NCAA Tournament

Louisville’s Dieng learns quickly on court

Playing in the Final Four can be a life-changing experience for almost everyone who steps on the court.

Louisville center Gorgui Dieng hopes his participation in college basketball’s premier event can not only affect his life but help change the lives of youngsters in his native Senegal.

Dieng, a 6-11 sophomore, is grateful for those who steered him from the blacktop courts in Kebemer, Senegal, to a prep school in Huntington, W.Va., where he was discovered by Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who was actually scouting another player.

If Dieng can parlay a successful career at Louisville into an NBA career, he wants to use his resources to provide opportunities for other young basketball players back home.

“I have to take it on myself to think of my family, think of other people …” said Dieng, the youngest of eight children. “I have a blessed family … they don’t need the help. But if I make it one day, I will share with people who need it. Maybe my family might need it one day … I want to help everybody that I have a chance.

“There are people who need help where I am from. People brought me here so I got a chance to go to school and play basketball. So why can’t I do that for others? I’m going to do the best I can and try to do the same thing to give those kids in Africa a chance to come back here and go to school and play basketball.”

Dieng began playing basketball at age 5 after the first court was built in his neighborhood. By time he was 13, he had outgrown his first love, soccer, and enrolled in Seeds Academy, the only school that permitted students to attend class and play basketball.

That led to a spot on the Senegal national team, which he helped defeat Team USA with 16 points, 11 rebounds, five steals and the game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer in the 2009 Nike Global Challenge in Oregon. He then received an invitation to the NBA-run Basketball Without Borders clinic in South Africa and the opportunity to enroll at Huntington Prep in West Virginia.

Dieng was a 6-11, 187-pounder when Pitino first saw him.

“We had a commitment from a young man on his team … went to watch him play, and I wasn’t sure whether he was our type of basketball player,” Pitino said. But I really liked the center. We asked the coach about him … he’s just thin, but I thought his potential was unbelievable. He’s not like most of the kids I’ve seen from Africa, he’s got good footwork and a good finesse game.”

Pitino also appreciated the intelligence of Dieng, who speaks five languages, the latest being English.

“We started recruiting him in December, and he spoke very little English,” Pitino said, “and come February, he spoke really good English. I was going to be the Puerto Rican national coach, and I subscribed to ‘How to Learn to Speak Spanish.’ I got all the tapes, and as I was spending two hours a day trying to learn how to speak Spanish, I marveled at how well Gorgui did with English because I couldn’t get to his level.”

Dieng was a quick study on the basketball court, too. The first thing he did at Louisville was hit the weight room.

“It was a big transition for me,” he said. “When I came here, I had to learn a different culture, meet different people and learn the game. The way you play basketball here is very different … I’ve been playing basketball for a long time but never had a chance to lift weights, or do different things and saw how this game can change my life …”

“I wasn’t strong enough to play center, but Coach P changed my whole body, he changed my game. It started with defense. He said ‘Don’t worry about offense, just keep playing defense.’ ”

Dieng now packs 235 pounds on his once-frail frame and this year nearly averaged a double-double with 9.2 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. Utilizing his 7-foot-4 wingspan, he led the Big East and ranked eighth nationally with 3.1 blocked shots per game and a school-record total of 124.

Dieng saved his best for the NCAA West Regional, where he was chosen to the all-tournament team after blocking a career-best seven shots against top-seeded Michigan State while grabbing nine rebounds, making three steals and scoring five points, including the first three-pointer of his college career.

Today, he’ll go against Kentucky’s super freshman Anthony Davis, another elite shot blocker. In the regular-season matchup between the two Bluegrass State rivals, Davis scored 18 points, thanks to making 12 of 13 free throws in a 69-62 win in Lexington on New Year’s Eve. He also had 10 rebounds and six blocked shots in 27 minutes.

“He’s a great player,” said Dieng, who scored five points with five rebounds and six blocked shots in 33 minutes. “He’s long, athletic … we weren’t on the court at the same time … he was in foul trouble in the first half; I was in the second half, so we didn’t get to play a lot against each other.

“This game is important at every position. It’s not about me and Anthony Davis. It’s about everybody. It’s about both teams. We understand why we lost the game when we played them in December at their home court. We’ll learn from our mistakes.”