Fran Dunphy sat down individually with each member of the men’s basketball team upon his hire last spring.
Dunphy’s message: Everyone must earn his spot; he had no preconceived notions of anyone.
Thus, the slate from Semaj Inge’s freshman campaign – 0.3 points per game, 48 total minutes – was wiped clean.
“He said ‘Everything’s open. Everybody’s going to come in and work for minutes,'” said Inge, a sophomore. “He said he had 200 minutes in his hand. You’ve got to work for something. That’s what I did.”
Following an offseason packed with shooting drills, Inge earned the chance to replace now-departed Mardy Collins as the starting point guard.
Seven months earlier, Inge seemed like an unlikely candidate for the job.
Inge had struggled immensely in the limited playing time he received last year under former coach John Chaney. He failed to make a shot until the second-to-last game of the regular season and often looked overwhelmed by the pace of the college game.
Such hardships were a mystery to his twin brother James, who had watched Semaj rack up points during his high school days at Woodrow Wilson High, in Camden, N.J.
James, now a freshman guard at Colorado, said Semaj had lost confidence in his shot as early as the preseason.
“He told me, ‘I can’t shoot the ball,'” James said. “It was a shock to me. I’m used to him making the shots. If you lose that confidence, you’re teammates lose confidence in you, [and then] you can forget about your jump shot.”
The first-year coach doesn’t have as quick a hook as Chaney, who would often pull players from the game as soon as they made a mistake. This has aided his confidence, Semaj said.
“If you make a mistake and you’re still playing hard, you’re going to be all right.”
Chaney also lost faith in Semaj, though Semaj has never said it. James said he believes Chaney quickly labeled Semaj as someone who couldn’t shoot the ball.
Under Dunphy, situations are different.
Semaj said. “That’s what I think coach Dunphy worries about. As long as you’re still playing hard, giving it everything you’ve got, then I think you’re going to be all right with coach Dunphy.”
Semaj’s work began in the summer.
Day after day, hour after hour, the Inge twins tirelessly worked on their shots – and little else. They practiced jumpers, free throws and shots off the dribble.
Before long, Semaj had restored faith in his abilities.
“His first shot [in college] was an air-ball from the corner,” James said. “Now this guy is shooting NBA three-pointers. I’m going home telling my mom, ‘This guy can shoot.’ She’s not believing me. He came a long way.”
As the Owls returned to practice, Inge quickly impressed his teammates.
“I looked at him and he was like a whole different player,” Dionte Christmas said. “I didn’t recognize him. He came out posting up with the guards, going by them.”
Inge has shot 33 percent through his first four games, averaging four points per game. His six steals rank second behind Dustin Salisbery.
Inge’s Achilles heal, however, remains his inability to shoot foul shots – he’s made just one of eight – but Dunphy said he’s been working on it.
Though Inge has won the starting role, the job is not entirely his. Junior Chris Clark, who has split time at the point, averaged 6.5 assists in the last two games.
And, with junior Mark Tyndale likely returning in two games, minutes at the guard positions will come at a premium.
“It will really be interesting to see how all that plays out,” Dunphy said.
“But Chris is doing a good job and Semaj has done some good things. We’ll just take it as a great positive right now and we’ll worry about that later on.”
But given the distance Inge has come since last season, that situation might just be a minor bump in the road.
“He stuck with it,” James said. “He could have easily quit and started going through the motions. That’s helped me. I’m not starting as a freshman. I know I can do it. I definitely look up to him for it.”
John Kopp can be reached at email@example.com.