Nov. 1, 2015
By Bill Koch
CINCINNATI - Octavius Ellis was nearly a blank slate when he returned to the University of Cincinnati last year after two years at Trinity Valley (Texas) College.
His Division I experience consisted of three games as a freshman at UC in 2011-12 before he was redshirted due to injury and later dismissed from the program. At 6-foot-10 and with abundant athleticism, he obviously possessed the tools to succeed but he hadn't yet done it and there was no guarantee that he would.
That didn't stop UC coach Mick Cronin from having high expectations for Ellis. And even if he didn't, he really had little choice but to place his trust in the shot-blocking forward from Memphis. Justin Jackson and Sean Kilpatrick both were gone from the previous year's team and there was no one with substantial experience to take their place.
The load would have to be carried by Ellis, ready or not.
"I knew that he had to play the way he played last year or we were not going to make the (NCAA) tournament," Cronin said last week at the American Athletic Conference Media Day in Orlando. "After the first game, I called him into the coaches locker room and I told him, `I know I'm asking a lot of you because you just got back here. But Justin is gone. SK is gone. You're going to have to play 30-plus minutes a night and you're going to have to be the emotional leader of the team.'"
Ellis remembers the conversation and says he wasn't surprised to hear those words from his coach.
"That's one reason why he brought me back was to come back and lead these guys," Ellis said. "Even though I might not talk a lot, I go the extra mile. When he told me that, I took heed to it and that's what I did."
Ellis averaged a team-high 9.9 points per game along with 6.8 rebounds in 28.7 minutes per game, just under what Cronin had projected for him. He would have played more minutes, but he had a tendency to get into foul trouble. He shot 55.7 percent from the field, led the Bearcats in blocked shots with 67, and was a second-team all-league selection. He was the only player in the league ranked among the top four in field goal percentage, blocks and rebounding.
This year Ellis is a known commodity and the expectations are higher as evidenced by his status as a pre-season first-team all-conference pick.
"This year is going to be a lot better," Ellis said. "In the off-season I spent time on my game watching the film, seeing where I travelled, what I did wrong. I think this year is going to be a very good year for me. I've been working on my footwork and getting into position earlier instead of trying to wait until the last minute."
Ellis has gained 15 pounds that he believes will help him establish low-post position more effectively.
"Last year I wasn't that strong," he said. "This year I've gained weight and muscle. I know that this year I can get better position earlier. After the season (last year) I was all the way down to 218. Now I'm at 235, 236, in that area. I want to maintain that throughout the season."
Ellis' game could be enhanced by the presence of 6-foot-10, 265-pound center Coreontae DeBerry, another junior college transfer who returns for his senior year slimmer and in better physical condition. DeBerry played well last year against Purdue and Kentucky in the NCAA tournament and should be able to take some of the heat off Ellis inside, at times playing alongside him, at other times giving Ellis a breather.
Looking back, Cronin says his reliance on Ellis last season wasn't based only on the fact that he had no one else to fill the role. Having coached him at UC two years earlier, he knew enough about him to believe he could handle what he was being asked to do.
"I knew he had the heart to do it," Cronin said. "He's a Bearcat from the tradition of the Bearcats going all the way back to the Final Four guys. He's got tremendous heart and competitiveness. He outperformed what he was ready to do."
Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years - 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer - before joining the staff of Go.Bearcats.com in January, 2015.