Koreem Ozier has reached the big time — even if his college choice may initially suggest otherwise.
True, Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., has an enrollment of about 8,500 and men’s basketball games in the William H. Pitt Health and Recreation Center typically draw fewer than 1,000 fans.
But don’t let that fool you.
Sacred Heart’s proximity — 50 miles northeast of New York City and 150 miles southwest of Boston — is big time geographically. The Pioneers frequently make bus trips into the large cities of the northeast for road games and have taken on Holy Cross, Boston College, Seton Hall and St. John’s so far this season.
Furthermore, if Sacred Heart wins the Northeast Conference — the Pioneers are off to a 3-1 start — it would receive an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. That means Ozier could be mixing it up with the likes of Duke’s Zion Williamson and Purdue’s Carsen Edwards this March.
Will Ozier, the leading scorer in Case High School’s history, be up for that challenge? He’s certainly given every indication of being ready for prime time so far.
Stepping in as an immediate starter following one season at Scotland Campus Sports, a prep school in Scotland, Pa., Ozier is the Pioneers’ leading scorer. He’s averaging 18.0 points and is shooting 40 percent (20 for 50) from 3-point range.
There has been one substantial setback. Ozier was suspended for nine games early this season for a team violation, the extent of which Ozier and Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina have declined to disclose. But Ozier has returned to Latina’s good graces and is making an impression beyond his forte of scoring.
“He can really put the ball in the basket — that’s what everyone sees — and he’s also got a great toughness that he brings to the table,” Latina said. “He’s a great competitor and he’ll do whatever it takes to win.
“Scoring is kind of what people get enamored with and that’s important. But I think his grittiness and toughness really make him a winning player.”
Ozier’s presence isn’t necessarily reflected in the standings since the Pioneers are 4-4 with him in the lineup and were 3-6 during his suspension. What is clear is the 6-foot-1 guard has produced when he played.
Ozier’s opening statement came in his first game for Sacred Heart, when he went 9 for 16 from the floor and scored 23 points in a 93-81 loss to Holy Cross Nov. 6 in Worcester, Mass.
But his real coming-out-party came in the Pioneers’ second game, when he went 9 for 12, including 6 for 8 from 3-point range, and scored a team-high 26 points in a 114-72 victory over Western New England Nov. 12 in Fairfield.
Those two performances allowed him to earn Rookie of the Week honors in the conference.
Was Ozier surprised by his immediate impact in Division I basketball? Not at all.
“I approach every game the same way,” he said. “I just got to be aggressive and show everything I’ve been working on for years. I’m not trying to go out there and do anything I haven’t worked on.
“Coach trusts me to be aggressive, so I stay aggressive.”
He’s also grown from the time he left Case in 2017 as a second-team Associated Press All-State guard with 1,405 career points. Instead of relying on his shot, he is starting to rely just as much on his guile.
That especially came into play Jan. 3 in the Pioneers’ conference opener against LIU-Brooklyn at Fairfield. With Sacred Heart trailing the defending NEC Tournament champions 75-74 late in the game, Ozier dribbled to the right corner of the court before firing a pass to E.J. Anosike in the left corner.
Anosike swished a 3-pointer with 59 seconds remaining and Sacred Heart made a strong opening statement in the conference with a 79-75 victory.
“The play was designed for me to use the screen and either get the layup or possibly pull up,” Ozier said. “But I drove to the baseline and attracted most of the team underneath. I drove to the right side of the court and found E.G. on the opposite side.”
A valuable lesson was learned. Ozier does not have to do it by himself at this level.
“I definitely learned patience and how important it is to be able to trust my teammates,” Ozier said. “My coach said it’s college now with scouting reports and coaches are really good at paying attention to detail. So the biggest thing is for me to adjust and to get my teammates involved.”
Added Latina: “I think two or three months ago, if we called his number, he would have shot no matter what. Now, if his shooting is not the right play, he’ll find a teammate.”
There’s something else that Ozier learned and it was a costly lesson. Beginning with Sacred Heart’s third game of the season Nov. 16 and continuing through Dec. 19 — a stretch of nine games — Ozier was suspended for what was announced as a violation of team rules.
Latina and Ozier both chose to focus on the silver lining of that dark cloud.
“I think it was something he learned from,” Latina said. “I can’t go into specifics, but I think he learned his lesson. It was difficult not only for him but our team, but I think he’s going to be better for it.”
Ozier agreed, saying, “It just showed me that with every action, there’s a consequence and I’m not just hurting myself, but I’m hurting the team and my family. It just made me take everything more serious. I’m in a good position and I can’t risk anything.”
The most ideal position for Sacred Heart is something it has yet to achieve — a conference championship in the NEC Tournament that would propel the Pioneers into the NCAA Tournament.
That’s where Ozier has a chance to separate himself, Latina said.
“The sky’s the limit,” he said. “He could be an all-time great player at Sacred Heart and he could be a multiple-year all-league type guy.
“He’s doing special things already and he’s a guy that people in Fairfield, Conn., might talk about for the next 25 years. We’ve had good players who have scored a lot of points, but we’ve never been to the NCAA Tournament.
“That could be a way he separates himself from the other great players we’ve had.”