College Basketball Nation: Jack Cooley


NEW YORK -- A quick look at the Louisville Cardinals' 69-57 victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to advance to the Big East tournament finals.

What it means: Louisville is one victory away from winning the Big East tournament for the second year in a row. Notre Dame was eliminated in the semifinals for the fourth consecutive year.

The No. 4-ranked Cardinals (28-5) have now won nine straight games since losing to the Fighting Irish in that five-overtime classic back on Feb. 9. If Louisville wins Saturday, it almost certainly will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Notre Dame (25-9), ranked No. 24, heads home disappointed, but helped its cause by upsetting No. 12 Marquette in the quarterfinals Thursday. The Fighting Irish were projected to receive a No. 6 seed in the Big Dance in the latest edition of ESPN.com's Bracketology.

This was also Notre Dame's final game as a member of the Big East. The Fighting Irish will play in the ACC next season. Louisville will join them the following season.

The turning point: Peyton Siva nailed a 3-pointer on the very first possession of the game, Louisville went ahead by as many as seven, and led almost the entire first half. Notre Dame briefly tied the game at 22, on a Garrick Sherman bucket with 6:03 remaining. But the Cardinals outscored the Fighting Irish 10-3 the rest of the way. Luke Hancock drilled a trey from the corner before the buzzer, giving Louisville a 32-25 halftime lead.

Notre Dame drew within three points on three separate occasions early in the second half. And trailing 45-41 with 6:58 remaining, Eric Atkins missed the front end of a 1-and-1, with a chance to cut the lead to two. The Fighting Irish drew no closer. The dagger was another Hancock 3-pointer with 4:09 left, pushing the lead to double digits for the first time, 55-44. Louisville put the game away from there.

Star watch: Russ Smith, who had 28 points in Louisville's quarterfinal win over Villanova, scored 20 more on Friday to lead the Cardinals. Siva added 12, and he also had 6 assists and 7 steals. Gorgui Dieng had 8 points, 12 rebound and 4 blocked shots.

Jack Cooley and Jerian Grant scored 14 points apiece for Notre Dame.

Number crunch: Notre Dame committed 16 turnovers -- nine fewer than Villanova committed against Louisville on Thursday. But the Fighting Irish shot just 36.5 percent from the field (19-for-52), while Louisville shot 45.5 percent (25-for-55). It's the sixth consecutive contest the Cardinals have held their opponent under 40 percent. Louisville, arguably the best defensive team in the country, is on top of its game.

What's next: The Cardinals, the No. 2 seed in this tournament, will play No. 5 seed Syracuse in the title game. Tip-off is at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday.

The Fighting Irish head back to South Bend and start preparing for the Big Dance.

 

NEW YORK -- A quick look at sixth-seeded Notre Dame's 69-61 victory over No. 11-seed Rutgers on Wednesday night in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.

What it means: No. 24 Notre Dame is moving on to the quarterfinals in its final Big East tournament before heading to the ACC next season. Rutgers, soon to be a member of the Big Ten, makes an early exit as usual.

Notre Dame (24-8) is already a lock for the NCAA tournament. Rutgers (15-16) has now missed the NCAA tournament for 22 seasons in a row.

The turning point: Notre Dame jumped in front early and dominated the first 20 minutes, going ahead 31-15 on a Tom Knight layup with 2:48 remaining in the first half. Rutgers' Myles Mack scored a bucket with one second left to pull the Scarlet Knights within 33-19 at intermission. Rutgers shot just 8-for-27 in the first half (29.6 percent), 1-for-8 from 3-point range.

The second half began differently, with the Scarlet Knights scoring nine consecutive points to get within 33-28. But then back-to-back 3-pointers by Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton expanded the lead back to double digits, 39-28. Rutgers again closed to within 41-36, but Connaughton answered with another 3-ball. A few minutes later, Rutgers closed to within 49-43 and Connaughton drained another triple -- see a pattern here? The Scarlet Knights kept coming, but the Fighting Irish had an answer every time.

Star watch: Connaughton finished with a game-high 21 points for Notre Dame, shooting 7-for-10 from the field and 6-for-8 from beyond the arc. Knight had 18 points and nine rebounds. Star forward Jack Cooley scored just two points, shooting 1-for-6 from the floor.

For Rutgers, senior forward Austin Johnson scored a career-high 18 points -- with 15 coming after halftime. Mack also scored 18 points. Forward Wally Judge, who scored a season-high 20 in the Scarlet Knights' win over DePaul on Tuesday, had just two points on Wednesday.

Number crunch: Notre Dame shot 10-for-17 from beyond the arc (58.8 percent), while Rutgers was just 4-for-15 (26.7 percent). Notre Dame shot 15-for-19 from the foul line (78.9 percent), while Rutgers was just 5-for-11 (45.5 percent).

What's next: Notre Dame will play No. 3 seed Marquette on Thursday at approximately 9:30 p.m.

Rutgers heads home to Piscataway, N.J., and looks forward to next season.
Don’t change the channel. Ever.

In this sport, one last-minute switch could cost you. You might miss something epic, monumental. A classic.

I nearly did. Notre Dame had lost after all. Or so I thought. We all thought.

[+] EnlargeJerian Grant
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsA 12-point flurry in the final minute by Jerian Grant, right, got Notre Dame into OT with Louisville.
Right as I grabbed the remote, though, Fighting Irish wing Jerian Grant grabbed his cape.

After going 0-for-6 from the field up to that point, he scored 12 points in the final 47 seconds of regulation. Beast mode.

So a first overtime. And then another. And another. And another. And another.

