COLUMBIA, SC — Cardinal Newman senior Austin Ajukwa fulfilled one of his major ambitions when he recently signed a letter of intent to play college basketball at Clemson.
It’s the next step in his master plan to get to the NBA.
“I picked Clemson because the ACC is going to be, hands down, the best conference in college basketball over the next few years,” the 6-foot-6 Cardinals star said. “The level of competition in the ACC will help prepare me for the next challenge, and I’m convinced that the Clemson coaching staff can also help me realize my dream.”
But while Ajukwa has the near future mapped out to his satisfaction, his Cardinal Newman career stands incomplete.
The Cardinals have won 47 games over the past two seasons with Ajukwa leading the way with a scoring average of 20 points per game, but failed in their quest to win a SCISA state championship — losing in the quarterfinals in 2011, the semifinals a year ago.
“I’m jealous when I see people with rings and I’m sitting here without one,” he said. “This season is my last chance, and that’s the only goal we have as a team. It’s not about how many wins we have over the season. It’s all about winning those three games at the state tournament.”
The first month of the season has been an interesting one, if a little frustrating.
Cardinal Newman is off to a 6-7 start under new coach David Ross, a South Carolina player under Eddie Fogler. Ross takes over for Kevin Rose after eight years as a CN assistant under Rose and Wayne Earhardt. The former Gamecocks team captain coached for two seasons at Keenan right out of college.
“The good thing is the kids knew what to expect from me because I’ve been here for their entire careers,” Ross said. “But we are doing some things differently schematically, and that is still a work in progress.”
Ross is implementing a more structured approach offensively, which is affecting Ajukwa’s previous freewheeling approach.
“I’d rather see Austin with a triple-double instead of him scoring 35 points,” said Ross. “That would mean he’s getting everybody else involved, which will ultimately help prepare us for a run at a state championship. I believe the change will better prepare him for the college game. He’ll get great shots instead of just good ones, and the pressure won’t be on him to go make plays all by himself to carry the team.”
Injuries were a significant factor in the Cardinals’ rocky December. The level of competition also came into play as CN was involved in both the Palmetto Challenge at Ridge View and the Carolina Challenge Showcase at the Chick-fil-A Classic.
Ajukwa missed a number of high-profile games with an ankle injury, but returned to help lead the Cardinals to the Home Pest Control tournament championship at Heathwood Hall to close the first month.
“It’s been a tough start but if we end up winning it, all this will only make it sweeter,” Ajukwa said.