You might think it would be difficult to overlook someone who stands 7-feet tall, but Miami coach Jim Larranaga thinks that is what is happening with his senior center, Tonye Jekiri.
Jekiri isn’t the leading scorer on the team (8.1 points-per-game average) but does lead the 12th-ranked Hurricanes in rebounds (9.8) and blocked shots (27 total) going into Sunday’s game at Florida State (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU).
But his value goes beyond the numbers, Larranaga emphasized at this week’s press briefing.
“Let me begin by sharing with you part of a conversation my staff and I had today. We believe that Tonye Jekiri should be first team all defense and a very, very serious contender for Defensive Player of the Year,” he said, referring to honors to be distributed among Atlantic Coast Conference teams at the conclusion of the regular season.
“There is a number of reasons, and whether he wins the award or not I don’t know because so many people will not go deeply enough into numbers to know how important a defensive player Tonye Jekiri is for us.”
A good example, he pointed out, came in Miami’s 65-63 victory over Pittsburgh last Monday in its last outing. The Hurricanes were outrebounded 20-12 in the first half, when Jekiri got into early foul trouble and played only six minutes. In the second, Jekiri played 19 minutes and the Hurricanes won the boards 17-15.
“If you look at the first few minutes of the Pittsburgh game, Tonye was dominating the defensive backboards,” Larranaga said. “He was getting all the rebounds and creating all the fast breaks for us.
“In addition to that, there are plays that he makes that there is no statistical category for.”
One of the numbers Larranaga would like to develop is a way to measure effectiveness on ball screens, giving guards help in defending shooters on the perimeter. Jekiri has a knack for jumping out on an opposing guard, denying a 3-point opportunity, while still being able to get back to defend the low post.
“Our guards get so much help from Tonye where their man doesn’t even shoot the ball,” Larranaga said. “It’s not like he blocks the shot. He basically stops them from doing what they want to do, and they give the ball up to somebody else.
“I don’t know what kind of statistic we can come up with, but we are looking for a number that shows that he has such a big impact on the defensive end of the court.”
Jekiri not only impacted the win over Pitt with his defense, he also contributed at the offensive end, scoring six consecutive points to ignite a 15-4 run in the first seven minutes of the second half that turned a 33-29 deficit for the Hurricanes into a 44-37 lead. He finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the season.
“There are a lot of things he did the other night that turned into a winning formula,” Larranaga said.
It wasn’t by accident that the visiting Panthers were 10-of-10 from the free throw line in the first half and didn’t even get to the line in the second half.
“When he’s in there, we’re not fouling,” Larranaga said. “He’s not blocking the shot. He’s taking away the shot. They have to go to their second or third option. That’s great defense.”
The comeback victory, secured on a tip-in by guard Angel Rodriguez with 1.4 seconds left in the game, kept the Hurricanes in the ACC race. After both Louisville and Duke lost Saturday, the Hurricanes moved into second place in the conference with their 8-3 ACC mark, a game back of 9-2 North Carolina. The Tar Heels host Pitt at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Now 19-4 in all games, the Hurricanes are facing the toughest part of their schedule with only three home games (Virginia Tech, Virginia, and Louisville) and four road trips (FSU, North Carolina, Notre Dame, and Virginia Tech) remaining in the regular season.