The first five-overtime game in college basketball in four years. Notre Dame was down by eight points with 50 seconds to play and yet the Irish won 104-101 in five overtimes.

My observation? Wow. That’s my observation. Should be yours, too.

Two teams battled and battled and battled. They fouled out. Eight of them in fact. Notre Dame lost Jack Cooley and Grant. Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng eventually fouled out for Louisville.

Reserves who hadn’t played had to play. Grab the media guide. “Who’s that guy?” Garrick Sherman isn't a complete unknown, but he had scored just six combined points in ND's last five games. He didn't play a second in regulation tonight, but still finished with 17 points and 6 rebounds. That's about all you need to know about this one.

But just in case you want some more fun facts:

  • Louisville and Notre Dame combined to shoot 97 free throws (48 for UL and 49 for ND).
  • The teams had the same amount of 3-point attempts (25) and offensive boards (19).
  • The two teams took a total of 158 shots and 10 players scored in double figures.
  • It was the longest game in Big East regular-season history.
  • Eight players fouled out, but six players played 50-plus minutes.

I’m excited, thrilled and exhausted. I can’t imagine how the combatants in both locker rooms feel right now.

Both groups deserve kudos because we all won.

Some other observations from Saturday night’s games:

  1. Bruce Weber deserves more buzz as a national coach of the year candidate. I remember Weber’s final news conference at Illinois. His former team had just lost in the Big Ten tournament. Weber stood among a fleet of reporters and tried to hold back tears. He was unsuccessful. It was certainly one of the most emotional postgame press events I’ve ever attended. He was terminated a few days later. But how do you like Bruce Weber now? In a matter of months, he’s gone from the guy who couldn’t elevate the Fighting Illini to a level that appeased administrators and supporters to a man who’s guided Kansas State to first place (8-2) in the Big 12. The No. 13 Wildcats’ 79-70 victory was a gritty win -- their fourth in a row -- against an Iowa State squad that’s played its way into the at-large conversation. The Cyclones looked like a tourney team (49 percent from the field, 44 percent from behind the 3-point line). But the Wildcats played like champs, hours after Kansas suffered its third consecutive loss. They forced 18 turnovers and went 9-for-18 from beyond the arc. Rodney McGruder and Angel Rodriguez combined to score 42 points in the perfect setup for Monday’s rivalry game at Kansas.
  2. Steven Adams’ development is the most important development in the Big East race. I’m not sure we solved anything within the Big East on Saturday. We know that the conference has a bunch of good teams. Notre Dame and Louisville settled things in five overtimes. Marquette beat DePaul. Georgetown defeated Rutgers. But there’s not much separation at the top. With weeks remaining in the regular season, I wouldn’t be surprised if three or four squads finished with the title. That’s why I think Adams’ offensive development could be a major factor in the title hunt. On Saturday, Pittsburgh's freshman 7-footer finished with 13 points and four blocks. He was an offensive and defensive presence for the No. 23 Panthers, who held No. 17 Cincy to a 30.8 percent clip in a 62-52 win. In a league with a group of teams that are so close to one another, Adams' offensive growth is a factor. Pitt is good enough to win the rest of its games, especially with its final three matchups against squads (Villanova, South Florida and DePaul) that have combined to win eight conference games.
  3. I don’t trust New Mexico. The Lobos are ranked 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. They’re second in the Mountain West in scoring defense (59.2 points per game). They have wins over Cincy, UNLV and Connecticut. But they’re also very unpredictable. They scored just 23 points in the first half of a 64-55 road loss to UNLV. The loss wasn’t that surprising given the Runnin’ Rebels’ diminished hopes of a MWC title. They were hungry. But every time I watch the Lobos, I see a different team. One night, I watch a program that justifies its first-place standing in the league. The next night, they seem disinterested. With seven or eight games left for the teams in the conference, I still don’t have a favorite. But I think the Lobos have the most complete squad, the team that should win it. But their inconsistent effort and execution makes it hard to latch onto that notion.
  4. Michigan State finally looks like a Tom Izzo team. Road wins are scarce, even among the top 25. So the Spartans’ 78-65 victory at Purdue wasn’t insignificant. But Michigan State was tough in a hostile venue. And it held on. When I saw MSU in Minneapolis on Dec. 31, the Spartans just didn’t display the toughness that I’d witnessed with past Izzo teams. They just weren’t feisty enough. I had my doubts. But they’ve matured. The veterans have stepped up. And they’re playing the physical style that’s fueled past success within the program. With that attitude, these Spartans can win the Big Ten championship.
  5. What’s happening in the Missouri Valley? Good question. Remember when No. 16 Creighton looked like the favorite for the conference title? Well on Saturday, the Bluejays lost 75-72 at home to Illinois State. The same Illinois State team that lost its first six MVC games. Indiana State beat Southern Illinois by one. Wichita State snapped a three-game losing streak with a 29-point win over Missouri State. Wichita State, Indiana State and Creighton are locked in a three-way tie for first place (each have 9-4 MVC records). Another wacky weekend for this league. Wow.


SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A quick reaction to Notre Dame's five-overtime, 104-101 victory over Louisville on Saturday night, the longest regular-season game in Big East history:

Overview: Five overtimes? Of course.

In a season filled with constant upsets and countless endings as strange as they are thrilling, the Irish victory over Louisville was undoubtedly the strangest -- and the most exciting.

For the first 39 minutes, it was utterly predictable. For the final minute of regulation, and the five overtimes that followed, it was as crazy as anything we've seen since Connecticut and Syracuse played six OTs in the 2009 Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. (In fact, it was the first college basketball game to go over five overtimes since that night in New York.)

