The Iowa Hawkeyes had their 2019-2020 season cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. They didn’t get their shot at making a run in the Big Ten Tournament or the NCAA Tournament. Seniors such as Ryan Kriener and Bakari Evelyn didn’t get their storybook ending. But as Iowa turns toward the future, there’s another round of seniors who have set their eyes on that elusive fairy tale ending.
The Hawkeyes return all five starters, should Luka Garza opt to come back for his senior season. They’ll also add the program’s all-time leader in 3-pointers with the return of Jordan Bohannon and another former starter in big man Jack Nunge who’s coming of a torn ACL.
With all the returning talent, the Hawkeyes look loaded heading into 2020-2021. But the talent doesn’t stop with those returning. Iowa is also bringing in 5 talented recruits in the freshman class. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be profiling each of those commits and checking in with each to hear how they got to this point and see what they expect to bring to the table this season.
We kick things off in a big way with this year’s big man - Worcester Academy star Josh Ogundele.
Ogundele is a physical presence in the low post, coming in at 6’11” and 275 pounds. He’s also just beginning to tap his potential on the hardwood. The big man has only been playing basketball since 2015, when he hit a growth spurt. A native of the London, Ogundele grew up playing rugby, but when he grew nearly five inches in 2015 he decided it was time to turn in the rugby polo for a set of basketball sneakers.
Now 6’3”, Ogundele enrolled in the Barking Abbey Basketball Academy where he could hone his game. He began a rigorous academic and workout regimen that included arriving at the Barking Abbey School between 7 and 7:30am and not leaving until nearly 11pm. He had 3 periods during the school day where he didn’t have class and was always working to improve.
Ogundele’s coaches were focused on making him more than just a big man, making him play all over the floor and working on his ball handling and outside shot. The work paid off as Ogundele made the British Under-16 national team. At 16, he would make the Under-18 team. That’s when the wheels were set in motion for the Brit’s move state-side.
As a prep at Barking Abbey, the goal was to earn a scholarship at the next level. Playing for the national team, Ogundele began down that path. The development of his ballhandling and outside shot, combined with his size, were gaining Ogundele some recognition on the recruiting trail. That is, the US academy recruiting trail.
By the time the U18 team participated in the Harris Tournament in Manchester, England in 2016, Ogundele had all but made up his mind on attending the SPIRE Academy in Geneva, Ohio. Then the big man dropped 25 points, including an onslaught of deep threes, against Worcester Academy.
Worcester head coach James Sullivan was blown away. After the game, he got in touch with Ogundele to discuss his plans for the future. There were FaceTime calls and text messages for months, but eventually, Ogundele decided Worcester was the place to be if he wanted to realize his ultimate goal: to play in the NBA.
Josh Ogundele wanted to go home. It had been a year in Massachusetts and the big man had gotten bigger. “I guess it was too much of the American food,” Ogundele says with a laugh. He had arrived state-side somewhere between 220-230 pounds, but had quickly added weight as a growing sophomore.
He was alone. When he came to America, Ogundele left behind his immediate family. His closest relative is an uncle in New York. His mother and father are more than three thousand miles away and the teen is fully immersed, living on campus in Worcester.
That’s only added to Ogundele’s drive to succeed. He, of course, didn’t head home to London. Instead, he’s continued to hone his game. Aside from his time with Sullivan and Worcester, Ogundele joined Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC) on the Nike EYBL AAU circuit. That’s where he first learned of Iowa.
“We were at a tournament in Boston and I saw this coach so I went up to him and asked if he was from Iowa State,” Ogundele says, noting he had heard of the Cyclones, but not the Hawkeyes at the time. “No, Iowa,” the assistant replied. That’s as far as the interaction went between the developing junior to-be and an Iowa assistant there to watch teammate Matt Cross (who’s headed to Miami).
At the time, Ogundele had only been playing basketball for three years. His minutes and stats were limited for BABC. He was still learning and still growing. He was also still trying to earn his first scholarship offer to keep that dream of the NBA alive.
It all happened very quickly and somewhat unexpectedly. It had been more than a year since Josh Ogundele had approached that Iowa assistant to ask about the Cyclones. He hadn’t heard anything from the Hawkeyes since. He continued to work on his game and in his second season on the AAU trail, the big man averaged 11.3 points and 8.5 rebounds in nearly 26 minutes a game.
Plenty of schools had taken note. Ogundele earned his first offer from South Florida back in May, but by the time the summer had ended, he had nearly 20 Division 1 offers. None were from Iowa.
Then one September morning, he received a message from Iowa assistant Billy Taylor. He had been at a number of Worcester’s practices scouting Ogundele’s teammate, Dasonte Bowen, a PG in the class of 2022. Taylor couldn’t help but notice how well Ogundele was doing and his incredible work ethic. He hadn’t spoken to the senior, but he wanted to offer him a scholarship. Taylor just needed head coach Fran McCaffery to OK it. The two would be at the next day’s open practice. They were there at 7am the next day and McCaffery made the offer before leaving.
