Late Sunday evening, in the hours after the Kansas men’s basketball team had left a weekend practice at Allen Fieldhouse, Cheick Diallo pulled out his cell phone and tapped out a text message for his head coach.
For months, this had become a nightly routine. As Diallo, a 6-foot-9 freshman, waited for an update on his status from the NCAA Eligibility Center, he took solace in a nightly correspondence with Bill Self. On most nights, Diallo says, he would send a simple four-word message: “Hey Coach, what’s up?”
Self knew exactly what Diallo was asking, knew that the centerpiece of his recruiting class was hurting, and for close to three months, he had no answer. But Diallo’s eligibility saga is over now. After missing the first three weeks of the season, after completing an NCAA-mandated five-game suspension for receiving “extra benefits,” Diallo will make his college debut for No. 4 Kansas, 4-1, on Tuesday night, taking the floor against Loyola (Md.), 1-5, inside Allen Fieldhouse.
This didn’t stop Diallo from texting Self once more on Sunday night. This time, he had another question:
“He wanted to know how he practiced,” Self says. “I said, ‘Not any good at all, you got to get better.’ No, he was great yesterday in practice. Obviously, guys like positive enforcement.”
Sitting inside the Allen Fieldhouse media room on Monday, Diallo conceded this was true. He’s always been something of a people-pleaser, he says, all the way back to his childhood in Mali. He’s always been a kid who was not afraid to ask questions.
“I just want to prove like, anything he want me to do,” Diallo says. “I just ask him: ‘What do you want me to do? Do you want to me to get a rebound like that? Do want to me to score like that?’ I just want to him ask him every day. That’s why I like to ask him. I don’t know why. But I just keep asking him.”
If the correspondence continues for the next four months, Self will hardly complain. As the Jayhawks prepare to turn the calendar to December, Diallo sits as a linchpin member of a top-five team, a big man who could turn the Jayhawks into a bonafide NCAA title favorite. Self is clear that Diallo will not be a savior. On most nights, he will not lead the Jayhawks in scoring. His offensive game is still quite raw. And from a pure talent standpoint — and, well, height, too — he is no Joel Embiid, the former Kansas center who grew into a top-three pick. But as an athletic 6-foot-9 big man, Diallo could be an antidote for some of Kansas’ biggest flaws in the frontcourt.
“Absolutely,” Self says, “Yeah. … I envision Cheick kind of being a guy that brought something that we did not have last year.”
In the next breath, Self rattles off those qualities: Diallo can be a rim-protector, he says, he can provide energy. He can be a physical presence inside, opposite power forward Perry Ellis.
“He’s not physical in stature,” Self says. “But he can be an intimidating presence.”
Self says Diallo is the type of player that can dominate a game while scoring six points, and when asked what he does best, Diallo offers his own self-evaluation, a scouting report that comes after spending a month adjusting to the college game during practices.
“Right now,” Diallo says, “rebound, block shots, run the floor, dunking on people.”
Diallo is still mastering the finer parts of the English language. Self will point out that his English is probably better than your French. But some things don’t need a translation, like the idea that Diallo can be a role player for Kansas and still be exactly what the Jayhawks need inside.
“Of course, I have to score,” Diallo says. “But I just got to make my team good. Not like, ‘Oh, Cheick make 40 points, Cheick make 20 points.’ No, I’m not going to do that. I just want to do whatever to make my team look good.”
If Diallo is a rim protector on defense and a reliable finisher on offense, that could be enough. A year ago, the Jayhawks struggled in both departments, lacking a true low-post defender for perhaps the first time in the Self era. When Self and assistant coach Norm Roberts signed Diallo out of Our Savior New American School in Centereach, N.Y., they saw a prospect that possessed both qualities. Diallo, who had immigrated to the United States from Mali during his freshman year of high school, developed into a McDonald’s All-American forward and a top-five recruit. But for now, Self is asking media and fans alike to temper their expectations.
“He’s still young,” junior guard Wayne Selden said Monday. “People might expect a lot out of him. But he’s still an 18-year-old kid, not really used to the college game. So that’s what I want to say … you got to be patient with him.”
For the moment, the Jayhawks can afford to be patient. Beginning Tuesday, they enter a particularly soft portion of the non-conference schedule, with home games against Loyola, Harvard and Holy Cross. The eight-day stretch could offer Self time to sort through a crowded frontcourt that now features six players with an argument for playing time. The list includes veteran big men Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucas and Hunter Mickelson, and Self says Diallo will have to work his way into the rotation.
“It’s not like there’s just 30 minutes a game to give somebody,” Self says. “He’s going to have to earn it like everybody else is going to have to earn it. But he does give us an element that, I think by January or February, could be pretty important down the stretch.”
In the hours after he was cleared last Wednesday, Diallo called home to Mali and revealed the news to his father, Mamadou. They spoke in their native language, and in some ways, Diallo says, it was difficult to translate why his college basketball career had been thrown into jeopardy.
“It was hard to explain,” Diallo says.
That night, Diallo sat inside a gym in Lahaina, Hawaii, and watched his teammates win the Maui Invitational over Vanderbilt. A few hours later, he lay in bed, looking at the ceiling. He was finally eligible to play, and in six days, he would make his debut. Once again, he couldn’t sleep.
“I was up all night,” Diallo says. “I can’t even sleep. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I’m going to play this year?’ It’s kind of like I’m dreaming.”