining supportive instead of reverting to being selfish.
“I wouldn’t trade this journey for anything,” Obanor says. “I came to the right place. Stayed at the right place. I want to continue winning games and one day leave here with people truly understanding that my goal was to make everything around me better than when I found it.”
Leaving a legacy.