Over the last few years, the Red Foxes have hit on some quality guards in their recruitment. This year has been no different, as Marist men’s basketball program has a freshman who has bursted onto the scene this season: Jao Ituka.
At an early age, the dream to play a different sport at the highest level was the goal for Ituka. “I was born in Cameroon, so I grew up playing soccer. In the early stages of my life, I actually wanted to be a professional soccer player,” Ituka said.
Soccer was Ituka’s first love, so the beginning of his basketball career came a lot later compared to other kids his age.
“When I started playing, it was probably around sixth or seventh grade. I just had to learn the game as quickly as possible and improve as much as I could,” he said.
After coming over to the United States from Cameroon, Ituka and his family settled in Maryland. He ended up attending Gaithersburg High School, a place that he will certainly never forget.
“So many good memories. So many tough games. So many great outcomes. I scored 1,000 points. I was on the front cover of the Washington Post. Just a lot of good memories and a lot of good things happened there,” Ituka said.
“That is where it pretty much all started for me,” he said. “That is how I got my name out there a lot more. High school was just a time in my life that I will never forget.” Ituka spent the first three years of high school at Gaithersburg.
Ituka was enjoying his time at Gaithersburg, both on and off the floor. However, just as everything seemed to be going in the right direction prior to his senior year, the world was hit by the pandemic. COVID changed everything about the complexion of sports, including at the high school level.
In the summer of 2020, Gaithersburg High School announced their winter sports would be canceled during their upcoming school year. This meant that if Ituka wanted to have a senior season for basketball, he would have to transfer from the school he grew up in.
“It was tough because COVID had an effect on everybody. I also had goals leading towards my senior year to score 2,000 points and be one of the top all-time leading scores in Maryland,” Ituka said.
Ituka transferred to Putnam Science Academy, a boarding school in Connecticut. “As far as taking that other route and playing somewhere else, it was different. I had to get used to it but it didn’t last very long because of COVID still ruined things,” he said.
The path to getting Ituka on the Marist campus for the 2021-22 season was not easy. “It was a late recruitment. It was after we had one of our current players put his name in the portal to transfer. We had not been looking at bringing in any other guards but when the opening occurred, my assistant, Kevin Driscoll already had a relationship with Jao,” Head Coach John Dunne said.
“The day after our player [Hakim Byrd] went to the portal, Kevin texted me and said, ‘I think I have somebody who’s really good and can possibly be an upgrade,’” said Dunne. “So then we just recruited hard for a couple weeks and then he made his decision to come.”
For over the first month of the season, the 6-foot-1 guard had to make his impact off the bench. Even in limited action, Ituka showed glimpses of the type of player he could be, both in the short-term as well as the long-term.
While his numbers may not have been eye-popping, his ability to attack the rim was clear. “In other games, even though he had lower minutes in earlier games, it was just too difficult for teams to keep him out of the paint,” Dunne said.
A defining moment in the season for the freshman came during a game in the middle of December. Marist traveled north to face Boston University. Ituka was simply incredible, scoring a career-high 34 points, including a game-tying three-pointer with five seconds left in regulation. Marist won the game in overtime, but the bigger story was about their freshman guard showing up in the most important moments.
Since Ituka has become more of a focal point in the Marist offense, teams have begun to pack it in on him, rather than guarding him with one player, forcing the ball out of his hands.
“Now that the scouting reports are out there and teams are really focused on him, that’s when you want to improve your awareness to get your teammates involved,” Dunne said. “That is what all the really good players do. They have the ability to score, but then they also have the ability to make the right play.”
It is safe to say that Ituka is extremely confident about what he can potentially accomplish on an individual level for the rest of the season. “As far as individual goals, it is to win Rookie of the Year, and I’m going to make that happen,” he said.
Ituka has received the MAAC Rookie of the Week award eight times this season. The guard was also named as the conference’s player of the week on December 20 following his performance at Boston University.
Ituka has had an excellent start to his collegiate career with the Red Foxes. What he has been able to accomplish on an individual level has been extremely promising. His journey to Poughkeepsie and everything that preceded his arrival to Marist makes his early success an even better story.
Edited by Mackenzie Meaney and Jonathan Kinane
Photo from Jonathan Kinane