Winningest class has Senior Night (Men’s Basketball)

Anthony Tao

It took Davor Duvancic the better part of two years to record his first breakout performance, and it took Michael Jenkins even longer to get off the end of the bench.

But both players took advantage of their opportunities, and both are now starters on a team trying to earn a postseason berth for the just fourth time in school history.

The two seniors will be honored tonight — Senior Night — before Northwestern takes on No. 14 Michigan State.

“It feels great,” Jenkins said. “I’ve been here for four years, and to be able to walk out with Davor — since I came here with him (in 2001-02) — is going to be good. My family’s going to be out here too, so it’s going to be fun.”

Jenkins is playing in his third season for NU and has a year of eligibility remaining. He said he’ll probably use the extra year as either a graduate student or a fifth-year senior. After next season, he could finish his playing career as NU’s winningest player.

Currently atop that list is Duvancic, who has been a part of 56 wins. In 100 years of NU basketball, no one has enjoyed more.

“I couldn’t believe that, I’m so honored,” Duvancic said. “I’m glad to have this group of people with me around the program, so I’m really lucky.”

Duvancic’s story is one of perseverance and hard work. His teammates remember the shy freshman from Split, Croatia, who had a tough time settling into his new life, which included learning a new language, adjusting to college and adapting to a different style of basketball.

There was also the matter of playing in a new world. Duvancic recalls being impressed by the size of Welsh-Ryan Arena — the smallest venue in the Big Ten.

“For me it was a big gym,” he said.

It was a cozy place, too. It was there, after all, that Duvancic led NU to an upset of then-No. 25 Illinois last year. He dropped a career-high 22 points that day and hit four 3-pointers as the Wildcats overcame a nine-point halftime deficit to win 70-60.

This came after Duvancic’s breakout game in the Big Ten tournament a year earlier, also against the Fighting Illini. As a sophomore, Duvancic scored 20 points, nearly doubling his previous career high. He matched the point total of Illinois’ Brian Cook, the league’s Player of the Year.

NU lost 94-65, but Duvancic had found his place. The next season, he started the first 11 games and saw his playing time jump to 30 minutes per game. He had come a long way since his freshman year, when he played just 29 minutes all season.

“I got a chance to play, to show coaches I can play at this level,” Duvancic said. “Coach trusted me, put me in the game, and I played. And obviously I did okay.”

Now the 6-foot-8 forward leads the team with 2.7 assists per game while averaging 6.7 points and 4.4 rebounds.

Jenkins’ story is a feel-good tale that is still inspiring players and coaches. Since filling in for T.J. Parker in the starting lineup Jan. 5 against Indiana, the walk-on has started nine of 14 games. This season, he’s set career highs in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, 3-pointers and just about every other category.

“Whatever you say about Mike is great, he’s just been a great story all year long,” NU coach Bill Carmody said. “He’s played extremely well, and he’s been instrumental in a number of our wins this year.”

Jenkins’ highlights this season include hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Iowa on Jan. 26 that sent students rushing onto the court. He was also pivotal in the Cats’ Feb. 14 win against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, scoring a career-high 11 points and hitting a late 3-pointer to seal the victory.

“I hoped to be here,” Jenkins said of his rise up the team’s depth chart. “You always want to shoot high, so that’s what I envisioned myself doing. But it just took time to do it.”

Reach Anthony Tao at [email protected].