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Vols are Getting “Ultimate Team Guy” in EJ Anosike

On Friday, Tennessee’s men’s basketball team picked up a big addition to their roster when Sacred Heart grad transfer forward EJ Anosike announced he would be joining the Vols for his final year of eligibility. Anosike, whose older sister Nicky played for the Lady Vols and won two national titles under Pat Summitt, chose UT over his other finalists of Gonzaga, Louisville, Georgetown, Georgia, Wake Forest, and Boston College.

The 6-foot-6, 245-pound forward was a First Team All-NEC player in his junior season for Sacred Heart, averaging a double-double with 15.7 points and 11.6 rebounds in 33 starts.

So what are the Vols getting with the veteran forward? I spoke with Ryan Peters, a contributor for Northeast Conference Sports and Blue Ribbon Sports, about the kind of player EJ Anosike is. Peters is also a Sacred Heart alum.

Anosike proved in his career to be an elite rebounder, and he led the NEC in total rebounds and offensive boards this past season. That rebounding ability should greatly help the Vols, as UT finished 12th in the SEC in rebounding during conference play.

“His biggest asset is obviously his rebounding,” Peters said. “He does a phenomenal job of getting rebounds outside of his area. He could be on the left block, and a shot goes up and comes off the right side, and his motor around the rim is just unlike anything I’ve seen at the mid-major level. He has this infinite amount of energy and motor. His ability to get rebounds anywhere near the rim coming off the basket is exceptional. He garnered a tremendous amount of rebounds for Sacred Heart, and that led to a lot of second-chance points.

“Despite the move up to the SEC and seeing more athleticism and bigger opponents, there’s nothing to match that motor of his. He’ll still be able to get a fair amount of rebounds just on that energy level alone.”

Anosike totaled 138 offensive rebounds in 33 games this past season, which is almost half of what Tennessee totaled as a team (311) in the 2019-20 campaign. Anosike’s 4.2 offensive boards a game was the fourth-highest average in Division I basketball this season, trailing only Bethune-Cookman’s Cletrell Pope, Quinnipiac’s Kevin Marfo, and Xavier’s Tyrique Jones.

As a rebounder, Anosike is rarely matched across college basketball. Though he’s not a towering giant at 6-foot-6, he’s extremely adept at cleaning up the glass. In 95 career games at Sacred Heart, Anosike pulled down at least 10 rebounds in 31 games and totaled at least seven boards in 57 contests.

So what makes Anosike such a good rebounder despite not having elite size?

“There are just big guys who have a nose for the basketball,” Peters explained. “His instincts are terrific on the court. He knows where to position himself when a three-point shot goes up depending on where on the floor that shot is coming. He’s a student of the game.”

The East Orange, New Jersey native fills up the stat sheet regularly, totaling 27 double-doubles in his Sacred Heart career. But Anosike’s impact goes beyond just the box score.

“The thing that impressed me the most about EJ while watching him at Sacred Heart and having a relationship with a couple of the coaches is he sacrifices for the betterment of the team,” Peters said. “He’ll study film relentlessly. He’s working on his diet. He’ll get up early to work on his game, to work on his body. He’s the ultimate competitor and the ultimate team guy. He’s willing to do anything it takes to help his team win. If that means getting 12 rebounds and attacking the offensive glass, he’ll do that. If it means just doing the hard-nosed plays and doing the dirty work down low, he’ll do that as well. If he needs to score a little bit, he can. He’s a smart player.

“So you add that smartness with that relentless motor, and that’s what made him an All-NEC First Teamer this year.”

Anosike isn’t the most elite scorer out there, but he’s capable of picking up a lot of points if needed. He scored a career-high 27 points in a win against St. Francis in February of 2019, and he topped the 20-point mark 12 different times in his Sacred Heart career. He scored at least 15 points in 31 games as a Pioneer.

As a sophomore, Anosike could also make teams pay from distance, connecting on 35.8 percent of his threes in the 2018-19 campaign. But this past season, Anosike made just 25 percent of his three-pointers despite attempting 26 more than the previous season.

“I think with the three-point line getting moved back last year, I think that affected him as it did with a lot of fours and fives around college basketball,” Peters stated. “I never viewed him as a great perimeter shooter. He does have a reliable elbow jumper, so he does have that range and ability to keep defenders honest if he’s trying to step out from 15 or 18 feet. I think his sophomore season was more of an aberration just because a lot of the time he was left wide open on shots, so he was able to hit 42 percent of his threes in conference play.

“This year, there was a little more attention on that. The scouting reports kinda tightened up on him, and teams realized he was a guy who could maybe score a little better all over the floor. I think there was more defensive attention to him when he slipped out to the perimeter.”

