March 13-- Even as a one-and-done player, Mo Bamba wanted his time at Texas to be much more than a cameo.
Before he ever threw down a wicked dunk or intimidated a shooter with his 7-9 wingspan, Bamba talked about leaving an impact. After leading the Big 12 in rebounding and blocks despite a late-season toe injury and establishing himself as an engaging interview, Bamba's chance at legacy-building is at hand.
Tenth-seeded Texas (19-14) faces No. 7 Nevada (27-7) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at Nashville. Bamba is enthusiastic about the opportunity and says he's 100 percent after the toe injury that caused him to missed three games.
"Getting in the tournament after not being in the tournament last year was one of the things that I wanted to do. I think I'm on a pretty good roll right now," said Bamba, aware of how March Madness can define players.
"It will mean a lot to me. It will pay dividends to being one of the best. It's definitely a step in the right direction for my future later on."
This represents Bamba's one shot at one shining moment. He's been open about his NBA plans for next season. He chuckled recently when asked if he might be returning to school. At 6-11 with that pterodactyl-like wingspan and untapped potential, Bamba has consistently been projected as a top-five draft pick-and could be one of the players on the board when the Mavericks pick.
Right now, Bamba isn't providing much draft insight.
"Oh it's flattering," Bamba said. "At the same time, I have business to take care of here. I try to live in the moment as much as possible."
He's also tried to take advantage of this season at Texas.
The son of immigrants from the Ivory Coast, Bamba grew up in Harlem and blossomed into an elite prospect at the Westtown School in West Chester, Pa.
Bamba remains far from a finished project. He lacks the offensive polish of Duke freshman Marvin Bagley III or the man-child body of Arizona's Deandre Ayton.
"I've learned a ton," Bamba said. "The intensity just goes through the roof. It's going to be even crazier at the next level.
"Probably the big thing is I've learned is that I've got a ways to go. I'm actually happy I do because there's so much room for growth."
A willing pupil, Bamba approached coach Shaka Smart before the Dec. 22 game at Alabama after a personally rough stretch.
"I need you to coach me harder," Bamba told his coach. "I'm ready."
Several times a week, Bamba and Smart sit down for personal tape sessions, breaking clips where Bamba excelled and breaking down room for growth.
"He's come a long way not just on the court but as a person," Smart said. "He's developed in a lot of ways. He's become more mature, more sturdy. He speaks out more in team settings. Basketball-wise, I really felt like in the months of December, January and early February, he was just coming on."
Until the injury, Bamba has been on tear, still dominating on defense and developing quickly on offense.
After Bamba had 22 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocks against Kansas shortly after his talk with Smart, Jayhawks coach Bill Self said: "The guy can block the sun."
Bamba acknowledged he still needs to be better establishing position in the low post and demanding the basketball. He probably needs to add at least another 25 pounds to his 225-pound frame.
Along the way, he's embraced school. He emerged as one of quarterback Sam Ehlinger's biggest fans this fall and cited an engaging U.S. history class this fall by professor Leonard Moore, specifically looking at the black power movement. Among the topics discussed that Bamba noted: the NCAA.
A student of basketball, Bamba knows that NBA teams are on the lookout for the next "unicorn"-a mythical and freakish beast that can transcend the game. Does Bamba qualify?
"I just try to blaze my own trail and do my own thing," Bamba said. "I like to think of myself as that. My mom thinks I am."
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