By: Monty Mosher
Quick. Name the top scorer in AUS men's basketball.
It's second-year player Osman Omar of the Cape Breton Capers. If that name doesn't ring any bells that's fine with him. He's used to being overlooked.
The 23-year-old Omar, from Mississauga, Ont., was out of basketball for two years after graduating from a prep school in California.
He had the NCAA Division I dream and had some offers coming out of school, but the place he attended had lost its certification with the NCAA and the offers dried up.
He went home to Ontario and began emailing everybody he knew, along with some people he didn't. Maybe it would be a junior college in the U.S. or a Canadian university. The level of interest he received was underwhelming.
"A lot of schools in Canada actually were saying I was too old or I wasn't going to be able to fit into their rotation or I didn't have the skill set to play in their type of system," he said.
One of the coaches on the list was David Petroziello, who coached the Capers for two seasons before Matt Skinn took over after last season.
Petroziello reached out.
'Best path for me'
"At the time I was still trying to get into a junior college," said the six-foot-three Omar, "but then I talked to my family and they just told me that this was probably the best path for me. I decided to go here."
Skinn, in his second stint coaching the team, said there are two things that stick out about the player they call Ozzy.
"The first thing is his attitude. He is a great person, a true student-athlete, and he has completely bought in to the new system and to helping his teammates succeed.
"The second thing is his work ethic. He is constantly in the gym, working on his game, and trying to become the best player he can be. Those things coming from a player in his second year of eligibility will set him up for the possibility of success, which he has had so far this season."
Omar didn't know much about CBU, but knew a little. He knew they had been AUS champions. Kayon Mayers, who went to the same high school, had won an AUS banner there in 2013.
He also knew that Shaquille Keith, another strong player from the Toronto area, had played there at the same time. "I just assumed this would be a good program. But, other than that, I didn't have any knowledge about it."
Had company on the journey
It helped he had a friend set to make the same journey.
Paul Watson had been a friend since Grade 7 and they'd played together in California. Watson went off to play NCAA Division II at the University of the Virgin Islands, but decided to come home to play in Canada after two years. Petroziello came to Ontario to see them and ended up recruiting both to Cape Breton.
The Capers had been bad in Petroziello's first year – 0-20 bad. But Omar was unfazed.
"To be honest, I didn't really look at it as a losing program," said the community studies student. "I knew they'd had a lot of success in the past. I knew that I trusted the coaches and the players that were coming in could change the program. I had a lot of confidence in myself and I believed I could help bring it back to where it used to be, and where it needs to be."
Missed the big city
It wasn't easy at the outset. While he left home at 17 to play basketball, he'd also been back with his family for a few years. He missed the big city.
"Last year was tough for me, especially at the beginning. It was my first time in a college setting. It took me a while to get comfortable with going to school and playing basketball every day again.
"It was like a culture shock, I guess. But then I got really comfortable as soon as the season started. Even though the season didn't go as planned, I still got more comfortable as time went on. And this year, with Coach Skinn, and all the coaching staff, and all the players, they've made it so much easier for me to be more comfortable on and off the court. It's like a whole different vibe this year than it was last year for me."
Omar, a guard, averaged 11.5 points per game as a rookie last year on a team that finished 2-18.
This year, he is averaging 23.2 points per game, third highest in the country, and the Capers are 5-5, placing them in playoff position at the mid-point of the regular season.
He's thrilled by the trust the team has in him after being surrounded by doubts, and doubters, earlier in his basketball life.
"I think Coach Skinn just brought in the right type of players and the system that he runs has a team-first approach. Everyone is involved in it."
Skinn thinks Omar's fast feet are key to his success.
"Personally, I feel his speed is what has allowed him to do what he does on the floor," Skinn said. "We ask him to pick up the opposing team's ball handler for 94 feet, and to be our lead in our fast-break attack. It has been great to see him be able to use his talents, be himself on the floor and help the team to be successful."
Humility won't be an issue for Omar. His father, a former national soccer team player in his native Somalia who died when Osman was 16, preached that constantly.
"He always told me to remain humble, through the good times and bad times, and to always be positive and always give credit to people who deserve it, to respect them.
"It doesn't bother me that I get the attention now that I didn't get before. But it is nice to get the recognition I'm getting for the hard work I've put in."
Goals have changed quickly for a team that went 2-38 over two seasons.
"Everyone is more confident," said Omar. "At first it was, 'Let's make playoffs.' Then it was, 'Let's get a bye.' Now it's really like, 'What do we have to do to win a championship and what does it take to get there."
If it doesn't happen this year, Omar has plenty more time.
"It has been perfect for me so far. There's a lot of success happening for us right now. The way it's going now I would love to finish here."
(Monty Mosher is an award-winning sportswriter with more than 30 years covering university sports in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)