This being college basketball in 2013, even the ugliest and least-appealing games can end with utter mind-blowing surprise, and that's also what we got Saturday night. Notre Dame looked cooked with as few as 50 seconds left, but Irish guard Jerian Grant hit a trio of deep 3-pointers, Louisville missed a few free throws, and when Grant drove to the basket to make a game-tying three-point play, all of a sudden the game was tied at 60. And for the fifth time in the last six meetings ... overtime.

Just how crazy was this? Notre Dame took 39 minutes and 10 seconds to score 48 points. It took 29 seconds to score 12. All 12 were scored by Grant, who was 0-for-6 from the field up to that point.

Nor did the Irish fade in overtime -- all five overtimes, that is -- even as foul problems took stars Jack Cooley and Grant and eventually pretty much everyone else off the floor. The Irish clamped down on the defensive end and got to the line frequently to keep the Cardinals from opening another lead wider than a possession.

Louisville's Russ Smith had a chance to win the game at the end of the first OT, but the kid Cardinals coach Rick Pitino nicknamed "Russdiculous" took one of the most nickname-worthy shots of his career, waiting until just a few seconds remained before launching a baffling 26-footer that clanged off the glass and left his teammates no time to rebound it. He could have ended the second overtime, too, and he did his part, hitting two key free throws in the final seconds. He could have ended the fourth -- he shot the ball with a dead shot clock and a one-on-three fast break for no other reason than the fact that he's Russ Smith.

Somehow, the star of overtime was Garrick Sherman, who didn't even play in four of Notre Dame's previous six games. His rebounding and post buckets were the most important of the game, seemingly over and over again. His tip-in sent us to the fifth overtime. After not playing a second in regulation, Sherman finished with 17 points on 7-of-10 from the field.

Mercifully, that's where it ended. Down three, Smith took another long 3, and it ended. It actually ended.

Turning point: Pretty much everything that happened from the final minute onward. There's not a whole lot more I can tell you than that.

Star of the game: For as ugly as Louisville's offense was -- and as wild as things got throughout the various bonus times -- the one consistent factor was the interior scoring of Cardinals forward Chane Behanan. His 30 points came on 13-of-20 from the field with added 14 rebounds, and he was really the calmest go-to option Louisville had throughout. The Cardinals didn't win, but Behanan's performance was by far Saturday's best.

Key stat: Notre Dame entered the final minute of regulation with 48 points. It ended regulation with 60. It ended the game with 104. Your guess is as good as mine.

Up next: Louisville gets a return home and bit of a rest before a tricky and talented St. John's team comes to town Thursday, while Notre Dame will have a nice opportunity to get that offense clicking again when lowly DePaul arrives Wednesday.
 

Stats in the Paint : Louisville at Notre Dame

February, 8, 2013
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Louisville graphESPN Stats & InformationIn Big East play, Louisville has scored nearly 60 percent of its transition points off turnovers.
Expect turnovers to be a big factor Saturday in South Bend. Notre Dame averages 10.4 turnovers per game, the fewest in the Big East and seventh fewest in the nation. The Fighting Irish are allowing a Big East-low 10.0 points per game off turnovers and have not given up more than 20 such points in a single game. Compare that to the Louisville Cardinals, who average 23.7 points per game off turnovers, the most by any "big six" conference school.

Over the past two seasons Louisville is 21-0 if it scores at least 24 points off turnovers, including 13-0 this season.

In transition, no one is better in the Big East than Louisville’s Russ Smith. He averages 6.1 transition points per game, the most in the Big East and sixth most in the nation.

However, Notre Dame’s Jack Cooley might be able to negate Louisville’s transition game. Cooley grabs 20.0 percent of Notre Dame’s missed shots while he’s on the floor, tied for the highest offensive rebounding percentage in the nation. Cooley has also scored the second most points on put backs in the nation (see chart).

No. 3 Michigan at Wisconsin

As good as Notre Dame is at taking care of the ball, the Irish aren’t as good as Wisconsin (9.2) and Michigan (9.4), who are first and second, respectively, in fewest turnovers per game. The only other Division I team that turns the ball over fewer than 10 times per game is Cal Poly (9.5).

Assuming both teams take care of the ball, the game will come down to Michigan’s offense against Wisconsin’s defense. The Wolverines lead the nation in offensive efficiency, scoring 121.5 points per 100 possessions. Michigan has scored less than 110 points per 100 possessions in two games this season -- and those were their two losses at Indiana and at Ohio State.

Wisconsin allows 92.3 points per 100 possessions in conference games, which is the best defensive efficiency in the Big Ten. Overall, the Badgers are 2-5 this season when they allow more than a point per possession.

No. 5 Kansas at Oklahoma

The Jayhawks have lost two straight, but haven’t lost three in a row since February of 2005. Good news for Bill Self’s squad is that Oklahoma has lost 10 straight game against opponents ranked in the top five.

Jeff Withey averages 4.2 blocks per game, third most in the nation. Out of Withey’s 92 blocks 82 have been kept inbounds (89.1 percent). Kansas has recovered 70 of those blocks and converted them into 66 points.
Every season, there has usually been one. Whether the player has ended up winning the award or comes close, at least one player from a mid-major league usually enters the player-of-the-year conversation by the middle of the season.

Some, such as BYU’s Jimmer Fredette two years ago, have ended up leading the poll at the end of the year and sweeping the four big player-of-the-year awards. Others, such as Stephen Curry from Davidson in 2008-09, come close.

Creighton junior Doug McDermott was in the conversation for player of the year last season, finishing fourth behind Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson and Draymond Green. Now, in the second in-season poll of the 2012-13 basketball season, McDermott has ascended to the top spot of our Player of the Year poll, just ahead of Michigan sophomore Trey Burke.