Though his three-point shooting may have taken a step back, Anosike still proved to be a good shooter everywhere else on the floor as a junior.

Anosike connected on 54.7 percent of his two-point field goals and made 72.8 percent of his free throws. In his career, he’s a 48.3 percent shooter overall, 52.5 percent shooter inside the three-point arc, and has made 73.8 percent of his free throws.

“I know he’s worked on his shooting a lot over the last two years, and it has improved,” Peters explained. “But I don’t know if he’s ever going to be a reliable three-point guy like a true stretch-four. Now, he’ll be able to keep defenders honest. At this point, if he can make 30 percent of his threes in high-major play, I think that’s a realistic goal for him. I don’t see him doing much better than that, honestly.”

Offensively, Anosike brings a lot to Tennessee’s team and gives them a bruising post presence they missed after the departures of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield after the 2018-19 season. But what about defensively?

The 6-foot-6 forward hasn’t been a proficient shot-blocker in his collegiate career, and he doesn’t steal the ball at a high rate either. But that doesn’t mean Anosike is a bad defender by any means.

“It’s tough to measure his true defensive value,” Peters said of Anosike. “At Sacred Heart, he was lined up opposite Jarel Spellman, who was a five-man. Last year, (Spellman) was the Defensive Player of the Year in the conference. Spellman was a guy who was always on the team’s best low-block presence. He always had that task because he was a guy who accumulated 150 blocks in about two years. EJ wasn’t asked to guard the best post presence on the team.”

The 6-foot-10 Spellman has been one of the best shot-blockers in college basketball over the last two years, averaging 2.8 blocks a game and totaling 183 rejections in 65 games. Anosike wasn’t asked to be a rim protector because of that, and he was able to focus more on fours and threes rather than being the primary post defender.

At Tennessee, that will likely be the case again for Anosike.

SEC Defensive Player of the Year Yves Pons tied a school record with 73 blocks this past season, and 6-foot-9 John Fulkerson is a good defender in the paint as well. Those two should be able to lift the defensive burden off Anosike down in the post, but Anosike brings his own defensive value to the team.

“One thing EJ did tremendously well is clean up the defensive glass and eliminate those second-chance opportunities,” Peters said. “EJ is a good athlete, but he’s not a great athlete.

“I’m not quite sure how his athleticism is going to scale up to the SEC. He’s not a guy that I think is going to have a high number of blocks. He’s not terribly bouncy, but he has a wide body, and he’s very crafty in how to use that body, how to box out, how to put himself in good defensive position. But I wouldn’t call him an above-average defender. That’s also very hard to handicap because he was playing alongside an elite defensive player.”

Peters says he sees Anosike more as a “four guy” than anything else, adding that the rising senior could play the three “in a pinch” if needed, but he’s more comfortable playing the four spot. That doesn’t mean he would be out of place playing on the perimeter, though.

“He has a decent amount of comfort taking bigs off the dribble on the perimeter, and that’s something that he did do at Sacred Heart at times,” Peters said. “When teams started to notice he was shooting threes more, they would kinda come up and pinch him. There were times, especially this year, where he would take the more lumbering bigs off the dribble and get to the rim and get fouled or make a layup. That’s something he can certainly do.

“But in a perfect world, I think he’s a four. I wouldn’t consider him too versatile, but as a four he does have some perimeter skills, so he’s not completely lost when he’s out there.”

Tennessee will have several veterans on the team next season, most notably John Fulkerson and Yves Pons. The Vols don’t necessarily need leadership, but Anosike brings that to the team as well.

Sacred Heart head coach Anthony Latina has been the head coach of the Pioneers since 2013, and he’s helped guide the program from a 5-26 record in his first season to the team’s first 20-win season since joining the Division I ranks in 1999 when Sacred Heart went 20-13 this past season. Before that, he was an assistant at Sacred Heart for eight years from 2005 -13. He’s coached tons of players in his 15 years with the Pioneers, but none have matched the kind of work ethic Anosike has shown.

That kind of attitude and Anosike’s relentless motor should make him fit in perfectly under Rick Barnes at Tennessee.

“One thing Anthony Latina told me about EJ is that as the years have gone on, EJ was one of the hardest workers on his team. He had one of the hardest work ethics Anthony has ever seen in Sacred Heart history,” Peters said. “(EJ) puts himself in such a great position with his diet and his energy and the way he focuses on his craft. He’s a student of the game. He’s kinda more of a lead by example type of guy, but he really puts his money where his mouth his.

“There’s no shortcuts for him. He’s a relentless hard-worker. He’ll do anything he can to help the team win. I think that in itself is a great leadership quality to have.”

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