VALPARAISO | Chances are good that if Moussa Gueye had come to Valparaiso when he initially made his verbal commitment several years ago, Vashil Fernandez would’ve never arrived in Northwest Indiana.
Having Gueye on the roster for the 2011-12 season would’ve allowed the Crusaders to fill a need elsewhere on the roster. With Gueye backing off his 2009 verbal commitment and ultimately choosing Alabama, Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew and his staff went looking for another big man and found one in Jamaica.
As Gueye battled in the Southeastern Conference for the last two years, Fernandez struggled with the transition to the college game, in large part because he didn’t have a player pushing him in practice every day.
With both players on the roster this season, it's Fernandez who is making incredible strides because of Gueye's presence on the team.
“Just getting to bang against Moussa in practice every day is helping me a lot more,” Fernandez said. “That’s something that I didn’t really have with Richie (Edwards) or Bobby (Capobianco) over the last two years. They just played a different style. Moussa and I battle each other every day.”
Fernandez and Gueye have nearly identical numbers through the first 20 games of the season. Each player has scored 92 points (4.6 ppg) and are within 12 minutes and 10 rebounds of each other. Gueye has seven more blocks, but Fernandez has 27 less turnovers. Gueye started the first 15 games of the season, only to give way to Fernandez once Horizon League play began. Fernandez’s first start came one game after he played the entire second half against East Tennessee State.
Despite competing for the same minutes, the pair has struck up a solid friendship over the last several months. Fernandez cites their connection as the only two international players on the roster as well as the fact that they both came from humble living conditions. That doesn’t mean that Fernandez began the relationship by rolling out the red carpet for his new teammate.
“I knew (the coaches) were bringing this guy in and I just made the decision that I was going to outwork him,” Fernandez said. “That’s what you have to do from a competitive standpoint. There was going to be competition now and I was going to work the hardest I could.”
The work began during the summer when Gueye first arrived on campus and the coaching staff noticed immediate dividends, especially when Fernandez returned from a trip with the Jamaican national team.
“No question that Vashil had that sense of urgency,” Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew said. “He had it at the beginning of the season when he started well, then he dipped a little bit, and now he’s back to playing really well. He hasn’t logged a lot of basketball minutes. He played very little in high school and had basically no AAU career. He’s benefited greatly from the work he has put in.”
Fernandez is shooting a team-best 58.8 percent from the field since conference play began and has even settled down at the free throw line, going 5-of-7 in his last two games despite playing with a dislocated finger.
“I really didn’t pay attention to how long I was playing,” Fernandez said. “I just let my adrenaline take over. I made the decision that I was tired of losing and wanted to do something about it.”