Q&A with Assane Sene
The Virginia men’s basketball team plays at No. 1 Duke on Sunday (Feb. 1) and freshman Assane Sene is expected to be in the starting lineup for the Cavaliers. Sene, a 7-0 center from Saint-Louis, Senegal, has started nine games for Virginia this season, including the last seven. He has made a significant contribution for the Cavaliers, especially on defense. Sene has played in 12 games and is averaging 3.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots a game. In games through Jan. 26, Sene ranked second in the Atlantic Coast Conference in blocked shots.
Question: How did you happen to come to the United States?
Sene: I was in Senegal playing basketball and going to basketball camps in South Africa and Nigeria. I was improving my basketball because I was working hard. I went to the Basketball Academy, it’s like a basketball center, in Senegal. Amadou Fall, the director of scouting for the Dallas Mavericks, worked with me a lot and he found the scholarship for me to South Kent (South Kent Preparatory School in Connecticut).
Question: Was your experience at South Kent a good experience for you?
Sene: I had a good experience at South Kent. The coach, Rafael Chilious, was great with me. He helped me a lot to improve my game, he helped me get stronger and learn the game. When I was at home I was just playing, I didn’t really know the game because I’d only been playing two years. When I got to South Kent I worked out with the coach and watched tapes of players like Kevin Garnett. He said those were the kind of players I needed to watch to get better.
They also helped me with my English. I took some extra classes like ESL (English as a second language) to improve my English. When you play in the United States and you can’t communicate with the other players and your coach it’s going to be difficult. My first summer in the United States I took English classes and worked out. English was not my first language so I needed a lot of time to work on it. Tests like the ACT are not easy for foreign students, so you want to take extra classes in English and reading to prepare yourself and to help you to better speak and understand the language.
Question: How many languages do you speak?
Sene: I speak five languages. I speak French, Spanish, English, Arabic and Wolof, my native language.
Question: Did you study those languages growing up in Senegal?
Sene: French, Arabic and Wolof. I’m a Muslim and when you’re young in Senegal you have to go to a Muslim school. When you go to Muslim school you need to know how to read the Koran, so that’s what I did. It is like people here six years old taking a French class, that’s what I was doing. If you don’t speak Wolof in Senegal, you speak French. The Wolof is kind of mixed, it’s like broken French.
Question: When did you start playing basketball?
Sene: I started playing basketball when I was 15-years-old and I was like 6-8. I was playing soccer and people were saying you have a chance to be a good soccer player. So I was working hard at soccer and doing great. At the same time, other people were saying if I was this kid I would go play basketball because of my height. A lot of basketball coaches in Senegal saw me play soccer and saw me moving well on the soccer field. They were saying if I worked two or three good years at basketball I would be a good basketball player. My brother played in pickup basketball games and he told me you’re the tallest in the family and should go play basketball. So I said all right, if that’s what you all want I’m going to do it and I started playing basketball. At the beginning I didn’t know a lot of basketball skills so I had to work hard.
Question: Did you like it right away?
Sene: I definitely liked it. The first day after I finished playing basketball I went to a place where I could pay money to get on a computer and started watching basketball on YouTube. That’s how I started knowing about a lot of basketball players like Alonzo Mourning. I remember he was the first guy I searched for because he was aggressive and Kevin Garnett for his skills. So I said, all right these are the guys I need to watch to improve my game.
Question: You play with a lot of energy. Is that how you’ve always played, even when you were playing soccer?
Sene: That’s how I grew up. Even when I was playing soccer a lot of people were saying I was too aggressive and I need to go slower sometimes. When I started playing basketball I wasn’t that good. The only thing I had was my aggressiveness. People would say this kid is aggressive, that’s the only word they were saying. I felt if that is all people are saying then I needed to work on my game, so I started working on my game.
Question: Did you play any other sports growing up?
Sene: I played handball and volleyball.
Question: Do you feel they helped with your basketball development?
Sene: Yes, especially volleyball. You need to jump right away and I think that’s why I want to block shots, because of the volleyball I played.
Question: Do you have other interests?
Sene: Right now the thing I want is to play basketball because I have my goals. After basketball the only thing I have is education, because I want to have a good education. That’s why I came to the United States. In the United States I can have good basketball and at the same time get a good education.
Question: Why did you make the decision to come to Virginia?
Sene: Virginia is the first college that I knew when I came here. I was watching March Madness and I saw them playing against Tennessee. I said I like this school. They started recruiting me and I had good relationships with Coach Courtney and Coach Leitao. I had a good relationship with them so I decided I had to play for them.
Question: Was the transition from South Kent to Virginia difficult?
Sene: It was difficult. As a foreign student it wasn’t easy for me the first time attending college. When I came here in the summer I was a little bit in awe. I didn’t know what I needed to learn and how I needed to learn. Also in basketball, in high school you just play. In college, you have to be mature, work hard and get better every day. You need to go to the weight room, have individual workouts with your coach and work out with the team. It’s not the same as high school. The speed is not the same, especially in the ACC. You have to be ready.
Question: Are you surprised by the playing time you’ve gotten this season and by the fact you’re in the starting lineup?
Sene: I can say both. I’m surprised, but then I’m not surprised because it’s something I’ve worked for. As a freshman I’m trying to help my team win. My teammates know that and my coach knows that. I keep doing the same thing and bring energy to the team. I hate to lose, so I bring my energy every day to help my team win. That’s why I can say I’m not surprised because it’s something I’ve worked hard for and I’ll keep working hard to keep my spot on the team.
Question: With the game and practice experience you’ve gained, do you feel yourself becoming more confident and do you see your game improving?
Sene: I feel more confident, but I still make mistakes, especially committing fouls. I have a lot of fouls and opponents know I’m aggressive so they attack me. Every time I get fouls it hurts my team. I need to work on that because I know my team wants me on the court.
Question: Why do you wear No. 5?
Sene: Number five means a lot of things for me. My mom passed away five years ago or so, I’m a Muslim so I pray five times a day and also Kevin Garnett is my man, he’s the player I love to watch play.
Question: You have four siblings?
Sene: Yes, I have three brothers and one sister. I am the youngest and the tallest.
Question: When was the last time you were home?
Sene: It was like three years ago. I was supposed to go last summer, but I was in summer school. I miss my family, but I don’t want to go for just a week. I want to go when I can spend a longer time because I haven’t seen them for a while. It’s hard, but I talk to them almost every two days.
Question: Do you have any idea when you might see them?
Sene: Maybe this summer.