In the moments after Howard escaped with an overtime victory over Maryland-Eastern Shore a few weeks ago, Bison Coach Frankie Allen went into his customary praise of forward Seye Aluko's intangibles -- his hustle, his defense, his knack for coming up with key loose balls.
Then he looked at the score sheet: Aluko had 23 points and nine rebounds.
"Seye's one of those sneaky type of guys," Allen said. "You don't realize he's doing what he's doing, so you take it for granted he's doing the dirty work. I shouldn't overlook his tangibles."
While working himself from a gangly walk-on into one of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's most productive inside players, the junior from Paint Branch High gained a reputation for contributions that do not end up in the box score. This season, he's showing up in the box score quite nicely, averaging 9.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. He also has started the past 20 games and earned himself a scholarship.
Seventh-seeded Howard (11-16, 9-9) will take on No. 10 seed Maryland-Eastern Shore (5-22, 5-13) for the second time in five days tonight in the first round of the MEAC tournament in Richmond.
At the beginning of each summer, Aluko has asked the coaching staff what he needed to do to get more playing time. Piece by piece, he added components to his game, becoming comfortable enough to handle the ball, albeit briefly, on the perimeter, honing a capable mid-range jump shot, and becoming a terrific defensive player.
"He's been like a godsend," Allen said. "To get a player like that to walk on to your team and do what he has done, you've got to root for a kid like that."
For such a blue-collar player, Aluko has a family more known for graduate degrees than dirty fingernails. His parents, Nigerian immigrants, met in graduate school at UC-Santa Barbara, where his father earned a Ph.D. in chemical systems engineering and his mother earned a master's in English.
Aluko's father is a faculty member in the engineering department at Howard, giving Aluko free tuition but not room and board. When he tried out as a freshman -- Allen, fresh on the job, needed as many bodies as he could find to round out a bare roster -- he was nearly cut before Allen stepped in.
"It was a two-day tryout, and I was away for the first day," Allen said. "I came in the second time and saw Seye wasn't among the 10 or 11 guys we were going to bring back. I said, 'Hey, there's something about this kid.' So if anybody asks, I say Seye is my recruit."
Aluko's tenacity -- particularly for a rangy 6-foot-6, 190-pound forward -- makes him one of the league's better defenders. When Aluko is paired with senior Mario Grove -- himself only 6-7 and 200 pounds -- the Bison have arguably the MEAC's best inside defensive tandem. The pair of aggressive, hounding forwards possess the ideal versatility for Allen's changing defenses, equally effective while playing zone, pressing, or defending man-to-man.
Allen joked that he planned not to tell Aluko about his scholarship until after the season, because he was playing too well, but Aluko found out early last month.
"It's like I've gotten to earn my spot," Aluko said. "Every day I try to give everything I have, and that's not about to change."