Mustapha Farrakhan was talking about maturity recently and used words such as "grateful" and "blessing" about his final basketball season at Virginia — words that conveyed the personal growth of which he spoke.
After a college basketball career that almost didn't get off the ground, Farrakhan developed into one of the leaders of coach Tony Bennett's rebuilding effort.
"I'm very grateful for the opportunity to play during my last year a substantial amount of minutes," he said, "and being a part of big games and able to play in close games in big atmospheres, and just being able to mature as a player. I'm very thankful and blessed to be in the position that I'm in."
Farrakhan, a 6-foot-4 senior guard from suburban Chicago, is the Cavaliers' leader in scoring (13.5 ppg) and minutes played (30.7) as they prepare for this week's ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C.
He's been a big part of a late surge in which Virginia (16-14, 7-9 ACC) won four of its final five games and earned the No. 8 seed. The Cavs face ninth-seed Miami Thursday at noon, with the winner to get No. 1-seed North Carolina in the quarterfinals Friday.
"He's improved in two areas: as a player and he's improved his emotions," Bennett said. "He's an emotional guy. He can go on runs offensively and get so excited. Sometimes, he'll battle his emotions and get discouraged or get off the track a little bit earlier. I think he's improved in handling that.
"But part of who he is and what makes him good is that he does play with emotion. He wants so much to do well for the team and for himself. I think when he has either a bad stretch or an off night, that's his greatest challenge, to overcome that and get back to it."
Farrakhan's peaks and valleys are leveling off as he matures and received more playing time, though he still has remarkable swings. He shot 11-for-12, with eight 3-pointers, against Howard and scored a career-high 31 points. That performance came two games after a 1-for-12 shooting night against Seattle.
A solid, athletic ballhandler with a scorer's mentality, he is the only Cavalier capable of consistently creating his own shot, though he has had to tailor his game to Bennett's system.
He's scoring nearly a point more per game in ACC play (14.3 ppg) than overall, and he averages 33.7 minutes in conference games. He's scored more points as a senior than in his previous three seasons combined.
"It gives us comfort, his mother and I, that finally, in the 11th hour when he's on his way out of the institution, that Mustapha is having the kind of experience he hoped for," said his father, Mustapha Farrakhan Sr. "Coach Bennett paid him a great compliment when he said he wished that he could have 'Mu' for another year.
"I wish that he had not just another year, but I wish Coach Bennett had him for four years. What he learned, on the court and off the court, from Coach Bennett has helped him become a better person in so many ways."
Buried on the bench with little explanation by previous coach Dave Leitao, Farrakhan said that he likely would have transferred if not for the coaching change.
Bennett offered him nothing except the promise of playing time if he earned it. Farrakhan appreciated Bennett's honesty and approachability.
"He's very easy to talk to," Farrakhan said. "What you see is what you get. … He leaves no gray areas as far as any psychological approaches or philosophical approach (about) why you're not playing. He lets you know what you need to do."
Farrakhan's surname magnifies everything he does — and doesn't do. He is the grandson of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, though religion and his famous family are rarely part of the conversation unless someone else brings it up.
He has never gotten a vibe in Charlottesville that his name caused concern.
"A lot of people on the outside looking in feel that way," he said, "or whatever belief they have about my family makes it seem like it'd be tough for me in this type of institution. But I've adjusted well and I've made a lot of friends and I haven't run into any problems since I've been here.
"My parents teach me and my family to treat people how you want to be treated and so I just go from there. I don't know if a person's sizing me up. I just try to treat people with respect and expect the same in return."
Outside of basketball, Farrakhan does little to bring attention to himself.
"Off the court, I'm a pretty humble person," he said. "I really don't talk too much about basketball when I'm not around it. I like to have fun and joke around and just relax. When I step inside the lines, I try to go as hard as I can and make it a mission for me and my teammates to go as hard as we can.
"I know I wear my emotions on my sleeve, but I feel like basketball's an emotional game. If you're lukewarm, I feel like you won't be able to perform at the highest level, so I just always want to bring that passion and that desire to the game."
Farrakhan would have liked a few more wins, some earlier playing time that might have accelerated his learning and comfort curve on the court. But he has no complaints with his college experience. The distance from home removed the easy escape route and helped him grow up. There is even a reward for his perseverance.
"I'm just happy that I was able to be a part of it," Farrakhan said. "It's a blessing to know that I fought through a lot of adversity here with basketball and been able to overcome it.
"I'm happy, even coming into a new situation with a new staff, being able to have confidence in myself and my abilities here and help build a program."