In the five-year history of the poll, the only season in which a non-BCS candidate did not garner serious consideration was in 2009-10, when Fredette made a late charge and showed up way down on the list during the final poll.

This season, two non-BCS players are receiving major attention in McDermott and UNLV freshman Anthony Bennett; a third, Nate Wolters from South Dakota State, is also receiving a vote.

McDermott, who was third two weeks ago in the initial in-season POY poll, leapt over Burke and the leader of the first poll, Duke senior Mason Plumlee, to take the lead.

There is a long way to go, though, between now and when awards ballots start to come due in March. McDermott and Burke, as you’ll see below, are not separated by much. Plumlee is still hanging around, and the players below them could all make a charge in this balanced race.

A common thread among the non-BCS candidates is usually making some noise the year before -- either in the NCAA tournament, in the case of Curry, or through a high-scoring regular season the year before, in the cases of Fredette and now McDermott.

For those who don’t remember, the poll consists of actual voters from the four major player-of-the-year awards -- the Wooden, Naismith, Associated Press and Robertson -- and each voter is asked to give his top three vote-getters, anonymously. A first-place vote garners three points, a second-place vote two points and a third-place vote one point.

Notes
  • A note on the polling: I poll voters from every region, but the poll is unfortunately at the mercy of those pollsters who respond, hence the lack of response from the Far West region. The majority of potential pollsters from the Far West -- and even Southwest -- regions have not responded at the same clip as those in other regions. Understand, too, that national writers and broadcasters are listed in the states in which they live, not as national writers, which could help explain some of the regions being more populated than others. That said, the poll is going to make a concerted effort for more West Coast pollsters in two weeks when the third poll is released.
  • The nine players are an all-time low for the poll, but that is actually not so surprising considering the way the race has been shaping up. There is no one true breakaway candidate, but rather a logjam of three candidates hanging out at the top. This probably means fewer players will get one or two votes since those top candidates -- with guys such as Carter-Williams, McLemore and Zeller hanging around, too -- are starting to separate themselves.
  • The nine players are from seven different conferences -- the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Missouri Valley, Mountain West and Summit.
  • McDermott and Burke essentially split regions, with the Creighton forward winning the northeastern part of the country, Burke taking the South and the middle of the nation and McDermott seeing an advantage out west. In the first poll, Plumlee led every region but the Far West (McDermott) and Midwest (Burke).
  • A host of players -- Kansas senior Jeff Withey, Santa Clara senior Kevin Foster, Notre Dame senior Jack Cooley, UNC sophomore James Michael McAdoo, UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad and Bucknell senior Mike Muscala all departed from the last poll. The only new addition to the poll was Syracuse sophomore Michael Carter-Williams.
  • Votes were due by 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

Numbers To Know: Thursday recap

November, 30, 2012
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Player of the Night – Jack Cooley
Cooley notched his third straight double-double in the Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s 64-50 win over the Kentucky Wildcats. The Irish improved to 4-31 against ranked Kentucky squads.

Going up against one of the five tallest teams in the country, Cooley led all players with 11 rebounds. That includes six offensive boards, which led to eight second-chance points.

Freshman of the Night – Michael Frazier II
Frazier broke out in the Florida Gators' 82-49 drubbing of the Marquette Golden Eagles. The freshman scored 12 of his career-high 17 points in the first half. He came into the game averaging just 3.4 points per game.

It was the most points for a Florida freshman off the bench since Erving Walker in 2009.

Scorer of the Night – T.J. Price
Price was the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers' only player in double figures in a 65-54 road win over the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks. The sophomore finished with a career-high 30 points, as the rest of the starting lineup combined for only 16. Price accounted for 11 of his team’s first 13 points.

Ugly Stat Line Part I – Seton Hall
The Seton Hall Pirates committed 26 turnovers in a 72-67 loss to the LSU Tigers. That’s the most turnovers in a game for the Pirates since 2001, and the most LSU has forced since 2003.

Ugliest of all is when the bulk of those turnovers occurred. Seton Hall led 48-34 before committing 17 turnovers in the final 16 minutes of the game. That includes one stretch of four turnovers in a minute.

Ugly Stat Line Part II – Marquette
Marquette never led in its 82-49 loss to Florida. The Golden Eagles were held below 50 points for the first time since 2007. It was Marquette’s worst non-conference loss since a 33-point blowout by the Kansas Jayhawks in 2003.


SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Quick thoughts from Notre Dame's 64-50 victory over No. 8 Kentucky, the program's fourth straight win over a top-10 team:

Overview: For the first five minutes, as UK's highly touted young players carved up Notre Dame's less touted veterans, it appeared as if sheer talent might be enough to carry this group through its first true road test as a team. That notion ended quickly and without ceremony. The Irish turned their 3-for-8 shooting in the first five minutes into a tidy 15-for-27 first half, working for good shots and making most of them, all the while containing Kentucky on the other end of the floor.

By the time the half was over, ND led 36-25, and UK looked a bit lost, content to take bad shots, unable to get free on its basic dribble actions, forcing wild shots in a congested lane. The story didn't change in the second half. The Irish opened a 53-35 lead with 11 minutes, 35 seconds remaining thanks to a clock-countdown heave of a 3 from ND guard Jerian Grant. With no offensive burst left in them, and facing a Notre Dame coach whose teams happen to specialize in extending possessions and burning clock, the young Wildcats were essentially done.

