Men's Basketball

Control center: Cardinals’ defense thrives on Dieng’s court vision

Courtesy of Louisville Media Relations

Louisville's Gorgui Dieng is has added a expanded offensive game to his already stellar defensive reputation. The center is averaging 11.3 points per game this season after leading the Big East in blocks a year ago.

When Gorgui Dieng left Senegal, he was a wire-thin teenager who only knew a few words of English. He enrolled at the upstart Huntington Prep School in West Virginia in 2009 – a 19-year-old with minimal basketball experience.

Dieng didn’t come to West Virginia with polished fundamentals. Instead, the 6-foot-11 center made his mark with length and awareness, developing into a defensive force in the middle of the Huntington Prep defense.

“He was very raw and skinny,” Huntington Prep head coach Rob Fulford said. “But he had an extremely high basketball IQ.”

With his innate timing and awareness, Dieng swatted his way from the Sports For Education and Economic Development in Senegal Academy (SEEDS), to Huntington Prep, and finally to a scholarship offer from Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. Now a junior center with the Cardinals, Dieng has gained strength and refined his offensive game to become one of the most indispensible players on the No. 1 team in the country, which will play No. 6 Syracuse Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky.

Though his offensive contributions are increasing, Dieng still relishes the dirty work on the defensive end of the floor that got him to where he is today.

Since he started playing basketball, Dieng’s role has been straightforward: Rebound the ball, score when it’s available and make life difficult for anyone trying to convert around the rim.

That’s exactly what Fulford got when he recruited Dieng to Huntington Prep.

Dieng learned basketball during his time at SEEDS Academy. Dieng earned a spot on Team Senegal in the 2009 Nike Global Challenge in Oregon, where Fulford heard about his talent from contacts covering the event.

“He was a big time shot blocker and rebounder,” Fulford said. “His timing was very good and he had a knack for the ball.”

Dieng channeled those skills into 15.4 points, 12.6 rebounds and a staggering 7.2 blocks per game in his senior year at Huntington Prep. For his teammates, Dieng’s presence under the basket was reassuring. He was always the last line of protection to cover for their mistakes.

“You could tell right away that defense was going to be his thing because he was so athletic,” said Tyrel Edwards, Dieng’s Huntington Prep teammate. “As a forward, you always knew if your man got by you, he’d be around the basket to help out by making guys change shots or just getting a block.”

Dieng kept protecting the basket when he got to Louisville. As a freshman, he ranked third in the Big East with 1.9 blocks per game.

Dieng improved on that mark during his sophomore year, leading the Big East in blocks and finishing eighth nationally with 3.2 per game. Dieng directed a memorable onslaught against Michigan State’s offense in last season’s NCAA Tournament West Regional semifinal. He rejected seven shots as the Cardinals held the Spartans to 44 points in an upset victory to earn a trip the Elite Eight.

“He was very disruptive. He pulled off some great blocked shots,” Michigan State forward Draymond Green said after that game on March 22. “That’s what he does. That’s his strength.”

Dieng still wreaks havoc on opposing frontcourts in the post. His effect on the Cardinals was never more obvious than in the aftermath of a Nov. 23 victory over Missouri, when Dieng took a hard charge and fell to the ground, breaking his left wrist.

He was initially ruled out for four to six weeks, as Louisville faced then-No. 5 Duke the day after Missouri. The Blue Devils won 76-71 in Dieng’s first game out. They out-blocked the Cardinals 6-1. It remains Louisville’s only loss of the season.

Dieng missed seven games, working back into the lineup for a Dec. 29 game against in-state rival Kentucky.

Dieng’s timing was off because of his absence. He still labored with a slim cardinal-red cast on his wrist.

For Pitino, a flawed Dieng was more effective than his alternatives at center.

“Even coming off a month layoff he’s still a lot better than what we have at that position mainly because he communicates so well,” Pitino said at a press conference before the Kentucky game. “He’s smarter than everybody. It’s not just the physical part, but he talks constantly. He tells people where to go. He picks up the scouting report perfectly.”

Dieng only took four shots against Kentucky and found himself deep in foul trouble. Dieng made big plays, though, none more important than his ranging block on a 3-point attempt by Kentucky’s Archie Goodwin with one minute left in regulation as Louisville held on for an 80-77 victory.

In his four games since, Dieng has asserted himself offensively. He has averaged 11.3 points (compared to a 9.2 average for the season), including a 16-point performance in a victory against Seton Hall Jan. 9.

Even with the offensive explosiveness the Cardinals show in spurts, Louisville’s stifling defense has carried it for most of the season. The Cardinals boast the second-best turnover differential in the nation, thanks to the fast hands of guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith.

When opponents navigate their way through the swarming quickness of Louisville’s backcourt, they find themselves trying to overcome the bulked-up 6-foot-11, 245-pound Dieng.

Though he’s found a 15-foot jump shot and throws down a definitive dunk when he gets the chance, Dieng flourishes most when he’s playing defense around the basket.

That’s the responsibility he’s used to. The duty he most likes to perform.

“I always say I don’t care if I score or not,” Dieng said before Louisville’s dominating win over South Florida Friday. “I just want to do my role.”

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