When last we saw Joseph Uchebo, he was mostly riding the pine for the Pitt basketball team. After some early-season games where he played a bit more, the former Panther played a total of 13 minutes in the team's final 15 contests and was largely relegated to the bench.
With sparse playing time in his two seasons at Pitt, Uchebo never lived up to the hope that he could be a regular serviceable big man for the program and transferred to Charlotte. So when words like 'unstoppable' are thrown around now in describing his game, it's a little hard to process.
But this season, Uchebo is on a tear, averaging a double double per game (12.8 points and 11.5 rebounds). He's had at least 15 rebounds in seven contests and pulled in 20 against Louisiana Tech. Uchebo is not only one of the best big men in Conference USA, but is eighth in the nation in rebounding.
The immediate thought when comparing what he's doing this year to what he did at Pitt, of course, is 'How?' Uchebo seems to attribute his success in part to having more confidence from the coaches. This stood out to me from a recent game.
On top of tallying close to half of the team’s total rebounds Thursday’s game, Uchebo scored a career-high 24 points. He contributes this achievement to constant assurance from his coaches.
"The coach told me that none of them could stop me. He said that their five men are good players, but he kept telling me that no one could stop me and it kept giving me more confidence," Uchebo said.
Uchebo is also becoming a team leader. Here's a solid feature article on that from The Charlotte Observer.
Conference USA is hardly the ACC or a major conference, so at first glance, you might be inclined to believe that his stats are almost solely the result of weaker competition. After all, sitting atop the conference is 21-4 UAB, who lost all three of its major non-conference tests against Auburn, Illinois, and Virginia Tech, and doesn't have a single vote in the AP and USA Today Top 25 polls. But what Uchebo is doing against better competition is noteworthy.
Charlotte has played some bigger programs, including Miami, Syracuse, Georgetown, Washington, and Michigan, and Uchebo has excelled in those games, too. Against those teams, he's still averaging a double double, with more than 11 points and 11 rebounds per game. In fact, his 11.6 boards against those programs is even slightly better than his overall average (11.5), which included lesser teams. His numbers are basically parallels of his season averages so Uchebo is producing against the better teams as well.
Another reason for his success could be playing time. He could barely sniff the court here at Pitt with the Panthers forced to rely upon Michael Young at center as Uchebo struggled. But more playing time (he's averaging 27 minutes per game) has equaled more success.
It's not all about that, either, though. For example, Uchebo is shooting close to 60% from the field as opposed to the sub 40% he was at last year with the Panthers. In addition, his point-per-minute and rebound-per-minute rates have shot up. Finally, consider what he did with bigger minutes at Pitt last year. In his five biggest games (in terms of playing time last year), he averaged nearly 15 minutes per game against Boston College, Duquesne, Holy Cross, Niagara, and Samford. Even though those are pretty weak teams, he still only mustered five points and just over five rebounds per game - certainly lower per minute production than he's had this year.
In other words, while playing more minutes is helping him, the fact is that he's doing much more with them.
In the end, while playing against weaker competition and getting more minutes are helping him, it has to be said that Uchebo just looks to be a better player these days. Whether that's attributed to being healthier, having more confidence, or simply developing more, I don't know (for the record, my guess is that it's a combination of all three). But based on what he's doing this season, it's pretty clear that Pitt unfortunately missed out here.
With much more talent here, he certainly wouldn't be the force that he is in Conference USA. Uchebo wouldn't be able to do as much offensively with the players Pitt has, and with only one other player for Charlotte averaging four boards or more (the next leading guy is at 5.6 per game), he wouldn't be the dominant rebounder he's become, either. However, it's reasonable to suggest that he could have helped the team more this year than even the players that replaced him.
Uchebo's improvement, unfortunately, has come a year too late for Pitt.