TAMPA — Jordan Omogbehin rises from his seat on the USF bench and pulls off his warmup, and before he is even at the scorer's table, the buzz is audible from the Sun Dome crowd.
The Bulls' mammoth redshirt freshman center — all 7 feet 3, 329 pounds of him — is entering the game, to the delight of Bulls fans. Put the ball in his hands and the place goes wild.
"I really didn't expect that. The first time it happened, I was like 'Oh my God,' " said Omogbehin (pronounced oh-MOG-b'HAIN), 20. "I was surprised. It's a good thing, a humbling thing. It gives me confidence to know they support me in the Tampa Bay area."
Fans have the same reaction to Omogbehin, shortening his last name to the text-message exclamation OMG. He gets his share of grief from teammates about his rock-star following.
"Crowd favorite," forward Victor Rudd says, smiling. "He was the crowd favorite last year, and he didn't even play."
Omogbehin, who came to the United States at age 15 in January 2008 from Nigeria, is a lot like USF's basketball team, full of promise but still finding himself in a 4-2 start to the season heading into tonight's home game against Georgia. Coach Stan Heath has introduced the big man in small doses, with a total of 35 minutes in his first six games. The early results — like six points and six rebounds in a home win against Bradley last week — have only added to the fans' frenzy.
"It's been an exciting thing for our whole team, and a great lift for Jordan, a kid who's trying to figure out his way," Heath said of the crowd's response to Omogbehin. "To have that extra support behind him, especially a kid who's from another country, it's a tremendous thing. It gives him that sense of family and support behind him. I think everybody's embraced that. They want him to succeed. We all know if he can succeed and his game can go to another level, it can change a lot of USF basketball."
Omogbehin played high school ball in Virginia alongside current Villanova center Mouphtaou Yarou and drew attention from top programs such as Georgetown, Connecticut, Marquette, Oklahoma, Florida and Florida State. But an ACL injury his junior year scared most programs away. USF never wavered in its interest, and he rewarded that loyalty by signing with the Bulls.
"Not many colleges would take a chance on a player when they don't know how he'll turn out after an ACL surgery," Omogbehin said. "(USF) didn't blink one time."
He had another knee surgery last year while at USF, and last spring he had a growth removed from his pituitary gland, something that should help him keep his weight down.
Omogbehin is majoring communications with a minor in art. He'd like to go into advertising or graphic design and is constantly drawing. "Cartoons, comic books, all kinds of stuff," he said. His Netflix queue is loaded with episodes of the TV shows Family Guy, Breaking Bad and Prison Break. He and point guard Anthony Collins (14-inch height difference) goof around playing video games such as God of War.
His height is something of a family mystery. His mother is 5-8, and his father 6-1. An older brother who plays basketball is 6-2. As excited as USF fans are every time he sets foot on the court, Omogbehin is just as excited. Having sat out a year and had multiple surgeries and rehabilitations, a few minutes of college basketball are something he has waited a long time for.
"Just being able to get back on the court, after everything I've been through in the past year and a half, that's the biggest thing for me," Omogbehin said. "It's a blessing."