Turning point: It would be tempting to look at Alex Poythress' second foul, at the 14:38 mark, when UK held a 12-6 lead, as the game's obvious turning point. It would also be facile. Poythress' absence was noticeable, no doubt, but Notre Dame was simply better for more of the game, including when Poythress was involved. Everything the Irish wanted to do -- pick-and-rolls with Jack Cooley and Eric Atkins, corner 3s for Grant and Cameron Biedscheid -- they did, while Kentucky failed to find anything remotely easy on the other end.

Key player: Atkins. Grant hit big shots, as did Biedscheid, and Cooley led the way on the boards (as usual), but Atkins was the steadiest and most efficient presence for the Irish. He shot 7-of-11 from the field, dicing UK's defense along the way.

Key stat: Kentucky shot 19-of-47 from the field (a season-low 40.4 percent. The Irish were good offensively, and they deserve plenty of credit for physical play on the offensive end, but the obvious key is UK just didn't make any shots. (This was true even of good post moves for Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein. UK has some things to work on, but it won't shoot as badly as this again for a while.)

Miscellany: There was a particularly weird moment in the second half when UK guard Julius Mays dribbled the ball off Noel's foot. It immediately went out of bounds ... but no one on the floor but Mays noticed. He stood there, angry, then realized he had a chance to sneak the ball back into play. Notre Dame fans freaked out, the refs turned and saw the play and the ball was called dead. Then the ref reprimanded an ND cheerleader, apparently for yelling at him during the play. It was a thoroughly unusual 30 seconds of basketball. ... In the second half, veteran Irish forward Scott Martin made a nice step-back move on Cauley-Stein that caused the UK forward to turn all the way around. By the time Cauley-Stein recovered, Martin had already sunk his 3-pointer. So much for Notre Dame as the boring utilitarian, huh? ... Ryan Harrow, Kentucky's mysteriously absent guard, shaved his flat-top and got minutes, though they were limited, and he was largely ineffective. Harrow's limits have forced Archie Goodwin into the point guard role, and while Goodwin has handled the transition well to date, he did not look at all comfortable in the Joyce Center. ... In the arena, Notre Dame's black-on-black-on-black uniforms looked pretty awesome. Judging from my Twitter feed, they were not so warmly received on TV. ... According to ESPN Stats & Info, UK's 50 points were its fewest-ever under Calipari and the fourth-fewest of any Kentucky game in the past 15 years. The 14-point loss was also the second-most lopsided in the Calipari era.

What's next: Notre Dame has some time off before a Dec. 8 home game against Brown followed by a Dec. 15 matchup with Purdue. Kentucky, on the other hand, has exactly two days to cure what ails it, as a talented but struggling Baylor team comes to Rupp Arena on Saturday.

Coaches vs. Cancer Primer

November, 16, 2012
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An interesting doubleheader combo of four teams you wouldn’t normally put together but also four teams that are sort of on the game’s fringe right now. Notre Dame is ranked, Saint Joseph’s was picked to win the Atlantic 10. Still none of these teams are especially known commodities or even March locks. For all, it’s a good chance to get some big market love and perhaps more important, big nonconference win.

The basics: Nov. 16-17, Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY

The set matchups: BYU vs. Florida State, 7 p.m. ET: Notre Dame vs. Saint Joseph’s, 9:30 p.m.

FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

[+] EnlargeMichael Snaer
Melina Vastola/US PresswireFlorida State's Michael Snaer needs to provide senior leadership for the Seminoles.
Michael Snaer, Florida State: The senior called himself the nation’s best shooting guard this summer. He needs to play like it if the Seminoles are going to win this thing. Arguably the best player in the field, Snaer has worked on establishing his leadership skills along with his scoring for a young FSU team.

Langston Galloway, Saint Joseph’s: The guard was terrific on both ends of the floor for the Hawks in the season-opening walkover against Yale. He is the team’s cog, both the leader and their most potent scorer.

Jack Cooley, Notre Dame: The Notre Dame big man will have his hands full with St. Joe’s C.J. Aiken but then again, Cooley has had his hands full plenty in his career and never wavered. Cooley is as tough as he is efficient.

Brandon Davies, BYU: Davies got off to a rather nice start for BYU, scoring 28 in the team’s opener against Georgia State. But things came easy in that game -- at one point the Cougars led 31-2 -- and that won’t be the case here. BYU will need Davies to score but be disciplined against Florida State.

Matt Carlino, BYU: The Cougars, thanks to Davies, have the inside part of the game locked up. To be successful, they need to get the outside in order. That’s where Carlino, tabbed with the next Jimmer albatross as a freshman, comes in. He’s got the scoring and shooting ability to spread the offense and make BYU a legit threat.

FIVE BIG QUESTIONS

Was Florida State’s loss to South Alabama an aberration or a sign of trouble?

The defending ACC champions played a sloppy game offensively, committing 17 turnovers, and a lousy game defensively, allowing South Alabama to connect on 9 of 15 3-pointers. The Seminoles bounced back to beat Buffalo but still allowed the Bulls to hit 50 percent from the floor.

Can BYU’s high-octane offense score against Florida State? That’s the simple key.

This FSU defense doesn’t look like last year’s, what with the better shooting percentage that two lower-level opponents have put up. So what can the Cougars, averaging 80 points per game, do?

Will St. Joe’s be able to keep the Irish away from the arc?

The Hawks are big; they block shots and they have a good collection of scorers, but their perimeter defense has been an Achilles heel and against Notre Dame, that’s a real problem. They were pretty dominant against Yale, holding the Bulldogs to just 35 points. But Yale doesn’t exactly shoot or score like the Irish.

Can Notre Dame use its depth as an advantage?

It should be able to. The Hawks are without Carl Jones, suspended by the university for three games, while Mike Brey has one of his deepest, more athletic teams in years. The numbers game could be huge for the Irish in this one.

