MISSOULA — In basketball, the jump from NCAA Division II to Division I is drastic and not often seen, especially to see an athlete contribute at the next level.
But senior Laolu Oke has been bucking that trend with the Montana Grizzlies, as in two years he has emerged as the heartbeat of the UM program.
"I think vocally and emotionally the guys trust him," UM head coach Travis DeCuire said. "They believe in the things that he says. I think that it's very difficult when it comes to leadership to say things and act upon them the right way. He's done a good job of that with this group. And he's been helpful for the staff."
An Aurora, Colorado native, Oke competed at Division II Metropolitan State University in Denver for four seasons where he set a number of school records and was a two-time Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. There, he had the chance to play in front of family and friends every night as he grew in the game.
A blue-collar style player, defense, rebounding and doing the job no one else wants have been his keys to success.
"I think those are just things that people just overlook, like a lot of guys, they want to score all the points, they want to shoot the shots, they want to get all the praise and glory for the offensive end of the court," Oke said. "But then you need to hang your hat on defense, because that's what wins championships. You got to defend if you don't want to lose at the end of the game. You have to stop the opposing team from scoring points. That's why I hang my hat on defense because not very many people do it."
After his career at MSU Denver concluded, Oke took a chance and made the leap to D1 after the Grizzlies found him thanks to his eye-popping rebounding stats.
But last year the learning curves were steep in making the transition.
"I didn't even think like when I was going from D2 to D1, I was like, 'Dang, can I play Division I basketball? Like am I a Division I basketball player?'" Oke recalled. "I had my doubts, of course. But then I got here, I played, biggest difference that was for sure the size. So I was like, yeah, I gotta get bigger, this is not gonna cut it."
So Oke added 20 pounds when he got to Missoula, and last year the growth was steady as he began to find his stride toward the end of the season.
But Oke has always taken time to develop.
He didn't begin playing basketball until middle school — Oke estimates he grew from 5-foot-8 to about 6-3 from eighth grade to freshman year, and currently stands at 6-8 — and was a late bloomer in high school, at MSU Denver, and now in his breakout role with the Griz.
"One of my best friends told me that, he was just like, you always need a year just to like, you know, get comfortable," Oke said. "So I've had to keep on working. And this year, I'm way more comfortable and more relaxed. So I'm able to just, you know, just play my game."
"It's a big jump. I think it's very difficult moving up, especially when you don't have a redshirt year to prepare for this level, the speed of the game, the complexity of the game as you move forward," DeCuire added. "And I think he's done a good job of adjusting. Last year, second half of the season was a lot smoother for him than at the beginning. And that kind of shows the period of time it takes to transition and then on into this year with a great start."
And that work has paid off, as Oke has blossomed into a key player for Montana in his final college season, and he leads the Griz in rebounding at 6.6 per game. Even more, he has been a captain and the leader of this year's program, an achievement he earned in just two years. He's also averaging 6.2 points per game and has 14 blocks and 22 steals on the season, and he threw down a dunk against Montana State-Northern back on Dec. 5 that went viral across the country.
"Yeah, it means a lot that the coaches in my second year here, that they already trust me so much to be able to lead this team like I am. So that meant a lot to me," Oke said. "I think it's just helped me grow a lot."
But the job's not finished in Oke's eyes, as it's been a special run, but there's more to accomplish before it's all said and done with the Grizzlies.
"It's meant a lot to me, man," Oke said. "This has been like the greatest six years of my life. I know I'm going to miss it so much when I leave. But I really want to just focus on finishing out this season and hopefully ending it with cutting down some nets at the end of the season."