Saturday March 21st, 2015

SEATTLE -- Some of the campus buses at UC Irvine feature a picture of 7'6" Mamadou Ndiaye, the Anteaters’ center and the tallest player in the nation, with his arms spread wide, his 8'1" wingspan stretched from one side of the bus to the other. There is a lifesize cutout of him at Irvine’s Bren Events Center for fans to stand against and gain a better idea of just how gargantuan he really is. But none of that was necessary to make Louisville coach Rick Pitino appreciate Ndiaye’s height and length. “I thought he was eight feet tall,” Pitino says.

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The only short thing about Ndiaye was his stay in the NCAA tournament. It ended after one game when the 13th-seeded Anteaters narrowly missed toppling No. 4 seed Louisville on Friday, losing 57-55, which, unless you’re a Cardinals fan, is a shame because Ndiaye might well have become one of the darlings of the tournament had Irvine lasted a bit longer. The non-Louisville fans at Key Arena roared their approval on each one of his six buckets, especially when he slapped the floor after one of his dunks. It proved that tourney fans love to root for the little guy even if the little guy is seven-and-a-half feet tall.

"I could hear them cheering for me," Ndiaye said. "It made me want to play even harder for them. Sometimes fans want to see the big man not do so well. So this was nice."

Ndiaye contributed 12 points, five rebounds and one block, numbers that don’t fully illustrate the effect the sophomore from Senegal had on the game. He forced the Cardinals to change shots and have second thoughts about attacking the rim at times. Louisville big men like 6'7" Montrezl Harrell and 6'10" Mangok Mathiang looked like kids playing against their dad as they doubled him in the low post.

"On film sometimes he doesn’t look as good," said Pitino. "But a coach from their league told me, ‘Pay no attention to what you see on film because he protects the basket as well as anybody. So don’t think you can attack him laterally.'"

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You certainly can’t attack him vertically. Ndiaye was the Big West Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman, which is even more impressive because shortly after arriving in the U.S. five years ago he was suffering from severe headaches and his vision was deteriorating. Eventually he was diagnosed with a benign pituitary tumor, which had caused his excessive growth in addition to the medical problems, and it took two surgeries to correct the problem. When he said after practice on Thursday that he was “happy to be here,” it wasn’t entirely clear at first whether he was referring to being in the NCAA tournament, in the U.S., at Irvine, or among the living. “All of those things,” he said.

Ndiaye did more than just make him a trending subject on Twitter. He has two years of eligibility left, but he may have put himself on the map with pro scouts with his performance against Louisville. “I think their players were surprised at me,” he said. “They didn’t know that I could run the floor and things like that. A lot of people did not know me at all. Now I think they know who I am.” If only he were in the tournament long enough to get to know him a little better.

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