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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Men's Basketball

Center of attention

Sophomore forward TaShawn Thomas (right), the reigning C-USA player of the week, said freshman center Valentine Izundu (left) is like his little brother on and off the court.  |  Shaimaa Eissa/The Daily Cougar

Sophomore forward TaShawn Thomas (right), the reigning C-USA player of the week, said freshman center Valentine Izundu (left) is like his little brother on and off the court. | Shaimaa Eissa/The Daily Cougar

Freshman center Valentine Izundu has a habit of making blocks that bring fans to their feet.

In less than eight minutes per game this season for the Cougars, Izundu is averaging more than a block per game, and head coach James Dickey indicated his minutes and opportunities are likely to grow.

Assistant Director of Sports Performance Bryan Lewis pauses to reflect and he seems almost tantalized.

“If he keeps progressing the way that he is, and if we keep challenging him, he’s got some of the most potential on the team,” Lewis said. “When he finally gets comfortable within his own body, it’s going to be unreal.”

Izundu, who recently sparked the Cougar defense against UTEP with three blocks off the bench, is quiet in one-on-one situations, even shy. He is the youngest player on the team, and teammates said his quiet demeanor masks a goofy wit and amiability that has made him a favorite among coaches and players.

“He’s known to be a quiet guy, but he talks more to his teammates than anyone,” said assistant coach Daniyal Robinson. “He cracks jokes and keeps those guys laughing, in a sneaky, secretive kind of way.”

Sophomore forward TaShawn Thomas, recently named Conference USA’s player of the week, said he knows what being on the receiving end of Izundu’s low-volume barbs is like.

“He’s always trying to block my shot and trying to talk trash in practice,” Thomas said. “He doesn’t say it loud. He just says it where I can hear it, like, ‘Yeah, I got you now.'”

The 6’10” player is the tallest on the roster and brought Cougar fans to their feet with three blocks that helped stem the Miners’ offensive efforts.

“He’s got perfect instincts,” said senior forward Leon Gibson. “For some reason, he can judge the ball better than any person I’ve seen on the block.”

“If you see him in the hole, you need to either put it all the way up or pump fake and get him in the air,” Gibson said. “Because if you go up soft, you’re most likely going to get blocked.”

Izundu’s bread and butter — shot blocking — changes the game, Dickey said.

“He can change a lot of shots, block a lot of shots, and just makes the defense much better,” he said.

Dickey said Izundu is improving game by game because of his eagerness to work and listen to advice.

“I’m not sure that for everyone, having a good work ethic is the most natural thing. He’s starting to understand that,” Dickey said.

Izundu has been spending extra time with Lewis improving his physicality and agility, and the extra hours he has been putting in are starting to show on the court.

“The more time we put in, the more he responds to it,” Lewis said. “He has a lot of natural instinct to him that makes him successful on the court. He has a natural gift of timing, and his athletic ability is going to help him excel no matter what.”

Robinson speaks glowingly of the progress Izundu has already made in his half-season with the Cougars, and projects much more progress in the coming seasons.

“He’s grown a ton since we started practice. He had to get used to the speed of the game, the physicality of it,” Robinson said. “Now, you see him making those adjustments. We anticipate that he will continue the climb that he’s on.”

The climb that Izundu is on started a scant four years ago, a rarity in today’s age of year-round competitive youth leagues. In very little time, he has already accumulated a stunning collage of above-the-rim highlights on YouTube, both dunking and blocking.

Freshman guard Danuel House said thinks Izundu’s potential has not yet even begun to be fully unlocked.

“He could be a pro,” House said. “You can’t find that many 6’10” guys that’s light on their feet, got good foot work, that can run and jump.”

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