A giant calendar hangs on the wall of Charlotte men’s basketball assistant coach Houston Fancher’s office. And for the past couple of months, Dec. 17 has been marked.
This isn’t unusual considering games like Saturday’s against Florida are scheduled months, if not years, in advance. This date, however, carries even greater significance - none more so than for Austin Ajukwa.
On Jan. 13, the school announced Ajukwa, a 6-foot-7 redshirt junior wing, had transferred from Clemson and joined the 49ers. After sitting out the past two semesters in accordance to NCAA transfer rules, he’ll make his much-anticipated debut at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla. The 49ers (6-3) will play Florida (7-3) in the Orange Bowl Classic at 4 p.m.
“It’s kind of a sigh of relief,” Ajukwa said. “It feels good because I’ve worked hard with my coaches this past year while sitting out for my redshirt season, trying to be ready and be better for when this time did come.”
A difficult decision
Growing up in Columbia, Ajukwa dreamed of playing in the ACC. That fantasy seemed more like a reality once he reached his senior year at Cardinal Newman.
A three-star recruit and the No. 2 player in South Carolina for the 2013 class according to ESPNU, he received interest from multiple ACC programs, including Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. Clemson ultimately earned Ajukwa’s commitment over South Carolina.
But after two years at Clemson, where he averaged 2.7 points in 55 games with no starts, he realized a change was needed.
On Nov. 3, 2015, 10 days before Clemson’s season opener, coach Brad Brownell announced Ajukwa’s decision to transfer. At the time, Brownell hinted Ajukwa wanted more playing time.
“Nobody had the same vision I had for myself,” Ajukwa said. “It’s not that I didn’t like my playing time. … I just needed a better coach who would help me offensively because I want to play at the highest level I can.”
His teammates supported him. That, however, didn’t deter criticism, as the backlash he received from some fans forced him to briefly delete his Twitter account.
Ajukwa’s patience was just starting to be tested.
‘Here for a reason’
Ajukwa’s search for his next school began almost immediately.
He said the Tigers restricted him from transferring to South Carolina, Georgia or any ACC school, but he still garnered interest from Power 5 and mid-major programs alike, including Charlotte.
The 49ers, then coached by Alan Major, recruited Ajukwa out of high school. Ajukwa stopped following the program after that, and it wasn’t until assistant coach Andre Gray contacted him that Ajukwa learned Mark Price was now coaching the team.
Working with Price, who played 12 seasons in the NBA, would offer Ajukwa the chance to expand his offensive game. He enrolled at Charlotte in January.
“You can just tell the guys who really love being in the gym and love working at it,” Price said. “With Austin, you could tell that from the moment he arrived on campus.”
But NCAA transfer rules limited Ajukwa to only practices over the next 11 months. Watching from the sideline took its toll. He said the losses hurt the most.
“I could’ve helped us,” Ajukwa often thought, like after the 108-103 overtime loss against USC Upstate on Nov. 22, when the 49ers blew an 11-point lead with less than five minutes left.
In the aftermath of the 49ers’91-74 loss at Wake Forest on Dec. 6, though, he couldn’t dwell on such thoughts. There wasn’t enough time. His long-awaited return, finally, felt imminent, he said.
‘A welcome addition’
Six hundred forty-eight days have passed since Ajukwa last played in a college basketball game. A year older and wiser, he said he believes he’s no longer the raw player who primarily relied on his athleticism.
However, Ajukwa’s length and athleticism make him a welcome addition to a roster that lacks much of those traits.
Charlotte is tied for 302nd nationally with 33.4 rebounds per game. Their opponents average 41.3 boards. Ajukwa’s presence along the perimeter should improve those numbers and provide another element to a defense that’s shown improvement.
“I feel like we’re a really good team, and I know I can add to that,” Ajukwa said. “I had a year to work on my individual game. Now it’s time for me to think about my teammates, think about Charlotte and think about getting wins.”
And he’ll no longer think about waiting.