Who emerges as the best big man in this one?

There are some good candidates with Cooley, Davies and Aiken. All three are different but effective at what they do and all three are hugely critical to their team. Foul trouble for any will be a big issue.

THE PICKS

Semifinals: BYU over Florida State; Notre Dame over St. Joe’s
Championship game: Notre Dame over BYU
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- On the first day of the last step of Jack Cooley's climb to Big East player of the year candidate, his coach's reaction told the story.

Amidst a 17-point outing against camp roommate and Duke star Mason Plumlee on Day 1 of the Adidas Nations camp in August, Cooley entered a huddle inside the crowded Garden Grove, Calif., gymnasium and was greeted by Denver Nuggets assistant Melvin Hunt with surprise.

"I scored like the first 10 points of that game, and our coach was just like: 'Didn't see that one coming. All right then, cool,'" the Notre Dame big man recalled with a sheepish grin.

"So there were a couple people in shock at first, but then they got used to it."

[+] EnlargeJack Cooley
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesExpectations are high for Jack Cooley and the Irish this season.
The validation that Cooley was more than a Luke Harangody look-alike and one of the nation's best big men came in the form of a five-day camp out West that pitted the 6-foot-9 forward against many of the game's marquee names.

What Cooley discovered in averaging nine points and six rebounds off nearly 66 percent shooting was that he belonged with those names, a fact he confirmed with his Day 1 performance, prompting him to call his father in excitement.

"It was just a shocker to get there at first," Cooley said. "It was just the who's who of every team. It didn't matter, shoe affiliation or not, everyone was there. And just to play the way I played really was kind of an eye-opener, to see that I can do this against teams that are full of high-caliber players."

Which made the trip worthwhile.

"I wanted him there because it made him feel like, 'Hmmm, I am special. I'm out here with these kind of all-stars,'" Irish coach Mike Brey said. "He needs to think of himself like that. As much it was physical, it was very much mental in motivation."

Contrast that with a year ago, when the relatively unknown big man averaged fewer than five points and just seven rebounds per game for a 5-3 team that looked left for dead following a season-ending knee injury to Tim Abromaitis and a 20-point loss at Gonzaga.

The flu kept Cooley out of the Irish's next game, against Maryland, and he had to watch alone from the St. Liam Hall infirmary while his team struggled to another defeat.

"You're surprised how much you think when you're just sitting by yourself in a hospital room," he said.

A heart-to-heart with his father followed.

"You need to go out there and just play," Jack Sr. recalled telling his son. "Stop thinking so much, stop worrying about what you have to do, what you don't have to do. You know how to play this game -- go play it. You've got to turn yourself around. You're kind of lethargic out there and kind of unsure of yourself.

"I think that was a great little starting point from that point forward."

Consecutive 22-point outings proved that claim correct before Cooley carried that production the rest of the way, earning most improved player honors and second-team All-Big East recognition by averaging 14.6 points and 10.2 rebounds in conference play.

Notre Dame rode a school-best nine-game Big East winning streak -- which included a takedown of undefeated Syracuse -- to a third-place finish in the conference, and Cooley leads a group that returns all five starters and welcomes two ready-made freshmen along with Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman, who is now eligible.

Whereas last year's Notre Dame team talked about trying to make the NCAA tournament, this year's is aiming for its first Big East title.

Whereas last year's unproven Cooley was hesitant to speak up, this year's has coaches and teammates talking about the 246-pounder as a more vocal leader, and everyone has referred to him as a captain, though that title has yet to be officially bestowed upon him.

Asked if he had yelled at any teammates yet, Cooley paused and laughed before confirming that yes, he is no longer afraid to get in the faces of peers who are slacking -- frightening even himself at just how natural it came to him.

"I've literally thought about it that way, where I thought to myself, I could probably say something right now, this situation needs to be changed," he said. "But it's gotten a lot better. It's gotten more fluid because it's more basic and instinctive for me to do it."

Offseason pick-up games with the same guys for three months could often get monotonous, and so Cooley would be the guy to break the stupor.

Few saw this coming, and now Notre Dame is thinking its potential final Big East season could be its best.

"Just speaking up in those types of situations, like, 'Let's get our heads together, this is an ugly game' -- that's where I think it just shows the kind of growth he's had over the year," sixth-year senior Scott Martin said.

"It would've been a stretch I think three years ago, and I think he would admit that, too. But he really rose to the occasion and he's grown a lot as a leader over this summer. As a senior now he believes in what he's saying, and he's right. So I think that's a big step for him and a big step for this team."
Jack Cooley is a very plausible Big East Player of the Year.

Anyone who has watched Notre Dame play the sport of basketball over the past five years knows how utterly surprising that sentence is. Early in his career, Cooley was a body. That was basically it. Even better, he was a body that looked exactly like much-more-famous former Notre Dame star Luke Harangody. Cooley was a body and a novelty. Now Cooley is a capable interior scorer, a dominant offensive rebounder, a Big East POY candidate and, yes, a vocal leader on a team expected to push Louisville and Syracuse at the top of the 2012-13 Big East.

Even Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is shocked -- his word, not mine -- at this development:
"I'm shocked, and so pleased, to see the maturity of this guy," coach Mike Brey said. "His teammates were down on him as a young guy because there were days he didn't want to do it. Now his teammates respect him. When he says something, they're going to listen to him. I never thought we'd get to that point. That was not a goal. I just wanted him to be serious about him."

