Having one freshman playing a significant role in Gulf South Conference men’s basketball is somewhat rare; Having two freshmen contribute is almost unheard of.
North Alabama, however, is breaking that trend this season. Redshirt freshmen Corey Ricks and Jere Vucica have each seen their playing time increase in recent weeks and both players have made the best of their opportunities.
“We haven’t had two freshmen playing this much since I’ve been here,” coach Bobby Champagne said. “We usually have one freshman playing and sometimes there are only one or two players nominated for Freshman of the Year in the league.
“Corey and Jere have earned more playing time. We’ve had some injuries and foul trouble which has given them opportunities and they’ve made the most of them. Both Corey and Jere have really contributed.”
Playing time was limited early in the season for Ricks and Vucica. Ricks did not have many opportunities because of UNA’s depth at guard, while Vucica was still learning to play the post after playing in the backcourt most of his career.
“It was frustrating at first to not be playing much,” said Vucica, a native of Split, Croatia. “I just continued to work on my game. After a while things started to sink in with my teammates, my coaches and in my own head.”
While his playing time was limited, Ricks made the best of his opportunities early in the season. He scored 11 points in the season opener against Fisk and added 10 points in the next game against Miles.
“I see my role as trying to give the team a spark off the bench,” Ricks said. “I try to do whatever we need, whether its scoring, rebounding or defense. I just want to contribute.”
Ricks’ finest moment came last week against rival Alabama-Huntsville. The Lions trailed by 17 midway through the first half and were on the verge of being blown out.
As soon as he came in the game Ricks began to score and help the Lions get back in it. He scored 11 points in the half, including converting a three-point play at the buzzer that trimmed UAH’s lead to 39-33 at halftime. UNA went on to beat the Chargers 81-71.
“It felt amazing to contribute like that in such a big game,” Ricks said. “Coach gave me the opportunity and I just had to do my job. I tried to help put us in position to win.”
Vucica’s playing time has also increased recently. A knee injury sidelined Lonnie Smith just before the Christmas break and Vucica has picked up the slack. He has worked hard in the eight room and added 20 pounds of muscle since the Christmas break.
At West Georgia on Thursday, Vucica got his first start of the season. After going scoreless in regulation he scored the first basket of overtime on a baseline drive and then added a 3-pointer to give UNA a lead it would not relinquish.
“The fact that coach started me raised my expectations,” Vucica said. “I was trying to do too much, but in overtime I didn’t think about it and just played.
“My role is to defense and rebound. If I do those things then scoring will take care of itself. I’m having a lot of fun and love being a part of this team.”
Despite averaging just 7.5 minutes per contest, Ricks is scoring 5.0 points per game. Vucica averaged 3.1 points and 3.3 rebounds per game entering today’s home contest against West Alabama.
“Not many freshman would have the confidence to do what these two have done the past two games,” Champagne said. “Both of them still make some freshman mistakes, but they are able to forget it and move on. That’s the advantage of being young.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.