By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He was a boy in his native Senegal, maybe 14 years old, when he picked up a basketball for the first time. He’d watched pickup games at the playground and NBA games on TV, and he figured he’d need about a month to become proficient at dribbling and shooting and passing.
Assane Sene, who’s now 21, smiles at the memory.
“It just looks easy, but it’s not like that,” Sene said Thursday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
The 7-0, 239-pound left-hander may never master this game. Few do. Well into his junior season at UVa, Sene remains a work in progress on offense, where his hands sometimes betray him, and he needs to continue to add muscle to his long, lean frame.
That said, the Cavaliers’ starting center is noticeably improving, almost with each game.
“Basketball is just a sport that, whenever you step on the court, you gotta really be confident,” Sene said. “So I can say that was one of my weaknesses before. I used to come and say, ‘Well, I’m on the court, I’m going to try not to do too much.’ But now I’m starting to know it so much better, learning the game more. Now every time I step on the court, I’m going to do exactly what I can do and what would help me to get an easy basket.”
Sene scored 9 points, then a career high, against Howard on Jan. 4. Eleven days later, against NCAA champion Duke, in front of a frenzied crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium, he scored 8 points, then his high in an ACC game.
His next time out, Wednesday night at Boston College, Sene scored 11 points, pulled down 9 rebounds and matched his career high with 5 blocked shots.
“He was a factor, and I’m real pleased,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said afterward at BC’s Conte Forum. “He’s finishing a little better. He’ll keep working, and he gives you everything he has.”
For the season, Sene’s averages, save for blocked shots (1.2), are modest: 3.4 points and 4.5 rebounds. But with 6-8 forward Mike Scott out with a season-ending ankle injury and 6-9 forward Will Sherrill, who fractured his right fibula Nov. 29, struggling to regain his early-season form, UVa desperately needs more production from Sene, and he has responded.
In his past four games, he’s averaged 7.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2 blocks.
“I think Assane is beginning to figure out a way to be productive, which comes from playing,” said assistant coach Ron Sanchez. “I think this season he’s been asked to probably play the most minutes he’s ever played. Tony’s done a really good job of also placing him in a position where he can be productive, which in turn is allowing him to develop a little bit of confidence in himself and what he’s trying to do.”
Sene played about 17 minutes a game in 2008-09, UVa’s final season under Dave Leitao, Bennett’s predecessor. As a sophomore, though, his average dipped to 12.6 minutes.
He’s averaging 18.1 this season. If Sene can avoid foul trouble, his minutes are likely to rise as the Wahoos enter the heart of their ACC schedule. Virginia (1-3, 10-3) hosts Georgia Tech (2-2, 9-8) at noon Saturday at JPJ.
“What’s going on right now, that’s a big opportunity for me to step up and play hard,” Sene said. “Every time I step on the court, no matter what, I’m going to give 100 percent. Whatever I got, I’m going to give to the team, because I know they’re going to need it.”
After practice ends at JPJ, Sene often stays on the court for a tutorial with one of his coaches. Sometimes his instructor is Bennett; other times it’s an assistant, Sanchez or Jason Williford or Ritchie McKay.
“He puts time into working on his hands and working on his finishing,” Sanchez said. “He’s putting in the time to become better. He’s trying to earn his success, and then when he’s on the floor, he’s being productive on the offensive end.
“There are things that we wish that he would do better, obviously, but we have accepted Assane for what he is, and we look at the things that he can do, as opposed to the things that he can’t do. Because if we go out there and say, ‘Assane can’t do this or can’t do that,’ then we’re just not going to find an opportunity for him. So you look at him and you say, ‘OK, he can help us in these areas, and let’s try to put him in those areas as often as we can.’ “
Sene collected 6 offensive rebounds in Virginia’s 70-67 loss to BC. He had 4 against Duke and 2 in each of the four games leading up to UVa’s visit to Durham.
“I’ve been working on it with Coach Sanchez, every day after practice, and I think that’s really helping me right now, so I’m going to just keep doing it,” Sene said after the Boston College game.
Sene is developing a sense of how missed shots will come off the rim or backboard, and he’s learning to turn those offensive rebounds into points. Workouts with strength-and-conditioning coach Mike Curtis have made him bigger and stronger — Sene played at about 225 pounds last season — and he’s becoming more efficient with his follow shots.
“He’s an unselfish kid, so he’s willing to do whatever to help the team, but I think he’s grabbing balls better,” Sanchez said. “Instead of trying to dunk everything, and missing dunks, he’s just making layups and putting the ball in the basket. And I think that’s the part that I’m talking about as far as his maturity of just playing. He knows, ‘I just gotta score. I don’t have to get the highlight and take the high-risk play when I know that I can just help my team with an offensive rebound and putback.’ “
The simple layup — off the glass, in most cases — has become Sene’s shot of choice.
“A dunk is just two points,” Sene said. “A layup is two points. I’m not trying to be fancy on the court. You see when I block shots I jump higher, but there are some times when you get the ball under the basket that you don’t have time to prepare yourself and go dunk. It’s not that easy, especially under the basket. When you get a ball in in transition and stuff, it’s so easy to dunk it. But if you get it under the basket, you’ve got to make sure that you finish it, dunk it or layup. I just think that they’re both the same.”
His jump hook remains inconsistent, but the coaching staff hasn’t given up hope that Sene, with enough practice, will be able to add that to this repertoire of low-post moves.
“I tell you this, he’s a great kid. He’s fun to work with,” Sanchez said. “When you spend time with him, it’s enjoyable, even if he’s not doing it exactly how you want to do it. Coaches just want to work with kids that want to work hard and that are fun to be around, and I think that he’s definitely that.”
Indeed, Sene is popular with his teammates and coaches, who call him Zu. In Senegal, Sene said, that’s a common nickname for anyone named Assane.
He knows that, compared to the other Cavaliers, he’s still a hoops novice. He considers his older teammates to be mentors, especially Scott, who had emerged as an all-ACC candidate before getting hurt this season.
“Whatever they say, I’m going to listen,” Sene said, “because they’ve been here before me, so they really know exactly what I need to do to help the team.
“Before a game, Mike tells me, ‘Do this, do that. Take your time when you get the ball.’ Or he tells the guards, ‘Give the ball to Zu.’ Which is really making me confident. That really makes me more confident to work harder. I know it’s really hard for him, he’s having a really hard time right now, he’s not playing. So I’ve got to really step up.”