This time last year, few outside the Seminoles’ locker room knew the name Mfiondu Kabengele.
Fast-forward a year and a breakout NCAA Tournament later, quite the opposite is now the case.
In the Seminoles’ run to the Elite Eight last season, Kabengele led the team in rebounds and blocks in tournament play. He registered a career-high four blocks in the Sweet Sixteen against Gonzaga and a career-high 11 defensive rebounds against Missouri in their tournament opener. All of these contributions came from off the bench.
“I was always in my coaches’ ear asking them what I should focus on most and that was really my mentality,” said Kabengele. “Just focusing on the playbook and what we practiced, not do too much, just focus on my role and that carried itself. My role on that team was rebounding and post scoring, so I just focused on those two things and that’s why I was able to help our team.”
With his continued development throughout last season as a redshirt freshman and his impressive postseason performance, Kabengele has received praise on a local and national scale.
CBSSports’s Jon Rothstein said: “Who replaces Donte DiVincenzo next season as college basketball’s best sixth man? One candidate is Florida State’s Mfiondu Kabengele. Was key in Noles’ Elite Eight run.”
DiVincenzo came off of the Villanova Wildcats’ bench and was the MVP of the Final Four in 2018.
Kabengele’s performance came as a surprise to many in the world of college basketball. However, for those who knew his journey, it was no shock at all.
“He just always stayed in the gym, stayed ready learning from the coaches and older players, so I would say that’s been a big thing,” said junior guard Trent Forrest. “He’s always wanted to get better and that’s what’s really helped him so far.”
Upon arrival in Tallahassee, Kabengele was one of the less heralded members of the Seminoles’ 2016 recruiting class highlighted by future NBA player Jonathan Isaac, as well as Forrest, a four-star recruit. The Seminoles coaching staff eventually made the decision to redshirt Kabengele to allow him to improve.
During that redshirt season, Kabengele learned and embraced the work-ethic that allowed him to be the player he is now.
Working closely with Associate Head Coach Stan Jones, Kabengele made the investment in himself and transformed his body. He lost 20 pounds throughout the course of his redshirt year and consistently pushed himself in the gym to become a better all-around player.
“I didn’t realize how much work it takes to prepare yourself for a season,” said Kabengele. “I would say that ‘Mamba Mentality,’ that grind, I learned over time, especially my redshirt year. I would see guys that were potential pros, someone like Jon [Isaac] and [Dwayne] Bacon, that had all these expectations and the way they worked to meet those expectations. That’s when I learned you have to do a little extra, late nights and early mornings.”
Last season the Seminole faithful saw that extra work pay off. Kabengele continued to improve throughout the course of the year, emerging as one of the most versatile players on the Seminoles’ roster.
Those inside the Seminoles’ locker room knew how valuable of an asset Kabengele could be early on in the season. However, he showcased that on the national scale when it came tournament time.
“He’s a kid that has high goals and a lot of expectation that he puts on himself, which is a good thing,” said Jones. “When he gets in those big moments, like you saw in the postseason last year, in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments, he puts himself into playing as hard as he can for as long as he can. It allows his instincts to take over and it makes him a very special player.”
Looking ahead to this season, Kabengele is looking to build on his play from last year. With a year under his belt, Kabengele feels more comfortable. He is more experienced and more mature both on and off the court, while also in even better shape than last season.
“Mfiondu is going to play an important role this year, just as he did last season,” said Florida State Head Coach Leonard Hamilton. “He scores and rebounds in bunches and is a very important part of our rotation. Mfiondu has worked very hard to be in the best shape of his life, he knows our system, and he is a great teammate.”
There are certainly high expectations surrounding the Seminoles this season. Like the rest of his teammates, Kabengele has embraced the anticipation and used it as motivation.
He’s set the bar high for himself and his teammates this year, as he knows they are more than capable of competing with the best teams in the nation.
“My goal personally is to make sure I maintain my role and I grow, so I can say I’m the most consistent on the team, said Kabengele.
“As a team, I do want to have a great regular season, as well as to have the chance to play for the ACC championship and the Final Four. Once you filter out the teams that didn’t want it as much, you’re left with a couple of great teams. When it’s like that, you just want to be in that realm where you can compete. I just want to have the opportunity to compete in the Final Four and in the ACC championship.
In terms of Kabengele’s impact, his coaches and his teammates believe he can be a Sixth Man of the Year type of player. With his work ethic and drive to be the best, those around him know just how special he can be.
Forrest said it best: “The sky is really the limit for Fi.”