UC Irvine brings 7-6 center into matchup against Louisville
SEATTLE (AP) This tall tale began in Senegal, where all teenager Mamadou Ndiaye had to do was look in the mirror to see the future in his favorite sport of soccer was limited.
That's how things go for most 7-foot-somethings out there. A move to America, a few leaps of faith and one life-saving surgery later, Ndiaye is the biggest story going in the NCAA Tournament. Big, as in 7-foot-6 big. The tallest player in the country is leading the UC Irvine Anteaters to their first trip into March Madness.
''This has been my dream, to make it to the Big Dance,'' Ndiaye said, as he and the 13th-seeded Anteaters (21-12) prepared for Friday's East Region game against fourth-seeded Louisville (24-8). ''But it's not my only dream. I'm hoping for the Sweet 16 next week, and then we'll see where it goes.''
The Senegal-to-America basketball connection isn't unheard of. Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng, formerly on Rick Pitino's Louisville roster, is one of a few dozen basketball players to bring their hoop dreams to America from the shores of the west African country.
Ndiaye's story veered off course, however, when a concerned mentor looked at his massive size and wondered if something might be amiss. An MRI revealed a golf ball-sized tumor on his pituitary gland, which regulates growth.
With the prep school that sponsored his move to America unable to cover the operations, Ndiaye turned to charity. Donations funded the surgeries and a family that lived close to the UC Irvine campus assumed guardianship of Ndiaye.
He was a regular around the gym there, and when decision time came about where he should go to college, UC Irvine felt like home.
''For him, it was more about the comfort level,'' said associate head coach Ali Ton, who, along with head coach Russell Turner, came to UC Irvine five years ago. ''He could've gone a lot of places. We told him, we'll have a lot of 7-footers and 6-10 guys to play against every day. He'll get great experience playing against guys as close to his size as possible.''
Indeed, Turner has built a program on the backs of big men.
Also on the UC Irvine roster are 7-2 Haroldas Saprykinas and 6-10 John Ryan and Mike Best.
But 7-6 is a whole different stratosphere, so Turner, who worked with a big man named Tim Duncan when he was an assistant at Wake Forest, knocked on lots of doors, including those of Jeff van Gundy, who coached Yao Ming, along with the coaches who worked with 7-7 Kenny George at UNC Asheville a few years ago.
''A very, very talented player,'' Ton calls UC Irvine's Big Fella. ''Problem is, he's special. If you try to coach him like he's 6-10 or 7-foot, you're going to run into some problems. We're always trying to do what's more suitable for him.''
FOUL TROUBLE: While UC Irvine worries about keeping Ndiaye out of foul trouble, Louisville looks at it differently. ''We see his conditioning is nowhere what ours is, so we're going to make him run a lot,'' said Cardinals 6-8 forward Montrezl Harrell. Pitino sees all the other big bodies on the Irvine bench and knows Ndiaye's absence won't solve all the problems.
MISSING CHRIS: Louisville is 3-2 since dismissing guard Chris Jones. Pitino said he told the Cardinals they shouldn't expect Jones' replacement in the starting lineup, Quentin Snider, to pick up all the slack. ''Chris is our best shooter, our best defensive player, our toughest guy in the backcourt,'' Pitino said. ''I used the statistic of, everybody's got to be 20 percent better than they have been. I think they have.''
LOVING THE UPSETS: Some coaches of a front-runner might cringe at seeing all the upsets, and near upsets, on the first day. Pitino isn't one of them. Not only did Georgia State's win over Baylor and UAB's wins over Iowa State reinforce his love of March Madness, it reminded his heavily favored team that anything is possible. ''The emotional level for both teams is really dramatic. You have to really be on top of your game in the first round,'' he said.
GETTING GOOD SHOTS: The Cardinals' 30.4 percent shooting from 3-point range ranks them 315th out of 351 teams. Much more has been made, however, of how closely this Louisville team resembles the 2012 team that also came into the tournament seeded fourth and ended up in the Final Four. Most notably, that team allowed opponents to shoot 38.4 percent from the field. This team allows 38.9 percent. Those stats, more than the ones on offense, are what Pitino is harping on as he gears up for another run.