Everybody loves a good homecoming story.
Two seasons ago, Stony Brook graduate guard Elijah Olaniyi came into his own, solidifying himself as a star in his junior year by putting up averages of 18.0 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. The Seawolves finished 20-13 and in second place in the America East, but were bounced by Hartford in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
Olaniyi’s stellar season made him hungry to play against more skilled competition, and it garnered the attention of many prominent Division I schools. He took his talents to the University of Miami for his senior season.
“I was sad to see him go, I’ll admit that,” head coach Geno Ford said. “I wasn’t mad. We had some emotional conversations when he was leaving. I didn’t want him to leave. I love Elijah. He’s obviously an excellent player, but if you really get to know him, he’s a unique, complicated, hard-headed, great guy to work with and I mean that.”
Though his expectation was to sit out the 2020-21 season, the NCAA immediate eligibility rule change meant he could suit up for the Hurricanes right away. Notching 18 starts in 21 games, he put up a respectable 10.5 points and 5.1 rebounds per game while averaging 32.6 minutes a night at the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) level.
“Playing for [head coach Jim Larrañaga], playing for the U, was definitely a great experience,” Olaniyi said when asked about his time at Miami. “It was definitely an experience I’m very appreciative of.”
Olaniyi made waves with the Hurricanes and led the team with a season-high 21 points in a February upset of Duke. However, Miami finished in 13th place out of 15 ACC teams and lost in the conference quarterfinals, sending the Hurricanes home without a March Madness bid.
The Seawolves suffered in Olaniyi’s absence. Along with the departure of guards Makale Foreman and Miles Latimer, forward Andrew Garcia and center Jeff Otchere, the Seawolves lost their entire starting lineup and finished with their worst record in 13 years.
Olaniyi had planned to finish his collegiate career playing at the highest level possible, but when players were allowed an additional year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 outbreak, he made a radical decision: he returned to the Seawolves for his last season.
“I’ll say the key thing for me saying I wanted to come back here was just opportunity,” Olaniyi said. “Opportunity to lead, opportunity to win.”
Ford stated Olaniyi was the one who unexpectedly started conversations about reuniting with Stony Brook.
“He could have gone anywhere in the country,” Ford said. “Thirty high-major schools wanted him and he had a good enough experience here that he wanted to come back and go out the right way and finish on grand terms at Stony Brook. That makes you feel good as a coach.”
Olaniyi’s return helped Stony Brook nab graduate guard Jahlil Jenkins of Fairleigh Dickinson in the transfer market. The two have known each other since playing AAU ball together, and Stony Brook’s new starting point guard knew he wanted to play with his old friend.
With the reputation Olaniyi has built on campus, many of his teammates shared their excitement to play with the New Jersey native. Now, having experienced the ACC gauntlet, Olaniyi describes himself as a more complete player.
“It’s great to have him back just because he has the experience,” redshirt-sophomore forward Frankie Policelli said.
The Stony Brook name on the front of the jersey may remain the same in Olaniyi’s second go-round, but the construction of the Seawolves team could not be more different. Only Policelli, redshirt-sophomore guard Tyler Stephenson-Moore and redshirt-junior center Alex Christie remain on the roster from two seasons ago. Policelli was ineligible to play because of transfer rules and Christie, a bench player, saw the court for only 16 minutes total in the entire year.
Stony Brook also had both a past and future America East Defensive Player of the Year winner on that team in Jeff Otchere and Mouhamadou Gueye, respectively, both of whom are gone. The Seawolves’ smaller size this season means that Olaniyi may have to learn new roles, such as playing power forward.
“I can literally play anywhere on the floor,” Olaniyi said. “So to me personally, I’m going to do whatever it takes for the team to win. If Coach says he needs me at the four, I’ll play the four. It’s not something I’m used to, but it’s something I can adjust to.”
The Seawolves’ expectations are high this year, sitting atop the America East in the preseason poll for the first time since they made the NCAA Tournament in 2016. These expectations are much due in part to Olaniyi’s return, and he described how it felt to finally put on the Stony Brook jersey again in the season opener against George Mason.
“To be honest, it felt like old times,” Olaniyi said. “I didn’t even feel nervous or anything, it was just like a ‘finally’ moment.”
Olaniyi’s amazing run at the collegiate level has not gone unnoticed. His motivation to succeed comes from his mother, who passed away in July 2017, dedicating his motto “#everything4her” in her memory. He also played his lone season at Miami with “Abidoye”, his mother’s maiden name, on the back of his jersey.
“Since then, I never really used it to try to get sympathy from people looking at my situation,” Olaniyi said. “I just really used it as another form of motivation, another form to keep me going. We took pictures freshman year and I just put it after the caption. Then my siblings adopted it.”
Ford believes Olaniyi’s return reflects positively on Stony Brook as a whole.
“It’s not my program, it’s a players’ program, and we try to treat them the right way,” Ford said. “Sometimes that means you’ve got to be hard on him, but him coming back made me feel a little bit of vindication to the program, saying that the athletic department and basketball program is functioning the right way, that he really went and experienced ACC basketball, scored double figures and decided to come back here instead of staying at that level.”
In his last season of college basketball, Olaniyi has his eyes on reaching The Big Dance, making his community, team, school and most importantly, his mother proud.