This season of George Mason basketball is going to see a host of new faces taking the floor for the Patriots.
One of those new players to the program will be Anali Okoloji, a redshirt sophomore from Brooklyn, NY. I recently had a chance to talk to Anali and get his thoughts on the upcoming season.
Okoloji played his freshman season at Seton Hall University, but after receiving only 3.3 minutes per game with the Pirates, Anali decided to transfer.
"At Seton Hall, I just felt like things didn’t really work out for me because I didn’t really get an opportunity to showcase what I can do, but everything happens for a reason."
Despite his strong ties to the Tri-State Area, Okoloji decided to go down south to George Mason, due in large part to Paul Hewitt's recruiting efforts and to the area at large.
"Pretty much, I just felt like Coach Hewitt was a real good guy," Okoloji said of his coach. "He told me if I come here, good things will happen…I just felt like the area and environment was real nice, and there’s a lot of loyal fans down here in Fairfax and in the area. I felt like it was a good situation for me."
Due to NCAA transfer rules, Okoloji had to sit out the 2011-12 campaign with the Patriots, taking a redshirt for the season.
“It just made me more hungry," Okoloji said of redshirting. "Just seeing your teammates play, you wanna be out there. You just wanna help out, whether its rebounding, or deflections. Sitting out was just very frustrating. I couldn’t even travel, so it was just like ‘Aw man, see you back on Monday.’"
Though Okoloji was frustrated with his inability to help the team directly, he continued to work hard off the court and in practices in preparation for the upcoming season.
"My offseason was really good and I just took everything that I had seen last year and worked really hard over the summer...I feel like I’ve developed much more after sitting out."
Now, Anali looks to be a leader for the George Mason Patriots, both in games and in the classroom, setting an example for the younger members of the team.
When it came to academics and basketball, Anali explained, "On and off the court, and academically, I handle my work, and with the younger guys, I tell 'em that if they handle what they have to do in the classroom, that they’ll do good on the court. I feel like it’s a balance. If you do good in the classroom, then it will translate to the court, and if you’re worrying about all that other stuff, then you won’t be balanced."
As for his skills on the court, Okoloji likes to lead by example with high energy play.
"When it comes to the team, I just have a lot of energy. I like to run the floor and get steals, that pumps me up…Hopefully everybody will follow my lead with the energy and we can be dominate this year."
Throughout my talk with Anali, or "Lay" as his teammates have begun referring to him ("I never thought I would get a nickname cause I was like, ‘I’d rather not have a nickname, my name is Anali,’ but I got one”), it became apparent that he really has his head on straight and is ignoring all potential distractions.
His own stat line?
"I’m not really worried about my personal statistics, I don’t really notice that. I just know that when I go on, I’m just gonna go hard and play to the best of my abilities."
"Nah, didn’t really matter to me whether we were in the A10 or the CAA...the only things I was worried about were individuals, finishing up the spring semester and the weight room. I wanted to play VCU though, but we’ll see."
Critics' views of the new CAA?
"I feel like it’s a tough conference. It’s very competitive. I think a conference that doesn’t have as many bids to the NCAA has to be competitive because everybody’s fighting to get the bid...Nobody wants to be home in March."
How about even looking ahead at the toughest out of conference schedule George Mason has seen in years?
"Right now I’m just gonna take it one game at a time. I’m really looking forward to the first game, Virginia, and I’m looking forward to the Virgin Islands...It’s a tough schedule every game. You can’t really think too far ahead because you don’t wanna be like, ‘Oh we’re gonna beat this team and we’re gonna beat that team.' What you can do is just take it one game at a time and don’t worry about the next game."
Instead of worrying about things out of his control, Okoloji instead has shifted his focus to what is important, such as gaining a new team identity after losing their leaders and top two leading scorers from last season, Mike Morrison and Ryan Pearson.
Of Pearson and Morrison, Anali said, "They’re veterans, so we took their lead...We had Ryan that could score in the low post and do what he wanted to and we had Mike who could rebound and block shots. I think this year, whoever’s on the floor at the time is gonna have to go hard when they’re in the game."
One way that the Patriots are planning to move on from the winningest class in school history is by changing up their offensive gameplan, running a more fast paced style, as opposed to the low post-based offense of last season.
"I love it," Okoloji said of the new offense, which vastly contrasts the halfcourt style offense employed by his former school. "It’s changed my body. I lost a lot of weight from it. I can play the 2, 3, and 4, and it’s better because we can wear teams down with us just being up and running that style. We can get 85, 90 points on the board because of the way we play."
Okoloji isn't the only one whose body has changed due to offseason conditioning in preparation for the new offense. Redshirt junior Johnny Williams has been noted for considerably slimming down, and even Okoloji took notice, saying, "I was hearing people [at Mason Madness] saying, ‘Wow, you guys look good. Your bigs run like guards.’"
Okoloji also had a lot of high praise for this year's freshman class, consisting of Marko Gujanicic, Patrick Holloway, and Jalen Jenkins.
"Marko, he can really see the floor for a big, and he’s big. He’s very versatile, but one thing about him is that he understands the game. His IQ is tremendous...When [Patrick] shoots, he can hit eight, nine threes in a row...And Jalen, I like Jalen a lot. He reminds me of me. He’s long and athletic and I think he has a lot of potential...there’s a really bright future for all three of them."
It was also encouraging to hear how Anali has taken Holloway under his wing, further cementing his status as a potential leader for the Patriots.
"Sometimes I have to pick [Patrick] up and tell him to keep his head up. He can shoot but sometimes you’re not gonna get those shots off in college, so I tell him to keep working hard and keep his head up...He needs to understand that some days are up and down days, but that as long as he’s working hard, he has a bright future."
Overall, I'm excited to see what Anali can bring to the Patriots this season. He's a high energy leader in the classroom and on the floor, but most of all, he believes in this team and has a determination to be great.
"We had a good team at 24-9, but I felt like we could have won more last year. I think this is gonna be the year where a lot of good things happen for this team...We can compete with some of the best in the country, and we’re gonna show that this year."
You can follow Joe Campione on Twitter @jcamp459 and Anali Okoloji @KING_AOK1