WHEN HE ARRIVED IN KENTUCKY FROM SENEGAL BY WAY OF WEST VIRGINIA THREE YEARS AGO, LOUISVILLE'S 6' 11" JUNIOR CENTER, GORGUI DIENG (pronounced GOR-gee Jeng), didn't know how to jump. He didn't have a clue about defense, and his English, his fifth language, was a work in progress. Now? He has Louisville's single-season blocks record (128, in 2011--12); a Big East Defensive Player of the Year award; a command of English that, according to coach Rick Pitino, is "better than a lot of the other guys on my team"; and an NCAA championship, thanks in large part to his skilled presence in the paint. Jumping aside, the man knows how to make a leap.
Dieng first grabbed national attention last year during the Cardinals' 57--44 Sweet 16 upset of No. 1 seed Michigan State, when he tied a career-high seven blocks to go with nine rebounds, three steals and five points, including the first three-pointer of his career. After Louisville fell to Kentucky 69--61 in the semifinals, Dieng spent the off-season polishing the rough edges of his game. One particular focus: his midrange jump shot, which was a critical weapon in the Cardinals' manhandling of Oregon and their obliteration of Duke in the Midwest region this season.
"The shot isn't just good, it's great," says Pitino. "If he's going to master something, he wants to be great at it."
Against Duke in the Elite Eight, the Cardinals pulled away when they started running Dieng off screens to force the Blue Devils' big men to choose between challenging him 15 feet out and keeping guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith out of the lane. Tough choice: In one second-half spurt on his way to 14 points (on 6-of-8 shooting), 11 rebounds, four blocks and two steals, Dieng made a 15-footer, grabbed a defensive rebound, made another 15-footer and blocked a Seth Curry layup. Then he snatched two more rebounds (one off his own errant free throw) and tipped in a Montrezl Harrell miss. Dieng's six points, four boards and a block in two minutes of play stretched Louisville's margin from nine to 15 and put Duke in a hole too deep to climb out of.
Impressed, Blue Devils coach Mike Kryzyzewski (sounding not unlike Pitino) said, "Dieng has become a great player. Not a good one, a great player."
DIENG'S PATH TO SUCH LOFTY PRAISE BEGAN IN HIS HOMETOWN of Kebemer, Senegal, where he was the seventh of eight children of mother Seynabou and father Momar—a teacher turned legislator who was far more interested in education than basketball, the game that Gorgui started playing casually at age five. "If you talk to my dad about basketball, he gets annoyed," says Dieng, who was also a soccer midfielder growing up. "All he cares about is how I do in school."
As a promising prospect in academics and athletics, Dieng attended high school at the SEEDS (Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal) Academy started by then Dallas Mavericks personnel director Amadou Gallo Fall in 2007, a school in Thies that places students in U.S. prep schools. Dieng landed at Huntington Prep in West Virginia, where he played for one year for coach Rob Fulford. "Even though he hadn't been playing basketball for very long, he knew the game," Fulford says. "He had a feel. His footwork was so good he led our defensive slide drills, and we had no problem switching him to [defend against] the other team's point guard."
Pitino and then assistant Walter McCarty were scouting another player when they saw Dieng in a game for Huntington Prep. Pitino was dazzled by Dieng's height, his agility and his 7' 4" wingspan. "He's weak," Pitino told McCarty, "but his potential is unbelievable." McCarty persuaded Dieng to come to Louisville, where he is majoring in sports administration.
As a freshman Dieng told Pitino his goal was to reach the NBA. In that case, the coach told him, "I'm going to drive you like you've never been driven before," recalls Pitino. "He said, 'What do you mean by drive?' And I said, 'You're going to see.' "