Mo-Alie Cox VCU
Mo-Alie Cox VCU

He may be gentle, but Mo-Alie Cox remains a giant for VCU

Given his size, strength and the havoc he creates on a basketball court, Mo Alie-Cox’s criminal justice degree seems fitting. It’s easy to envision him throttling bad guys or taking down terrorist cells.

Except that’s not his aim. VCU’s defensive anchor and senior leader is a genial, eternally curious soul who wants to learn the system so that he may help kids and those in need.

“He’s a unique talent,” Rams head coach Will Wade said. “He’s a really, really good, humble, hard-working person. He’s a caring person. I think sometimes people allow exteriors to drive them. He’s a gentle giant. He’s a nice guy. Sometimes you’ve got to get him going, get him riled up a little bit.”

Alie-Cox is plenty motivated as the Rams (11-3, 1-0 Atlantic 10) begin the new year at Duquesne Wednesday on ASN. They figure to contend for a conference title and a seventh consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.

“I think we’re playing better than we were at the start of the season,” Alie-Cox said. “Everybody’s getting more comfortable with their roles and doing the little things coach wants them to do.”

Much of it begins with Alie-Cox, the hub of the Rams’ defense. He’s an imposing 6-6½ and a chiseled 255 pounds, with a 7-2 wingspan, exceptional agility, freakish strength and hands the size of dinner plates.

“He hit the genetic lottery,” Wade joked.

Alie-Cox (10.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg) is VCU’s No. 2 scorer behind JeQuan Lewis and 100 points shy of 1,000 for his career. He has made himself into an efficient offensive player (51.2% FG) and dependable free-throw shooter, hitting 78.9%.

He is a two-time A-10 all-defensive team member who believes that the conference defensive Player of the Year award is within his expansive reach. He leads the league in blocked shots (2.4 bpg) and is second in VCU history in career blocks. He’s a crowd favorite at VCU’s Siegel Center, and fans chant “Mo says no!” when he blocks a shot.

“I’d say it’s exceeded expectations,” Alie-Cox said of his career. “Coming in, I really didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect my career to be as good as it is now.”

Wade refers to Alie-Cox as the middle linebacker of the Rams’ defense. He calls out defensive signals and knows where everyone is supposed to be. Totaling practices, shootarounds and games, Wade said that Alie-Cox may be mistaken once a month.

It’s remarkable progress for a young man who didn’t know if he’d make it beyond his first few college practices.

Mohamed Alie-Cox is the second son of African immigrants and was born in the U.S. His father, Mohamed Alie, is Nigerian. His mother, Saudatu Karoma, is from Sierra Leone. He takes his last name from his father and from the man who helped his mother emigrate to the U.S.

The family settled in northern Virginia, moving several times as young Mo grew up. He didn’t begin to play basketball until ninth grade, but as his potential increased, he chose to attend a private school 75 minutes from home for the chance to be coached by former Villanova All-American Scottie Reynolds.

When he arrived at VCU in the summer of 2012, he was ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA due to what Wade described as a clerical error when he moved from public to private school and reclassified, not because of any academic deficiency.

Indeed, Alie-Cox has been a fixture on the A-10 All-Academic team and earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 3½ years. He is completing work on a master’s degree.

Alie-Cox called his redshirt year “a blessing in disguise.” He grew an inch-and-a-half, began conditioning and lifting weights diligently and acclimated to school and college competition.

“If I hadn’t redshirted, it might have been a wasted year, because I probably wouldn’t have played as much,” he said. “At the end of the day it worked out.”

One of Alie-Cox’s first classes was intro to criminal justice, which interested him enough that he pursued it as a major. While he avoided trouble growing up, he knew of many in his neighborhoods who ran afoul of the law.

“I like helping people, especially juveniles, kids growing up,” Alie-Cox said. “I took criminal justice, so if I have the opportunity to make a difference in the future, that’s something I’d like to do. Open a rec center or something like that, to get kids off the street and having somewhere they can have fun.”

Alie-Cox later served internships with the Virginia General Assembly and with a Richmond law firm, which provided different angles and lessons. He and a former teammate helped run summer camps at nearby juvenile facilities.

“I try to take every opportunity to learn something new,” he said. “I like learning. Doing all those little things, I learned about different things that I probably would never learn about in the classroom. That’s really what made it interesting, finding a new way to learn.”

Alie-Cox’s size and athletic ability piqued the interest of several NFL teams, who wonder if he might be able to transition to a tight end. A Kansas City Chiefs scout visited practice, and Wade has had conversations with the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens. Pro Bowlers Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates are the most notable former basketball players who played in the NFL. Two of the Chiefs’ three current tight ends, Demetrius Harris and Ross Travis, were college basketball players who didn’t play football.

“It’s intriguing,” he said, “but right now I haven’t thought too much about it, because I’m just trying to focus on the team here and what we have going here, because I think we could be real special this year. But I’ll just say I’ll weigh my options at the end of the season and go from there.”

Wade was an assistant at VCU when Alie-Cox was a raw freshman. Having the chance to return as head coach and to witness the progress he’s made as a player and person is rewarding.

“He’s going to make a good impact when he’s done playing professionally, whether it’s basketball or football,” Wade said. “He’ll make a good impact on our area or whatever area he ends up.”

Photos courtesy Scott K. Brown Photography, Inc. via VCU Athletics

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