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PREP BASKETBALL: 2009 Herald preview -- The Ochie Evolution

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

Two weeks ago, Onochie Ochie sat in his bedroom by himself and cried.

The tears were not of pain or sadness. These were tears of joy.

Though, to be precise, they were as much of disbelief.

Only six months ago, Ochie blended in as another role player in the Westover Patriots' 10-man rotation. Only four years ago, the son of Ehieli and Dr. Charles Ochie, not only hadn't played a minute of organized basketball, but never really liked the sport.

Yet, here he was, sitting in his bedroom with a realization: His journey from relative obscurity to Division I basketball player -- a dream he didn't know he know he could achieve and didn't know he wanted -- just became complete with his commitment to Southeastern Louisiana University.

"I was thinking, 'How did this happen so fast?' " Ochie said. "If you would have told me this would happen last year, I would say, 'You are lying. Why are you lying to me?' I didn't see this coming."

To be fair, few did.

Ochie (pronounced "O-Chee") never played organized basketball in middle school. He spent some time playing recreationally on the streets or in gyms, but the idea of running plays, setting screens and executing defensive techniques were foreign to him.

But the kid could jump. So Westover coach Dallis Smith filed him away into the project category and placed him nicely on the end of the bench for two seasons.

Ochie didn't know the plays, so he didn't touch the floor. But little by little, a transformation began.

"He absorbed everything we told him," Smith said.

Last season, Ochie worked his way off the bench.

After watching the 6-foot-6

athlete rise to slap the top of the square on the backboard in practice for three years, Smith couldn't deny him the chance.

The junior didn't dominate. He showed potential, but it only came in flashes -- loud, thunderous, rim-rocking, flashes. His acrobatic, putback dunks became the buzz of nearly every game he played in. That includes a few in the Final 4 that made nearly everyone in the Macon Centreplex cover their mouths.

Ochie even added a half-court buzzer-beater to win a Region 1-AAA game at Worth County in midseason, but that summed up his talent at the time. He nearly traveled before throwing it up and banked it in before being mobbed by teammates.

It was a little awkward and far from polished.

So Ochie linked up with the Albany Bearcats AAU team during the summer and coach Reggie Boone. Boone saw potential for Ochie playing as an athletic wing and let him develop.

Suddenly, everything he'd learned during the past three seasons clicked.

"We went to a tournament in Jacksonville in April," Ochie said. "I had like 26 points against a pretty good team. That is when I knew I might be the guy."

He was definitely the man. Ochie began driving to the lane with aggression and precision. No longer did teammates have to create opportunities for him.

He made them himself.

The bigger the tournament game, the better he played, topping 20 points time and time again.

At one point, Ochie drew the assignment of No. 5 overall recruit, 6-foot-8 Tobias Harris, who signed with Tennessee last week.

Ochie responded by holding Harris to six points.

"That is when Southeastern started calling me and offered me," said Ochie, who also drew offers from USC-Upstate, South Alabama and South Carolina State. "That is when the whole thing started."

On Wednesday, that journey ended when he signed on the dotted line to play for the Lions next year as their athletic wing.

Ochie decided to sign early because he wanted to give his senior season full attention. He wants to lead the Patriots back to the state championship game. Only, this time, everyone associated with the Westover program knows he would arrive a different player.

They barely recognize him through preseaeson practice.

"It's a huge difference," teammate and point guard Shevren Keaton said. "He can score anytime he wants to. I guess he has been eating his vegetables or something."

Smith and Ochie both agree: He is still learning, still developing. In so many ways, he's still a project. The word "upside" plays on repeat on the mouths of coaches and recruiters.

Ochie's just now beginning to realize his.

"My confidence now is through the roof," he said. "I am very aggressive. I am not just going to pass it off. If I got it, I am going to take it."

Indeed, Ochie found his opportunity and took it.

Even as he runs with his bright basketball future south to Louisiana, he can't help think about how fast he came so far.

"I think about it a lot," Ochie said. "I just can't believe this. I mean, me?"