That quote comes via the Chicago Tribune's Brian Hamilton, who has a nice line about Cooley -- that he was "devoted more to Xboxes than box-outs" early in his career. All too true. Last season, Cooley fully copped to a borderline-destructive video-game habit, one that he had to dispose of before he could become totally serious about basketball. (His quote: "Never get 'Skyrim.'" For the sake of my own career, I dutifully followed this advice.)

And now, not only is more than a 'Gody lookalike, and more than a solid piece on a quality team. He's a vocal leader. Honestly, who saw that one coming?
Martin/BreyAP Photo/Nam Y. HuhWith Scott Martin returning, coach Mike Brey has high expectations for Notre Dame next season.
What if Tim Abromaitis got a (probably deserved) sixth year, too? Imagine how excited Mike Brey would be then.

As it stands, the Notre Dame coach is already quite stoked. On Friday, he learned that senior Scott Martin would be granted an additional year of eligibility by the NCAA, his sixth overall, thanks to a lost 2008 year transferring from Purdue and an ACL tear that cost him his 2010 season. On Monday, Martin and Brey got around to discussing the decision with the media, and as Martin cracked jokes about the bad economy ("So I figured why not stay in school for one more year?"), Brey wrapped his arms fully 'round his own very high expectations for the 2012-13 Fighting Irish. From the Chicago Tribune:
"I want this group to dream extremely big dreams, because they are very realistic," Brey said. "And dream them from Day One. We got a lot of work to do it. But I am excited about chasing big goals.

"We've talked about the Big East tournament, trying to win that. We've talked about playing deep in the NCAA tournament. This is a group that should be able to digest all that and do that. That's exciting for me, going forward. I like to have that: Boy, we can do it and we're expecting to do it."

Those are indeed big goals for this team, particularly without Abromaitis, but there are reasons to expect so much. Notre Dame's mid-season Big East run in 2012 proved this group of Irish, when cohesive and self-contained, can play with just about anyone in college hoops on any given night. It's an experienced group, but it's also one that keeps improving. Forward Jack Cooley proved to be one of the best offensive rebounders in the country in 2012 (and an underrated post scorer to boot), and he could compete for Big East player of the year honors in 2012. Sophomore guard Jerian Grant is an equally underrated perimeter presence who pulled off the rare feat of a high assist rate (29.5 percent) and a relatively low turnover rate (15.6 percent) in his 2012 season.

That duo alone would have kept this Irish team near the top of the Big East next season. Martin's return -- alongside good and/or emerging guards Eric Atkins and Pat Connaughton-- gives the Irish a deep, experienced, well-rounded team.

It's tempting to look at this Irish lineup, compare it to the talented heavies in the Big East and wonder if Brey isn't merely wishcasting. But the more you dig in, the more you appreciate Grant and Cooley's performances in 2012 ... well, no wonder Brey is so excited. He has every reason to be.
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Here’s a quick rundown of what to look for in Friday’s evening games in Greensboro.

No. 15 Lehigh (26-7) vs. No. 2 Duke (27-6), 7:15 p.m. ET

If there’s one constant in the NCAA tournament -- other than Duke and North Carolina playing really close to home -- it’s the Blue Devils winning their opening-round games.

Under coach Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils have won 25 of their 27 opening-round games and they’ve taken most of them by lopsided scores. Duke won 14 of the past 15 by an average of 26.9 points, including an 87-45 rout of No. 16 seed Hampton in the 2011 NCAA tournament.

“At Duke, our coaches are great at preparing us for games,” Blue Devils forward Miles Plumlee said. “Regardless of the opponent, we respect each and every one, and we’re just ready to play the game.”

Krzyzewski and his assistant coaches are working a little harder to prepare the Blue Devils for Friday night’s South Region second-round game against No. 15 seed Lehigh at Greensboro Coliseum.

The Blue Devils will probably be without starting forward Ryan Kelly, the team’s third-leading scorer (11.8 points per game) and rebounder (5.4), for the third consecutive game. Kelly, a 6-foot-10 junior from Raleigh, N.C., still hasn’t fully recovered from a sprained right ankle he suffered in practice March 6.

Without Kelly in the ACC tournament, the Blue Devils defeated Virginia Tech 60-56 and lost to Florida State 62-59 in the semifinals at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.

“He will not be able to play like any type of rotation minutes,” Krzyzewski said. “In other words, you’re not going to see a Plumlee go out and Kelly come in. He might be available for some spot duty and we’ll know more about that [Friday]. Like an end-of-game situation, end of half or some type of specialty thing, but no more than that for this game.”

Kelly has become especially valuable because he’s a big man who shoots 40.8 percent on 3-pointers.

“It’s not a shooter,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s the fact that he’s a big guy who can shoot. We can put another shooter out there, but then we’re real small. So it does have an impact because you might get a few more open looks or a little bit more time to shoot the ball. There’s more space. There are a variety of things that happen as a result of him being out there.”

Kelly’s injury has also left Duke’s bench even thinner. Against the Seminoles, only three Duke reserves combined to play 47 minutes and were outscored 18-9 by their FSU counterparts.

“They would all love Ryan to be able to play,” Krzyzewski said. “But we’re fine. You play with who you got and you play; there’s no excuses for anything. Our guys are ready to go. We love to have Ryan because when he comes into ballgames, he’s different than the other two [big men, brothers Miles and Mason Plumlee]. It makes the other team have to adjust more during the course of a game.”

Who to watch:

Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum: The junior was the country’s sixth-leading scorer with 21.9 points per game. He was named MVP of the Patriot League tournament, scoring 29 points with five assists and three steals in the Mountain Hawks’ 82-77 victory over Bucknell in the championship game.

