When Gorgui Dieng arrived at Louisville in 2010, a year removed from his native Senegal, he informed Cardinals coach Rick Pitino that his goal was to play in the NBA.
“Then I am going to drive you like you’ve never been driven,” Pitino told his 6-foot-11 freshman center.
“What do you mean, ‘drive’?” asked Dieng, who, though he spoke four languages, was then still in the process of mastering English.
Dieng now knows.
The sophomore with the infectious smile played all 40 minutes and neutralized Michigan State star Draymond Green in the Cardinals’ 57-44 win last night in a West Regional semifinal. Dieng, 22, swatted seven shots as well as the West No. 1 seed Spartans’ hopes of a third trip to the Final Four in the past four seasons.
“One of our goals was to protect Gorgui with our life,” said Pitino, 59, who is 10-0 in Sweet 16 contests. “We felt that if we could keep Gorgui in the game, we could beat them.”
This is the 25th anniversary season of Pitino’s Final Four Providence team, the Cinderella squad that ushered Pitino into the big time. Pitino noted that his current squad reminds him of that Friars team in that it is humble and hungry. These Cardinals remind him of Dieng.
“I saw Kim Bohuny from the NBA office, she goes over [to Africa] a lot,” Pitino said. “I said, ‘Kim, can you get me any more Africans?’ I don’t care. Congo, Senegal, wherever it is, I’ll go.
“I love Gorgui so much. Because we’re not a humble society, athletes today. The Africans are so humble and so hungry.”
Having coached in Lexington and now outside it in the state of Kentucky, Pitino understands humble. In its own bluegrass-and-buckets backyard, Louisville plays second fiddle. The Cardinals will forever finish behind Wildcats in the hearts of natives and this season, with the runaway success of Murray State, Pitino’s squad was third.
On the first Monday of March, both the Wildcats and Racers were ranked ahead of Louisville. Kentucky was ranked No. 1 while Murray State, at No. 11, was the only team in the country to win 30 games prior to the NCAA tournament. The Cardinals? Unranked. In a land where the order of finish is “win, place, show,” you might have thought of the ’ville as “also ran.”
Then tournament season began. Louisville, a No. 7 seed in the Big East tournament, won four games in as many days despite shooting below 40 percent in three of them. But that’s Louisville under Pitino. The Cardinals create chaos and most opponents, including No. 1-seeded Michigan State, wither.
“You know what our press does a lot of times?” Pitino said. “It just wears people out.”
Put simply, Louisville is annoying.
At halftime the Cardinals led by five despite converting just 1 of their 15 field-goal attempts from inside the arc. The lone make came courtesy of a dunk by Dieng, who also made his first 3-pointer of the season. Louisville’s 23 points were amassed via seven 3-pointers and Dieng’s dunk. No other 2-pointers and no free throws, either.
“I was just wide open and I took the shot,” Dieng said matter-of-factly.
While he may be a Hall of Famer, Pitino has not led a team to the Final Four in seven years. His last trip to the NCAA championship game, a loss to Arizona, was in 1997. That was also his last game as coach of Kentucky.
Murray State lost in the third round. Kentucky will face Indiana, a rematch of its lone regular-season defeat, in a Sweet 16 matchup tonight. As for Pitino, he has a 25-year reunion planned with that 1987 Providence team later this spring in Miami. But that can wait. What won’t wait is tomorrow’s meeting with Florida, which is coached by Billy Donovan, an integral player on the 1987 Friars.
“I told my team before the game tonight, ‘Here it is 25 years later and it’s still like they’re my best friends in life,’ ” Pitino said. “I said, ‘You’re two games away from having a 25th reunion yourself.’ ”