The big man from Great Britain certainly knew the difference between Iowa and Iowa State now, but he wasn’t sure what to expect from the Hawkeyes. “Everyone kept telling me it was Iowa, it’s going to be the middle of nowhere,” Ogundele says, “I expected to be surrounded by farmers, but I got off the plane and it wasn’t like that at all. I love the city.” Little more than two weeks after he received his offer, Ogundele was in Iowa City getting his first taste of American football as he watched the Hawkeyes fall 17-12 to Penn State.
The visit went well. He was able to take in a practice, visit with the players and staff, and head to Coach McCaffery’s house. It didn’t hurt that his host was Luka Garza. At the time, Garza hadn’t had his breakout season, but the DC-native was already helping on the trail. “I got along with the team well and the conversation flowed well. It wasn’t forced,” Ogundele told Hawkeye Report following the visit.
A few days later, Ogundele trimmed his list to 5, including the Hawkeyes. That’s when another Iowa big man jumped in.
Former Hawkeye Gabe Olaseni happened to see Ogundele’s top 5 and decided to get in touch. “I was like, ‘Why is he following me?’ And then he told me he went to Iowa and he’s from London,” Ogundele told Sports Illustrated.
Olaseni shared his experiences at Iowa and with Coach McCaffery, which came as welcome input. “It was good to get a different perspective. A lot of people will just tell you what you want to hear, but I felt like he wouldn’t do that,” Ogundele told BHGP. “I just wanted to know is Coach McCaffery crazy like they say, you know? He just tole me he’s a players coach and he wants what’s best for his players.” A few weeks later, Ogundele had seen and heard enough. On November 13th, he was officially a Hawkeye.
When Ogundele committed back in November, nobody knew what was in store for Luka Garza and the Hawkeyes in 2019-2020. Well, nobody except maybe Frank and Luka Garza.
“Honestly, I really didn’t even know much about Luka before the season, but when I watched him play, I realized how I need to get stronger in my lower body. He could really finish around the rim and he can stretch the floor,” Ogundele told HawkeyReport.
Now, Garza’s coming off the single greatest scoring season in Iowa basketball history. Last Friday, he announced his intention to test the waters of the NBA Draft. But he also left the door open to returning for a senior season at Iowa.
“It would be great if we could play together, if I could learn from him and learn the ways of the Big Ten,” Ogundele said, “But if not I’ll have to learn on my own and from watching him.”
Garza is a hell of a person to learn from. While his game doesn’t exactly match Ogundele’s, it isn’t exactly in contrast to it either. “A lot of people say I remind them of Zach Randolph, but I model my game after Joel Embiid. I can stretch the floor, shoot and drive, three point shot is strong and a lot of people don’t know, but I love to pass out of the post. The only thing right now is getting into better shape”
That sounds an awful lot like a young Garza. While it would be wildly unfair to Ogundele to expect a similar career trajectory as what we’ve seen from one of the greatest Hawkeyes of all time, it’s completely fair to say he comes to Iowa City with more athleticism and flash around the rim. Ogundele has tremendous size - bigger than Garza at 6’11” and now north of 275 pounds - and uses it well.
Getting used to the physicality and getting into Big Ten shape physically will certainly be a challenge, but “I’m not the type of person to shy away from a challenge. I play with aggression and energy. I do all the small things,” Ogundele says. Those sound an awful lot like what you’d expect to hear from Garza.
With everything shut down and his family 3,000 miles and an ocean away, Ogundele has nothing but time now to prepare for his journey to Iowa City. That acknowledgement of a need to continue getting into better shape has come with hard work during the down time. While there’s no strict regimen from McCaffery and the Hawkeyes and Frank Garza isn’t there running drills with him every day, Ogundele is keeping busy with plenty of every day workouts.
Worcester Academy, like most schools around the country, is closed. For a foreigner living on campus, that means Ogundele is theoretically homeless. But the big man has built relationships and is living with a teammate while he looks forward to making the move to the heartland.
As of now, the plan is for that move to still happen this summer. For a guy like Ogundele, who has only been playing basketball for 5 years and has sacrificed so much to realize his dream of playing in the NBA, that date can’t get here soon enough. The same can be said for Hawkeye fans itching for more basketball after this season was cut short.
Hometown: London, England (Worcester Academy, Worcester, MA)
Commitment Post: Iowa Basketball Recruiting: Hawkeyes Land 3-Star Center Josh Ogundele
Highlight Video: Junior Season Worcester Academy
A: I eat anything. Steak or ribs or chicken and rice. I miss Nigerian food.
What He’s Watching
A: Netflix, Money Heist, All-American, Dynasty, so many movies
A: Roddy Ricch, Meek Mill, DaBaby, Lil Durk, Gospel Music or English Rap (Dave, J-Hu$$, Unknown T)
Obi Toppin or Luka Garza
A: Luka Garza should’ve won. Obi is a guard. Luka had to deal with double teams and it’s harder for the bigs.
You can beat one of Iowa State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois or Purdue every year?
A: I know what you want me to say, but I’m going to say Illinois because I know someone there.
Did Carole Baskin kill her husband?
A: Yes, she had to!
Special thanks to Josh Ogundele for taking the time to chat with us. Be sure to follow him on social media. You can find him on Instagram @joshogundele and follow him on Twitter @damijosh2047. Look forward to watching this big man do big things for years to come.