Seniors have a way of playing their best basketball when the game and their careers are on the line.
Going into their last weekend of basketball at the Thunderdome, fifth-year senior centers Adama Ndiaye and Mike Vukovich of the UCSB men’s basketball team are ready to put a turbulent, yet captivating season behind them for the chance to do one more thing before their college careers end: win.
“I’m looking forward to winning. First and foremost, it’s all about winning,” Vukovich said.
Both seniors lead their teammates by composing themselves on and off the court and their leadership is spearheaded by an intense passion for winning. The players look up to Vuk and Adama, even though their personalities contrast.
Vukovich cracked jokes before Wednesday’s practice with sophomore center J.J. Todd and Head Athletic Trainer Leroy Heu, loosening himself up before tonight’s rigorous war on the floor. Ndiaye walked through the training room to the media room with his eyes wandering, scanning the walls that have been his home since 1998. The imperative desire to win could be seen in the determined glint resonating off his eyes.
“That light at the end of the tunnel is glaring, it’s bright, it’s right there for them because they see their career in college is about done,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said. “What happens is their sense of urgency gets way greater.”
The Gauchos battle Cal State Fullerton tonight at 7 in the T-dome. The regular season concludes for the team and the seniors this Saturday night against Riverside at 7.
Though the Titans and Highlanders occupy the cellar of the Big West, Ndiaye and Vukovich will not be deterred. They will run out of the tunnel hoping to play their best basketball of the season before the conference tournament begins on March 6.
And neither of the players will allow their teammates to slack off.
“At this point – the main thing in my mind – I’m just trying to win the last games that I have. We’re going to try to win these next six, five games,” Ndiaye said. “That’s all I’m thinking about.”
The Gauchos would love nothing more than to receive an automatic selection to the NCAA Tournament by winning the Big West Tournament. Yet if UCSB loses the conference tourney, its only other chances of postseason play would be through a bid at the National Invitational Tournament. Ndiaye said that it would be a disappointing conclusion to his collegiate career if Santa Barbara failed to make the NCAAs.
“I haven’t thought about the NIT at all. That’s not my main goal – that’s not our main goal,” Ndiaye said. “If we happen to get there, then I’ll think about it then. I’m not settling for NIT or anything less. I’m trying to win the next game.”
Vukovich earned a Second Team All-Big West selection last season after averaging 11.1 ppg and 5.7 rpg filling in for the injured Ndiaye. Vuk nailed all 12 shots in a game at Pacific last season, scoring a career-high 27 points. The Huntington Beach native scored in double figures in 16 of the last 23 contests of the season. He led the team in scoring seven different times last year while corralling the most rebounds – 160 – for UCSB.
This year has been a different story for Vukovich: his season-high is 10 points against St. Mary’s and he averages less than 12 minutes a night. For a big man on the upswing after last season’s breakthrough, 2001-02 has been a frustrating melange of injuries, lineup adjustments and focus on a perimeter defense oriented system, resulting in a severe cut of Vukovich’s impact on the floor.
“I think the year has been frustrating for Mike,” Williams said. “He hasn’t played the way his expectations were for himself. Two, he has been banged up and injured. He injured his shoulder and then he injured his knee. … He’s frustrated and wants to compete and wants to play better. Actually, I think his best practice days have been Monday and Tuesday this week.”
Ndiaye was redshirted last year after breaking a ring finger in practice three days before the opener at Pepperdine, though he has exhibited flashes of brilliance in certain games while developing and fine-tuning the necessary characteristics of a go-to player and team leader.
The Senegal native averages 10.6 ppg while pulling down a team-high 7.6 rpg. Ndiaye’s career-game at Cal Poly came at a crucial stage in the season on Jan. 19. Both Vukovich and sophomore guard Branduinn Fullove were out with injuries. Yet 31 points and 13 rebounds later from Ndiaye, the Mustangs then pristine record at Mott Gym came crashing in a 74-67 Gaucho win.
Ndiaye has grabbed double-digit rebounding totals in seven games, and eight or more boards in 13 games. He also averaged 15 ppg during a five-game run in January. Other stretches of the season, however, have been less tantalizing.
“Adama is really academic oriented. He’s really, really bright and sometimes he analyzes everything that goes on; even during the game he’s analyzing it,” Williams said.
Ndiaye and Vukovich have endured and survived the rocky season, and their teammates appreciate their presence.
“We’re going to miss them next year,” junior guard B.J. Ward said. “Not just for their basketball talent but the people that they were, just friends that they were, friendships that we had.”
Williams also cherishes what the two seniors have brought to the program and the players.
“They’re phenomenal people…both of them would give up scoring and playing for us to win. They’ve put the team first throughout their careers. That speaks highly as to what kind of people they are. They both want desperately for us to excel down the stretch,” Williams said.
Todd remembers his first encounter with Vukovich and Ndiaye on the basketball court.
“In high school I played against some good players, but nothing like either of them,” he said. “And the first time I came in the gym, I just looked at them and said, ‘what am I doing here? Well, I’ve never played against anybody the size of these guys, and now there’s two of them.'”
After tonight and Saturday, Adama and Vuk will no longer don the blue and yellow colors for UCSB. Now, the only thing that matters is winning.
“What am I looking forward to most?” Ndiaye said. “Just going out there and playing and winning the next game. Nothing else, man.”