Kansas freshman Diallo cleared to play beginning Dec. 1

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LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) Cheick Diallo was sitting next to Bill Self, the coach he can now play for, and it was a close call as to whose smile was broader.

The freshman forward was cleared by the NCAA on Wednesday to play for No. 5 Kansas starting Dec. 1.

The announcement ended a monthlong investigation by the NCAA into the five-star prospect's education and background.

''I was in my (hotel) room and they was calling me to come to the media room,'' said the 6-foot-9 native of Mali who was on the trip with the Jayhawks to the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. ''I just came. I know something's going to happen. I was so excited to hear what they want to tell me. Just told me like you got cleared to play. I was so nervous, and I was happy at the same time. Everybody was texting me and calling me and all saying we've got great news. But even right now, I'm still - I'm not 100 percent. I'm so happy.''

In a statement Wednesday, the NCAA ultimately ruled Diallo had received a limited amount of impermissible benefits. The result is a five-game suspension. Diallo will be allowed to play Tuesday night against Loyola (Md.).

''I can't wait,'' he said after Kansas' 70-63 victory over No. 19 Vanderbilt in the Maui final. ''I can't wait. I'm ready.''

Diallo has been allowed to practice with Kansas, but he had been barred from playing in games while the NCAA examined coursework from Our Savior New American, a prep school in New York. His relationship with his guardian, Tidiane Drame, also was questioned.

The NCAA said Kansas officials provided new information last week, days after a scathing letter from athletic director Sheahon Zenger to NCAA vice president Oliver Luck surfaced. Included was an independent review of Diallo's coursework that helped the NCAA Eligibility Center render its decision.

''Our goal is to have eligibility decisions made prior to the start of a student-athlete's season,'' Luck said in the statement. ''However, this was a complicated case involving international transcripts and a high school that remains under review. Additionally, staff considered a complex set of circumstances regarding amateurism.''

The NCAA did not disclose what benefits Diallo received, nor did it respond to the critique that Zenger offered in his nearly six-page letter dated Nov. 10.

''I mean, it's been very tough. Sometimes I cannot even sleep,'' Diallo said. ''I'm only thinking about what I'm going to do.''

Kassoum Yakwe, another native of Mali and Diallo's high school teammate, also was cleared Wednesday to play at St. John's, which also happened to be in the Maui field. Yakwe was not on the trip.

''Kassoum. He's my best friend, of course,'' Diallo said. ''He was texting me like, `Do you have news?' I'd be like I'm trying to joke with him and I say no. I said, `No, I'm not going to play this year.' He said, `Wow, are you serious?' So every time I call him, he's my best friend. He's kind of like my brother.''

Diallo said he was upset with the whole process.

''I mean, I'm kind of mad because I've been suspended for five games. I don't even know what I did. I don't even know,'' he said. ''So that's the kind of thing. I still play to my game. I don't know why they said I was suspended for five games. I don't know what I've done. I don't know.''

Zenger wrote that Kansas officials found ''serious and legitimate misrepresentations attributed to NCAA process, unfounded verbal statements and inadequate professional standards'' during the investigation. Zenger also lambasted the pace of the inquiry and lamented the lack of cooperation the school received from the governing body's eligibility center.

Diallo's case became a touchpoint for discussing the role the NCAA has in examining the academic background of prospective student-athletes. Many have argued that schools are better-equipped to decide what coursework should count toward eligibility.

Then there's the on-the-court ramifications of the Diallo decision.

Even though he has only played the game for about five years, Diallo is considered one of the NBA's top prospects. His raw offense is offset by never-quit energy and some ferocious rebounding, two traits that could be key to the Jayhawks making another Final Four run.

Kansas fans certainly knew what was at stake. Whether the Jayhawks were playing on campus at Allen Fieldhouse or in the Lahaina Civic Center for the Maui Invitational, fans' chants of ''Free Diallo'' had become the soundtrack to the start of the season.