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Osifo's journey from rugby star to developing DI prospect continues with UF

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Osayi Osifo

Florida men’s basketball junior Osayi Osifo expects to contribute regularly this season — no surprise for a typical junior college signee with offers from several SEC programs, but Osifo is not a typical prospect. 

The 6-foot-7, 225-pound junior arrived at UF in the offseason by way of Eastern Florida State College as part of Florida’s 2020 class, and Osifo’s motor and athleticism make him an ideal fit on paper to see the court from the jump considering coach Mike White intends to employ a more up-tempo offensive system in the 2020-21 campaign, which begins Nov. 25 against Maine University in the Basketball Hall of Fame Bubbleville tournament at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut. 

Yet Osifo lacks basketball experience when comparing him to his peers, considering Osifo, a former rugby and track star in his home country of South Africa, only picked up the sport four years ago just before arriving in the United States. 

“I moved here in 2016 from South Africa. I was a big track star and rugby star there, but you know, Africa’s different. There’s more opportunity here, so my uncle and my dad paved the way for me to come here and in 2016 I decided I’d take that route and I came here,” Osifo said. “I really hadn’t played basketball before. 2016 was my first time actually on a hardwood (court), before then it was just dribbling with soccer balls and stuff like that.”

He might not have found the sport if it weren’t for an injury that made him reconsider his athletic path. Osifo said he’d only become seriously interested in basketball after breaking his finger for the second time while playing rugby competitively.  

“The coach then had me playing a couple games with the broken finger, and I was on the A-team, and I was on the national team, too, so they actually needed me, but the second time I broke it my dad told me to chill out, otherwise, a recurring injury is just bad, so I asked him to get me a basketball, because we had an old basketball court that was built in 1905, the school is really old,” Osifo said. “I was out there every day, I was playing with one hand and the other kids would come, but I’d be just as good as everybody playing with two hands.”

His former rugby teammates didn’t take kindly to him focusing on a different sport, however. 

“After five months, they would want me on the track or playing rugby, and there were some instances, they would steal my basketball,” he said. “It was really a fight to play this game and that’s why I really appreciated it since. I tried to start a team at my old school and they came and broke down the rims. Once they broke down the rims that kind of set things in motion. I’ve got an uncle here, I’m just going to try and leave my family behind and go play basketball.”

Osifo’s newfound admiration for the sport only grew once he arrived in McKinney, Texas. By the end of the year, he was already playing on his high school’s varsity team, although he’d missed out on any chance of getting recruited by prominent programs.

“Out of senior year I had a couple Division III offers, so I played unsigned senior ball that summer, and one of my first tournaments, Eastern Florida State saw me in Atlanta and they started recruiting me,” Osifo said. “I always envisioned myself as having a high ceiling, but I never really envisioned myself at Florida because it is a really big school, this is the SEC. So I dreamed big, but I never really thought of Florida until they came down to watch me.”

White, like many Division I coaches accustomed to competing for top-10 recruiting classes, is used to watching prospects as young as 13 years old on the travel ball circuit, meaning Osifo wasn’t on White’s radar either. Osifo’s intensity stood out immediately to White, and it’s standing out early in preseason camp, too.

“We’ve got one guy right out of junior college that leads by example from an intensity standpoint as well as anyone in our program every single day,” White said. “That’s where Osayi is leading, really without saying anything.”

White has developed a reputation on the recruiting trail for being a straight-shooter with prospects and families alike, and Osifo’s recruitment was no different. Guaranteed playing time wasn’t in question despite a need for his high motor and it didn’t come up prior to signing, and White didn’t discuss Florida’s lack of experience in the frontcourt either, said Osifo. 

“That was not something mentioned to me,” Osifo said. “Stuff like that is not really included, they just look for positive energy, hard-working guys, guys with work ethic, character. Those intangibles are what they look for in me, and I had those.”

And Osifo doesn't necessarily think the frontcourt’s potential this season should be in question — he’s confident with what he’s seen so far from his new teammates.

“As far as the frontcourt right now, I think we’re in really good shape,” Osifo said. “Me, Omar (Payne), Colin (Castleton), Jason (Jitoboh)’s going to get healthy and Anthony Duruji, I think we’re good.”

Coming off a summer where conditioning and development were hindered by the repercussions from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Osifo thinks his ahead-of-the-curve athleticism will result in early playing time, too.

“Getting up and down is of course going to wear out guys, so we have to have somewhat of a deep rotation to be able to sub in, sub out, since we’re going to be playing faster, and we’re pressing more this year,” Osifo said. “Pressing, I find myself up high in the hierarchy, just being a guy with a lot of energy, so I’ll be at the top of a press sometimes, so that gives me more chances to contribute to the team.”

He did miss out on the traditional mid-year transition period, where the program eases newly arriving prospects into their new routine. 

“I was promised summer A and Summer B because of the transition from JUCO, and my lack of experience, they wanted me to come in and work out in the facilities and everything. I missed out on that, but I didn’t miss too much, we came in and went straight to it. I think I’m in great shape right now.”

Though the next step in development will be a big one — fine-tuning his game on the offensive end. Osifo did show improvement during his two years at EFSC, raising his scoring from 4.4 points per game as a freshman to 10.9 points as a sophomore, but he knows Power-6 basketball will be an entirely different beast. Still, Osifo has been humbled before, and he’s again ready for whatever difficulties lie ahead.

“I’ve matured since 2016, but it was hard the first few years, my first two years of high school were really hard, getting here, not being as good as I thought I’d be. I went junior college, I didn’t expect that. I basically gave up everybody I knew for basketball, and when I went junior college I thought I kind of failed,” Osifo said. “I continued to trust the process, and now I’m here reaping the benefits and blessings.”