MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The bar has always been set high for West Virginia University sophomore center Olayinka Sanni. Her mother Ola refused to let her play basketball until she was convinced that it wouldn’t affect her daughter’s school work.
“Mom wouldn’t accept Cs and Ds,” Olayinka says.
Her eighth grade coach, anxious to get her out on the court, had a meeting with Ola and convinced her that her daughter could do both. Academics have always been the measuring stick in the Sanni house. Olayinka, which means “wealth surrounds me,” has an older sister about to enter medical school at Illinois State and an older brother attending Dennison College on an academic scholarship.
But basketball was going to be Sanni’s ticket to college. Even though she had little playing experience she was already getting letters from colleges by the time she was a sophomore in high school. When the AAU coaches began asking Sanni to play for their teams she once again had to convince her mom that she could do it without having her studies impacted.
And once again she performed well enough to get noticed. By her senior season at Homewood-Flossmoore High School, located in the Chicago suburbs, Sanni was one of the city’s top post players. One recruiting service had her ranked as the nation’s 26th-best post player and the 103rd overall rated player in the country.
“I thought she was very athletic for her size,” recalled West Virginia women’s coach Mike Carey. “With that being said, she had no footwork and really didn’t even know how to sit down in the post. But with her size and athletic ability that was something that we could teach her – you can’t teach athletic ability.”
That line of thinking was going on in the heads of other coaches, too. Her college choices came down to Illinois, DePaul, Minnesota, Ohio State and West Virginia.
“I was interested in Ohio State because my brother was going to college in Ohio,” she said.
But Sanni was intrigued by West Virginia because it was something completely different than what she was used to living in Chicago. She was also developing a personal relationship with Mountaineer assistant coach Sharrona Reaves.
“They came to Chicago to see a Nike tournament and that’s when I first met them and they started sending me mail,” Sanni said. “I started thinking about West Virginia and the advantages of coming here.”
It was yet another point in her life when Olayinka had to convince her mother that she could make it in a completely foreign setting.
“She said it was my decision and whatever I picked she would go with it. My dad loved it here when he came down and they were both supportive.”
Sanni’s parents are divorced and her father lives about 15 minutes away from her mother, who lives in Chicago the Chicago suburb of Chicago Heights. Her mother operates a grocery store and is also a nurse. Her father has his own real estate company he developed after moving his family to Illinois from Nigeria about 20 years ago. According to Olayinka, he returns frequently to Nigeria and is currently running for political office there. If he wins he will return permanently. Sanni says her family made frequent trips back to Nigeria when she was younger.
“The last time I went was in 1999,” she said.
Now with basketball consuming her life she has little time for travel. She spent last summer in Morgantown attending summer school and also found time to go out to Pete Newell’s camp for post players in California for four days. Sanni says it was an eye opening experience.
“They taught us mainly footwork and basic stuff,” she said. “It’s just the basics that I wasn’t really taught coming out of high school. The camp helped me tremendously and I met some good post players there.”
In fact, Sanni did so well that she won a camp award for the player “showing the most promise.”
That’s not news to Carey, who thought it was a good idea for her to go out there in the first place. “I heard that was a great camp and anything to keep her working on post moves and footwork, I felt would be a great thing for her,” Carey said.
A season-ending knee injury to regular center Yelena Leuchanka made room for Sanni to get into the starting lineup last year as a freshman. Olayinka got better as the year wore on, scoring a season-high 21 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a game at Georgetown. She also contributed 18 points on seven of eight shooting in a win against Providence.
In the WNIT, she made 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a quarterfinal win over Wake Forest.
“She’s improved greatly,” Carey said. “From last year at this time until now she’s really improved but she’s got to continue to get better and better. She’s in better shape than she’s been in the past but she’s got to get into better shape also.”
If Sanni and Leuchanka can both handle it defensively, Carey would like to have them both out on the floor at the same time: 6-foot-2-inch Sanni playing in the post and 6-foot-5 inch Leuchanka playing one of the wing spots. It could be a devastating combination if it works.
“There are going to be times when we do that because of Yelena’s skills out on the perimeter,” Carey said.
Sanni believes this year’s team could be an interesting one to watch.
“We have a lot of players from all over with everyone else’s culture from the different states," she says. "It’s coming along great.
“We don’t have any bad attitudes or negative thoughts going into this year,” she said. “We’re all positive and we’re trying to bring everybody else up to our standards.”
Coming from a family with standards as high as Sanni’s – that’s going to be a pretty high bar to reach.