June 9, 2009
Greg Somogyi is hungry. He has a 7-foot-3 frame to fill, and basketball expectations that reach far beyond his 7-8 armspan.
Somogyi will also be Hungary for the next few months, representing his home country at the 20-and-under European Championships in Macedonia.
He leaves for Budapest on Wednesday, sounding like a man on a mission in any language.
"I feel there's a lot more that I can do than I did last year," said Somogyi, who blocked 37 shots last season to miss Doug Muse's freshman Gaucho record by just two swats. "I really want to establish myself as a good player."
"Greg and Jaime have made the biggest strides of anyone," reported long-time assistant coach David Campbell.
"Greg had a tremendous spring in terms of commitment in the weight room and working harder," Williams observed. "His work ethic has come up substantially."
He expects Somogyi's numbers to rocket past his freshman averages of 3.6 points and 2.4 rebounds per game, joking with the other Gauchos that, "You'd better treat him well, because you're going to be asking him for tickets some day."
But Justin Joyner, UCSB's hard-nosed point guard, doesn't mind risking it, having pushed and prodded the Big Somog all year.
"It's kind of a pain in the butt sometimes, but it's really good for everyone," he said of Joyner's tough love. "He's definitely made me tougher."
Serna, a hard-nosed forward, has been pushing both himself and his classmate in different ways.
"We're going to live together next year because we work out together on our own all the time," Somogyi said. "He's probably my best friend on the team."
He admits that running drills "are my worst nightmare," but he said they've tried to keep it "more basketball-related."
"We have this conditioning drill called the ëT' Drill," he said. "We set up cones in a T shape and we have to run back and forth. It's really good for conditioning and footwork. And we've been lifting a lot, too.
"I feel a lot stronger, and a lot more confident when I'm on the court. I feel like I got pushed around before. We've had some real good open gyms because everyone is just so competitive."
The competition will be fierce for spots up front next year, with Somogyi and Serna battling 6-8 Jesse Byrd, 6-9 Sam Phippen, 6-10 redshirt Jon Pastorek, and 6-9 recruit Lucas Devenny for playing time. Even powerfully built guard Orlando Johnson, a 6-5 redshirt sophomore, can play power forward.
Somogyi said it's turned open gym into open warfare at times.
"Sometimes we get mad at each other and we have a little fight or something, but I think that's a good sign," he said. "It's great for the team to have that kind of competition within the team.
"It just makes everyone better."
Somogyi was looking to make his game better when he came to the United States as a high school junior, following his brother George's footsteps to Portola Valley's Woodside Priory School.
Woodside has a large base of international students, plus a hard-nosed teacher who prefers the Justin Joyner School of teaching English language skills.
"Everybody hates her," Somogyi said, "but she was actually really, really helpful."
He's assimilated well to UCSB's academic regimen, earning a grade-point average of 3.4 during the winter quarter. He's even learning American slang, although even that can be a battle.
"It's funny how everyone argues about whose slang is better: Southern California's or Northern California's," Somogyi said. "I still associate with Northern California because I went to high school up there, but I don't know how long that's going to last ó especially after living with Jaime, and all his words."
The toughest words for him to understand last season were spoken by his coach when top-ranked North Carolina came to the Thunderdome on Nov. 21.
"There was this timeout when coach Williams was drawing something on his board and telling us what to do ó and I had no idea what he was saying because it was just too loud," Somogyi said. "The fans were chanting U-C-S-B and other things, I just got goosebumps.
"I heard that's why they called it the Thunderdome, but it was just ridiculous how loud it got."
He's been playing for Hungary's national junior program for the last five years, and it gave him a different kind of Thunderdome moment last summer.
"The European Championships were in a city in Romania that used to be in Hungary before the second world war," Somogyi said. "There was actually a huge community of Hungarian people there, and they came out to support us.
"They were getting a hard time for that, but they still came out and did it, which was awesome."
Somogyi, the son of George and Rita Somogyi, will get a week in Budapest before he begins training with the junior national team.
"I'll be with my family, eating all the food that my mom cooks," he said.
He'll also catch up with his younger brother, Gabor, who will enroll at Woodside Priory next fall as a 6-foot-7 high school sophomore.
"He's pretty good, he actually plays on the outside," Somogyi said. "He's not physical enough yet, so I guess I'm going to have to beat him up when I get home."
It's the kind of thing that gets drilled into you when you're a Gaucho.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org