Many Tennessee fans were wringing their hands last April when Cuonzo Martin invested a scholarship in a post prospect who didn't even start for his high school team.
Those same fans were clapping their hands Thursday night, however, as Yemi Makanjuola left the floor at Thompson-Boling Arena. The 6-foot-9, 244-pound freshman got a standing ovation after scoring 18 consecutive Vol points at one stretch. He also pulled down 11 rebounds in an eye-popping 13-minute relief stint that helped the Big Orange trounce The Citadel 86-55.
Stuck behind 6-foot-11, 260-pound fellow Nigerian Joseph Uchebo, Makanjuola played mostly backup minutes as a senior at Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, N.C., last winter. Still, he caught Martin's eye.
"He was more of a rebounder — physical and tough," the Vol coach recalled. "That's the first thing he would tell you: He would defend, he was tough, he was hardnosed. Now the offense is coming. He's putting in a lot of work on his offense."
Actually, Makanjuola's offense Thursday consisted mostly of rebounding virtually every shot his teammates missed, then scoring on putbacks and tips. Seven of his 11 rebounds were off the offensive glass and 11 of his team-high 18 points came on follow shots.
Makanjuola conceded the point, noting: "I normally try to get the rebound and make my play from the misses."
Martin agreed with that assessment.
"That's his thing; he rebounds the basketball," the head man said. "The thing that's most impressive at this point is that he's really improved his body balance to be under control to get those rebounds and keep the ball high (so opposing guards won't take it from him)."
Makanjuola's 18-point outing Thursday matched his scoring total for Tennessee's previous 11 games combined. It must be noted that his breakout game came against a team that now carries a 2-10 record and an eight-game losing streak. It also must be noted that his outburst began with 10:49 remaining and Tennessee already leading 60-38. Still, he single-handedly outscored the Bulldogs 18-10 as the lead swelled to 78-48.
"Yemi had a great game," Martin said, adding that Makanjula has "really been focusing in practice on rebounding the ball with two hands and really being aggressive."
The obvious question: If Makanjuola has been so good in practice lately, why did he fail to see action last week against East Tennessee State? Martin said the inaction was due to "matchups" but Makanjuola had another explanation.
"If you don't practice well, according to Coach, you don't get the chance to play," he said. "Last week I figured I'm not practicing hard, so I had to get my mind together and be like I used to be -- play hard and every time I get in make the best of the opportunity."
Makanjuola made the most of his opportunity Thursday night, upstaging several good performances by Vol teammates. Skylar McBee came off the bench to hit 4 of 5 shots from 3-point range in the first half. He finished 4 of 10 from the field (4 of 8 from 3) and was Tennessee's second-leading scorer with 12 points. Trae Golden chipped in 10 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds and just 2 turnovers in 24 minutes at the point. Renaldo Woolridge added 10 points off the bench as the Vols improved to 6-6. Center Mike Groselle scored 21 points for The Citadel, which trailed 40-25 at halftime and got no closer than 12 points thereafter.
Makanjuola, who said his high game in high school was 22 points, conceded that offensive rebounding is the key to his scoring output.
"That's something I had a little bit," he said. "Since I've been here my coaches have helped me work hard on it, so I think I'm better on that."
A dedicated work ethic and bubbly personality have combined to make him enormously popular with his teammates. He gave them considerable credit for Thursday's performance.
"My teammates kept pushing me to keep going," he said. "My teammates are always wanting me to do something good, so I appreciate all of them for that."
Makanjuola is even more popular with Tennessee crowds. Clearly a fan favorite, he got a hearty ovation as he left Thursday's game with 1:21 remaining. Questioned about his popularity, he shrugged.
"I guess it's my name. Because my name is funny I get the crowd's attention," he said. "It's not that I'm that good. It's just the name."
Actually, it's not the name. All-out hustle, dogged determination and an ultra-aggressive style of play have made Yemi Makanjuola a crowd favorite ... and he'll remain one as long as he exhibits those traits.