June 22, 2012
By Matt Winkeljohn
That seemed like a different person the other day at Georgia Tech. Mfon Udofia was not the same. He spoke with confidence and passion, like he knew exactly where he was, where he wants to go and as if he has a plan to get there.
Men’s basketball coach Brian Gregory has said that Udofia last year improved as much within a single season as any player he could remember. Upon asking the player about it as the Yellow Jackets are in the midst of off-season workouts, it makes more sense.
“I feel like . . . BG has given me an opportunity to play again. I think it’s like a second college career,” Udofia said. “Coming to college and starting right off the bat . . . I really didn’t know my role. Sometimes I felt like I should be a point guard, then [Iman Shumpert] was the point guard so I would play 2 guard.
“I really didn’t know my role. It was up and down, and it was tough on me. With BG, it was a clean slate.”
Udofia has nothing bad to say about former coach Paul Hewitt, but between personnel matters and a system in which his role was rarely clear he never felt on solid ground.
He does now, although that clean slate he speaks of didn’t put him at ease right away. It took a while to understand that his new coach was looking for more than plays.
The new boss wants his point guard to set tone on and off the court. Once Udofia came to understand that, he set off on a new path. ‘Twas a gradual road traveled.
“He understands that his responsibility goes far beyond the court,” Gregory said. “He’s grown into being a much greater model for how we do things on a daily basis in the locker room, on the plane.
“During the season, he improved a ton. That’s hard to do. I think for the first time, he felt comfortable in his role and knowing what was expected of him.”
Basketball never ceased being fun, but for parts of Udofia’s first two seasons on The Flats the pieces didn’t all fit together. It was work on a different level, work that went beyond physical. Now, there’s a zen about the game. He’s blended into a new system, and he’s loving it. You could even see it in watching him play at the end of last season.
In the eight games leading up to Tech’s season-ending loss to Miami in which nobody played well offensively for either team, Udofia had a 38-18 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Over the rest of the season, his numbers in those categories were 50-67. During that eight-game stretch, he had some fine shooting games and others where he shot poorly. That’s the nature of the beast regardless of what position a player works at. Yet Udofia consistently ran the show in all those contests, and that’s the essence of a point guard.
No less important, his ethic and energy set a template for teammates. Gregory explained to Udofia at the outset that he was looking for just that. It took a while to register.
“First of all, he told me to be the best teammate in the locker room, on and off the court . . . and that leads to being better on the court. It leads to guys being happy,” he said. “One game you score a lot of points, the next game you get a lot of assists . . . do what needs to be done, and be a great teammate. The game finally started to slow down for me.”
There remains work to be done.
Udofia seeks to improve his court vision and decision-making, “knowing when to go and when not to, making reads,” and more. Yet he’s got down pat a most important part of his job. He’s grown through three years in struggling to understand where he fit, and more recently in learning how to apply his fit to the game and teammates around him.
“It’s made me a better person,” he said. “I’m a spiritual guy. I feel like God works in mysterious ways. Maybe he didn’t want me to peak [earlier]. If you’re playing well, you’re going to feel better in life.”
Tech’s lone senior (not counting graduate student Pierre Jordan) sure seems like he’s feeling better. That may be a big head start on year two under Gregory.
“One of the biggest challenges today is for players to be comfortable with who they are because everybody is always telling them to do something different,” the coach said. “For Mfon to have a great senior year we need him to be the best Mfon Udofia that he can be; he doesn’t need to be anybody else.”
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