Junior forward Julian Mavunga didn't even play organized basketball before entering high school. He nearly quit the sport after his freshman year, but has embraced the game ever since. File photo by Mike Smith.
Regardless of what happens Tuesday night when Miami University meets No. 1-ranked Duke (7:30 p.m. ESPNU), Julian Mavunga knows its merely one step in a long journey. The same goes for the rest a brutal non-conference RedHawks schedule that includes Kansas, Ohio State, San Diego State, Cincinnati, Xavier, Dayton.
The non-conference schedule prepares Miami for MAC play, and MAC play leads to the MAC tourney. You had better be on your game when March arrives.
It all fits right in to what is something of a personal theme for Mavunga: It doesnt matter how you start; its how you finish.
As a junior, Mavunga has virtually two seasons ahead of him. Yet his play last year was impressive enough to earn the Indianapolis native 2010-11 preseason All-MAC honors.
Earning any kind of accolades with a basketball wasnt on Mavungas radar prior to high school. He hadnt even played organized ball through the eighth grade. But he was certainly tall and one day caught the eye of the new high school basketball coach in Brownsburg.
He asked me if I was a ball player, and I (said), Not really, Mavunga said. The coach told him he had size and might have some potential. It just went from there, said Mavunga, who started working out and made the school jayvee team that fall.
While it was an unspectacular year, it was also important.
I didnt know what to do with the ball when you threw it to me in the post, he recalled. I didnt want the ball. I got offensive rebounds and put it back in for layups. Thats how I got all my scoring.
When the season was over, Mavunga said, he and another player on the team considered quitting. Both eventually stayed with it, and both have become pretty successful players.
High school teammate Gordon Hayward was later an outstanding player for Butler University and is now with the Utah Jazz of the NBA, but according to Mavunga, Hayward in his early prep days was considering giving up basketball to concentrate on tennis.
As for his own situation, Mavunga said, Toward the end of (freshman) basketball season, I started realizing how far behind I was. It was a more of a pride thing. I was just down on myself.
Mavunga credited Brownsburg varsity coach Joshua Kendrick with encouraging him.
He told me, If you work at it, you could really be good. I just never let it go. I slowly started to become a gym rat.
His metamorphosis into a better player included adding 30 good pounds and getting plenty of work on his low post game. He became a starter on the varsity team during his sophomore season and continued to work especially over the summer - on diversifying his skills.
Basically, I built my game from the inside out, he said, adding that he didnt shoot a three in a high school game until his senior season. Last year at MU, the 6-8, 232-pound forward ranked third on the RedHawks in three-point goals.
He still doesnt know how Miami heard about him, but Mavunga said MU took an early interest in him and ultimately convinced him to take his skills to Oxford.
Out of all the schools that recruited me, I felt like Miami wanted me the most, and that is what it came down to in the end, Mavunga said.
With veteran players like Kenny Hayes and Michael Bramos guiding the RedHawks, Mavunga made limited contributions in his freshman season. He averaged 12.7 minutes, 3.4 points and 2.2 rebounds per game in 2008-09.
There were mistakes I was making that the guys in front of me werent making, Mavunga said of his play.
His playing time and role increased quite a bit as a sophomore, when he averaged 29.7 minutes, 10.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per contest.
Gaining coach Coles trust gave me confidence, said Mavunga, who is ready for the next step.
Its not exactly my turn, but my role has gotten larger, he said. I have to make sure that I am assertive and want the ball, and want to score and want to hit the boards.
Asked about goals for the season, Mavunga indicated one of his prime goals is to be more consistent.
If I go out there and play every game as hard as I can, I know everything else will take care of itself, he said. We have to go out there and compete like crazy every single game.
Given the RedHawks nonconference schedule, little will come easy. But Mavunga said that challenge is almost a given at Miami. I always knew that they had tough schedules. I just see it as two basketball teams that are going to go onto the court and compete.
One game at a time, its about getting better, and thats a familiar journey for Mavunga and the RedHawks.