Mfon Udofia was the second-ranked prospect in the fourth-ranked recruiting class of 2009, and he arrived at Georgia Tech believing great things were possible. “Yeah,” he said. “Final Four, national championship.”
Three years later, Udofia is the point guard on a Tech team that required the fullness of a regular season to win four conference games. “This way is harder,” he said last week, speaking after the Jackets beat Wake Forest on Saturday. “But it’s still playing ball.”
One by one, heralded contemporaries have departed: Derrick Favors to the NBA after one season; Brian Oliver to Seton Hall after two; Glen Rice suspended last month without hope of restoration. Given that the other two members of the Class of 2009 — Daniel Miller and Kammeon Holsey — were redshirted as freshmen, Udofia remains the strongest link to the bold expectations that became a massively tempered reality.
“Sometimes I feel like the last man standing,” Udofia said, and he smiled.
He spoke after a victory that kept the Jackets from finishing dead last in the ACC. He’d had one of his better games — 15 points on seven shots, five assists against one turnover — and he takes pride in having persevered. After two seasons of being made to feel he wasn’t a “true” point guard, he’s actually playing like one.
He started his first collegiate game, and the next 24 to boot. Whereupon Paul Hewitt, then the coach of a gifted team was in peril of missing the NCAA tournament, turned to Moe Miller, and Udofia disappeared. He worked one minute in Tech’s loss to Duke in the 2010 ACC tournament final, not at all in the NCAA Round 1 victory over Oklahoma State.
Next year, same thing. Udofia started the first 11 games before again ceding his position to Miller. It didn’t help that Udofia was playing alongside Iman Shumpert, a fine player but never a “true” point guard himself. “I really wasn’t the point guard my first two years,” Udofia said. “This is my first full season as a point guard.”
Which sounds odd, given that Udofia was ranked the sixth-best point guard nationally exiting Miller Grove High, but rhyme and reason took a hike in the final years of Hewitt. To be fair, it wasn’t as if Udofia had performed so well as to make his position unassailable. But the same coach who stuck with Jarrett Jack through a rough rookie season — and was rewarded with a run to the NCAA title game the next year — kept finding reasons to demote Udofia.
Hewitt’s successor had no such opt-out. Shumpert is the NBA, and Moe Miller completed his eligibility last March. By default, Udofia had to function as the point guard. To his credit, he has grown into the job. Over the last month he has taken to shooting less — only one game of 10-plus shots over the past eight — and distributing more (38 assists against 18 turnovers).
No, he isn’t Kenny Anderson or Mark Price or Stephon Marbury, but Udofia isn’t the reason Tech has won so seldom. The Jackets are 11-19, but they were 13-18 last season with Shumpert and Oliver and Rice and Moe Miller. Given its limitations, this team has done about as you’d expect, and its refusal to quit on Brian Gregory bodes well for coach and program.
“When [Gregory] first came in, I knew it would be hard,” Udofia said. “You don’t know what to expect. We had to buy into the system. As a point guard, I had to buy into the system.”
Consider him sold. Said Gregory of Udofia: “If you compare him to the beginning of the season, even in some games where he played well, he’s like a completely different person.”
This season hasn’t been easy. The next figures to be better. The Jackets will move into their refurbished arena, and a good recruiting class — though not quite as highly ranked as the 2009 crew — is expected. Gregory and his players will know one another better next time around, and the coach won’t have to wonder if his point guard is up to ACC snuff, or if his point guard is really a point guard at all.
First, though, comes this week’s ACC tournament. Tech isn’t expected to do much, but its point guard sees reason to believe. “We’re a good team,” Udofia said. “We know that in our locker room. We’ve gotten better.”
For sure, one Jacket has. This one.
By Mark Bradley