Dieng making a difference for Cardinals
Taking a short jaunt across the state line into West Virginia, Louisville coach Rick Pitino arrived at Huntington Prep to scout a player who had committed to the school already.
As he sat in the stands with assistant coach Walter McCarty, Pitino couldn't take his eyes off the tall, gangly kid with telephone-wire-thin arms.
''I said, `Walt, I like the big guy better,''' Pitino said. ''He said, `Do you really, coach?' And I said, yes, he's just weak. I said his potential is unbelievable. Good footwork, he's long. He said `I'll get him, coach.'''
Two years later, Gorgui Dieng is living up to that potential, becoming the one player Louisville can't afford to be without, a key cog to its chances of beating Florida in the West Regional final Saturday in the desert.
It was a long journey.
Dieng grew up in Kebemer, Senegal, and started playing basketball when he was 5, after the first basketball court was built in his neighborhood. The youngest of eight children, he was always trying to be better than his older siblings and continued to get better.
By the time he was 13, Dieng was taller than most of the other kids and had grown too big to play soccer anymore. He also became recognized as one of the area's best players and enrolled at the Seeds Academy, the only school which allowed students to attend class and play basketball in the city.
Dieng honed his game there and was invited to a without Borders clinic in South Africa, where he showed off his skills to NBA scouts, along with college and basketball coaches from the United States. He later played for the Senegal national team in the U.S. and, after his first trip overseas, told his father, Momar, he wanted to come back and play basketball.
''I told my parents I wanted to come here to play basketball and continue to study, and my dad doesn't care anything about basketball, all he cares about is school,'' Dieng said. ''My dad told me to promise me that I would never give up school and keep playing basketball when I got here.''
Dieng agreed and enrolled in Huntington Prep, a basketball academy near the shores of the Ohio River in Huntington. W.Va. The adjustment to the culture was difficult, from not speaking English - he already spoke four other languages - to struggling with the idea of fast food and not eating every meal with his family.
Dieng eventually adjusted to the culture and played well enough to catch Pitino's attention. Once he arrived at Louisville, he was in for another shock.
Unpolished and a barely-there 187 pounds, Dieng wasn't quite ready for the rigors of college basketball, particularly in the brutal Big East. Pitino was there to show him.
''I said, Gorgui, you're going to have to improve a lot because I've coached eight years in the NBA, so you're going to have to bear with me, I'm going to drive you like you've never been driven before,'' Pitino said. ''He said, `What do you mean by drive?' And I said you're going to see.''
Turns out, Pitino didn't have to drive him too far.
From the days of trying to keep up with his older siblings, Dieng has been fueled by an inner drive to get better. He's had it at school in the U.S., keeping up with his schoolwork to honor the promise to his father, and on the basketball court, tirelessly working on his game.
Now, that once-raw kid with the daddy-long-legs-spider body is one of the best shotblockers in the country, a 6-foot-11, game-changing force who can hold his own inside now that he's up to 235 pounds.
Dieng has been such a bright light for Pitino, he asked Kim Bohuny, who oversees the NBA's Basketball without Borders program, if she could find more players like him.
''I said Kim, can you get me anymore Africans? Tell me where they are, I'll go over there. I don't care Congo, Senegal, wherever it is, I'll go,'' Pitino said. ''I love Gorgui so much because we're not a humble society, athletes today. The Africans are so humble and so hungry. It's just so much fun coaching him because it's a throwback.''
And his forte is throwing back shots.
Blessed with an uncanny knack for knowing when to go after shots and a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Dieng was eighth in the nation with 3.24 blocked shots per game during the regular season. He went on a swatting spree in the Big East tournament, blocking 13 shots as the Cardinals won four games in four days to take the conference title, and had five blocks in wins over Davidson and New Mexico to open the NCAA tournament.
Dieng was the difference in Thursday night's West Regional semifinal win over top-seeded Michigan State, tying a school tournament record with seven blocked shots while grabbing nine rebounds, scoring five points and nabbing three steals. He even dropped in a 3-pointer, the first of his career.
''Obviously, Dieng in the back is tremendous,'' Florida coach Billy Donovan said. ''Probably the only guy that we've played against that's been like that has been (Kentucky's) Anthony Davis, who is an incredible shot blocker. You have a great anchor in the back of their defense, which is great.''
Florida and Louisville are loaded with talented players and play a frenetic pace with lots of 3-pointers.
Which one heads to the Final Four in New Orleans could depend on Dieng.
When the sophomore shot-blocker stays out of foul trouble, the Cardinals have usually won. When he picks up a couple of early fouls and has to sit or adjust the way he plays, it throws a wrench into the way Louisville runs its matchup zone.
One of Pitino's top priorities against rugged Michigan State was to protect Dieng from picking up fouls and the Cardinals were able to check that off his list. Dieng played all 40 minutes in the game and had some of the biggest plays down the stretch by swatting back the Spartans' comeback attempts.
The Cardinals will likely need another performance like that for Pitino to have a shot at beating his protege, Donovan.
And, unlike last year when he had very little idea of what the NCAA tournament was about, much less understand things like Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, he's caught up in the madness of March and ready to do the single thing he cares about when it comes to basketball: win.
''Last year, I had no idea - I didn't know a lot of things about this tournament,'' Dieng said. ''Now, I know it's fun and I understand there's six games to get to the national championship and if you don't win, you go home. That's the most important thing is to understand that.''
Dieng's understanding of that and so much more has made a huge difference for Pitino and the Cardinals. Not bad for a skinny kid who was nowhere on his coach's radar less than three years ago.