Nothing can fully prepare a basketball player for the transition to the college game; the complexity, the cuts, the speed. And while many freshmen classes use this upheaval to band together, Cam Thrower and Chris Ubochi have only each other to rely on.
The pair make up the smallest freshman class in the Ivy League, and are tasked with the monumental challenge of making the leap to Division I basketball without any others alongside them. As the only two players representing the future of Penn men’s basketball, all eyes will be on guard Thrower and forward Ubochi as they adjust to an entirely new caliber of competition.
Ubochi’s calling card throughout his basketball career has been defense. In high school, he was a three-time league Defensive Player of the Year, and continued this dominance during his prep year at Williston Northampton. Now, as he faces more lethal offenses than ever before, Ubochi will have to step up in order to maintain his on-court identity.
“It was like nothing I prepared for,” Ubochi said of the difference between the collegiate and high school games. “The pace is very, very fast … as of right now, I’m just trying to figure out how to fit into the team and help the team win.”
To hear Ubochi describe it, being an important piece of the team looks different for each player. But the universal first step toward impacting winning is playing time, which Thrower should be seeing plenty of if the preseason has been any indication.
At the Harvard-Westlake School, one of California's most elite basketball programs, Thrower was no stranger to big moments. He was a league champion in all four of his high school seasons, and was a McDonald’s All-American nominee as a senior. But that was in the past. Now, Thrower is focused solely on his future.
“We’re the smallest class [in the Ivy League], and I really think that allows us more opportunity to play and contribute,” Thrower said. “Going forward, we just have to learn as much as we can this year, because once the upperclassmen are gone, it’s on us.”
Regardless of Thrower’s status as a recruit, his first season will undoubtedly be focused on learning and growing as a player. In the preseason game against Daemen, Thrower went just 1-7 on threes. But later, when the gym was nearly empty, he was back on the court, practicing his shot and using the subpar performance as motivation.
“That first game, I had a little bit too much excitement,” Thrower said. “But working, it’s just in my nature. After practice, before practice, I always want to get extra work in. I know good things happen. And I just gotta trust in my work, because I know that’s all I have.”
That improvement over time would not be possible without the team's veteran leaders. Both Thrower and Ubochi credit the team’s established leadership for helping them acclimate to the new climate. Ubochi, in particular, said that senior guard Jonah Charles took him under his wing even prior to his arrival at Penn.
“Even before I came here, I met [Charles] in New York and worked out with him, and we created this bond,” Ubochi said. “I actually talk to him about anything — basketball, outside of basketball. He’s been a really great leader.”
Thrower also mentioned Charles as one of his most important mentors so far, as well as junior guard Jordan Dingle and senior guard Lucas Monroe. With such a supportive team atmosphere, the pair will not be forced to grow on their own.
But there will come a time when Thrower and Ubochi will be thrust into the spotlight without older players to fall back on. They each want to help the team win in any way they can, and as the future faces of the program, that means developing a lasting relationship.
“It’s just us two,” Thrower said. “So the more we build chemistry together on and off the court, the more we talk with each other and learn with each other, I think it will make a big impact not only this year, but in the years coming.”
“As of right now we’re trying to develop that dynamic duo kind of vibe,” Ubochi added. “It’s going to take time, but in the long run, we’re hoping to be the potential leaders of the team. We might be the smallest class, but I think the bond is stronger.”
As Thrower and Ubochi prepare for their first official college game on Nov. 7 at Iona, their commitment to the process of growth is a promising sign. And when the grind inevitably grows taxing, they can each take comfort in the fact that someone always has their back.