Stan Okoye had an easy college decision four years ago when he graduated from Knightdale High.
A 6-foot-5 basketball standout, he had one Division I scholarship offer unless you count the one from Campbell that was rescinded the day after it was made. There were lots of letters and plenty of interest. Knightdale coach Battle Watkins had great conversations with several college coaches.
But ultimately the only Division I offer came from the Virginia Military Institute.
“The only one,” said Okoye, who repaid VMI coach Duggar Baucom’s faith by being a four-year starter and winning the Big South Conference Player of the Year honor.
“He’s the epitome of what a basketball coach wants – a great player and a great leader,” Baucom said when Okoye won the award last week. “Stan can do everything you want on the court and he’s even better off the court. The voters couldn’t have picked a better guy.”
Okoye has played against many of the same coaches who questioned his abilities when he was a high school standout. He said he has a good relationship with many of them, but his competitive fires are stoked by the memory of wanting to go to college so badly and receiving only best wishes from so many coaches.
The VMI offer came in late December of his senior year, long after most seniors had already signed.
“There is no question that I’ve wanted to show everyone that I can play at this level,” Okoye said. “I know college basketball is a business and that the coaches are good guys. But I still want them to know that I could have played for them.”
He has proven his case.
He is the only player in Big South history to have 2,000 career points (2,103), 900 rebounds (939) and 100 blocked shots (101).
He received 17 of 20 first-place votes in the player of the year balloting after leading the conference in scoring (21.5) and rebounding (9.2).
He had seven 30-point games and scored 10 or more points in 27 of 29 games. He had more than 10 points and 10 rebounds in 11 games.
“I think VMI got a better player than it expected,” said Knightdale’s Watkins. “I give their coaches a lot of credit. Stan is a much better player than he was when he got there.”
Okoye started at center as a freshman at the Lexington, Va., school. He has extraordinarily long arms and a powerful build, and has moved more to the perimeter throughout his career as he has improved his ball-handling skills and increased his shooting range.
Watkins said what some college coaches perceived as an Okoye weakness – not having a specific position – has become a huge asset.
“Stan creates a matchup problem,” Watkins said. “Who is going to guard him? Stan can play inside with his back to the basket, shoot 3s, drive. He’s a problem.”
Okoye had some problems of his own in his first months at the military school, where upperclassmen put mental and physical pressure on the freshmen. After less than a month of taking orders, Okoye was preparing to return home to Raleigh without ever playing a college game.
“Stan was a tough kid, a mentally strong kid when he was here,” Watkins said. “But the first weeks there are designed to test. They tear you down and build you back.”
Okoye said the reason he didn’t leave was his classmates.
“I stuck it out because of the other guys,” he said. “I figured if they could take it, I could too.”
He has thrived. He has been among his class’ military leaders. He is vice president of the VMI honor court, where among his duties are an 11 p.m., meeting every Sunday through Thursday and instructing newcomers in VMI policy and regulations.”
He took on the role, he said, because he likes the structure.
“Some people can’t tell you what they are going to be doing on Friday at 3 o’clock,” he said. “I can.”
He will lead VMI against Longwood in the Big South tournament in Conway, S.C., on Thursday at 2 p.m. VMI finished second in the Big South North Division (13-16, 8-8), but Okoye believes the Keydets can win the tournament.
Beyond his final college game, the key Keydet, who usually has a plan, doesn’t know.
As a 6-5, 210-pound forward, he is a long shot for the NBA. But he’d like to play professional basketball somewhere because he doesn’t want his career to end.
Post-basketball, he said, he believes he is well prepared with life skills he has learned at VMI.
In the end, VMI would have been his best choice, he said, no matter how many offers he had.