Duke’s Miles Plumlee: With Kelly sidelined with a sprained ankle, Miles Plumlee -- the oldest of three Plumlee brothers from Warsaw, Ind. -- will have to shoulder an even bigger load. The 6-foot-10 forward scored nine points on 3-for-6 shooting in the FSU loss. He was Duke’s leading rebounder over the past nine games, averaging 10.8 boards.

Duke’s Austin Rivers: Rivers, a freshman from Winter Park, Fla., and son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, was sensational in his first season, leading the Blue Devils with 15.4 points per game. He was named ACC Rookie of the Year and is adept at driving to the basket for points, or kicking the ball back out to his teammates for open shots on the perimeter.

What to watch: Duke’s shooting. The Blue Devils tend to live or die by the perimeter shooting and they struggled in their last three games, making only 16 of 67 3-point attempts (23.8 percent). Rivers made only 3 of 20 3-point attempts in his past four games. Top reserve Andre Dawkins, a career 40.4 percent shooter on 3-pointers, was 1-for-12 in the past five games, after a 6-for-9 performance in a 74-66 victory at FSU on Feb. 23. If the Blue Devils are going to advance beyond this weekend, Rivers, Dawkins and guard Seth Curry are going to have to heat up again.

No. 10 Xavier (21-12) vs. No. 7 Notre Dame (22-11), 9:45 p.m. ET

About the time Xavier was trading punches with Cincinnati in the most frightening moment of the college basketball season, Notre Dame was just beginning to fight through its own troubles.

In mid-January, neither team looked like an NCAA tournament contender. On Friday night, the Fighting Irish and Musketeers will play in a South Region second-round game at Greensboro Coliseum.

“I don’t know if some people seem to have memories of elephants, that they don’t want to ever forget that,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “But for our kids it is a chance to go out on the biggest stage of college basketball and advance. And I truly believe that the only games that people remember are the ones you play in March.”

For a while, it seemed like neither the Fighting Irish nor Musketeers would be playing in March.

The Musketeers, who were ranked No. 8 in the country when they routed the Bearcats 76-53 on Dec. 10, lost five of six games after four of their players were suspended for their roles in an ugly brawl in the closing minutes of the Crosstown Shootout. After an 85-72 loss at Temple on Feb. 11, Xavier was 16-9 overall, 7-4 in the A-10.

“If I was being very, very honest, it was extremely difficult,” Mack said. “I don’t think there’s a manual for a coach, for a program, for your players, in how you respond. But the one thing I never questioned about our kids is their desire to compete and want to get better. We stepped in a lot of venues where we heard about the incident, but Xavier basketball is much bigger than 10 bad minutes on a Saturday. This program has done so much good for so many years that we can define ourselves with who we truly are.”

Xavier senior center Kenny Frease, whose face was left bloodied from the fight, said the aftermath of the brawl seemed to bring the Musketeers closer together.

“It was difficult just because of the pressure that was put on us from the outside world,” Frease said. “I think that as a team we always knew that if we were able to come together that we would be where we are today. And in the locker room it really brought us closer together just having gone through that type of adversity. The adversity that you’re going to see in the NCAA tournament, we have been through all that. We have been through a lot more than that. So I think that as a team we’ll be ready for anything we see.”

The Fighting Irish had their share of adversity, too. Notre Dame started 4-2, but then lost senior forward Tim Abromaitis to a season-ending knee injury in practice Nov. 25. Without him, the Irish lost six of their next 13 games and were 11-8 after a 65-58 loss at Rutgers on Jan. 16.

“I feel like it was two different seasons almost before Tim got hurt, and the way we prepared, and the way we game planned and stuff,” Notre Dame guard Scott Martin said. “And then after Tim, we kind of had to figure things out again and regroup and go from there. So I think it was just a lot of hard work and dedication out of us that paid off.”

After the loss at Rutgers, Notre Dame won nine consecutive Big East games (the longest conference winning streak in school history), including a 67-58 upset of then-No. 1 Syracuse on Jan. 21.

“You have to have great, great leadership,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “I don’t know if I have been more proud of a captain like Scott Martin. Because his partner in leading was supposed to be Tim Abromaitis and he kind of lost him. So for him to lead through a crisis early in the season, I think really helped us. And we had our young guys we committed to them and got them playing time. They needed to play, they needed to get reps. Even if we’re losing games, they needed to get in there and get reps and I think they grew from that.”

Both teams will find out how much they’ve matured Friday night.

Who to watch:

Xavier’s Tu Holloway: Holloway, a senior, led the Musketeers in scoring (17 points per game) and assists (5.1) and was the only Atlantic 10 player in the top five in both scoring and assists. He also leads Xavier in steals (1.5) and foul shooting (86.6 percent). Holloway averaged 19.7 points and 5 rebounds in three Atlantic 10 tournament games.

Notre Dame’s Jack Cooley: Cooley, a bruising 248-pound forward, averaged 12.4 points and 9 rebounds. Cooley, from Glenview, Ill., had a career-high 27 points with 17 rebounds in a 75-69 victory over Providence on March 2, one of his seven double-doubles in the past 10 games.

Xavier’s Mark Lyons: A junior guard from Schenectady, N.Y., Lyons averaged 15.5 points with 2.7 assists. A third-team All-Atlantic-10 selection, Lyons is a potent 3-point shooter, making 39.6 percent of his attempts.

What to watch: Defense. Notre Dame turned its season around with defense, limiting opponents to only 59.2 points per game, which was second-fewest in the Big East. Notre Dame held its opponents to 60 points or fewer in 15 games, including 11 against conference foes. Five opponents were held to fewer than 50 points by the Irish.

How No. 1 will fall: Syracuse

March, 13, 2012
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Syracuse has played through immense adversity.

Bernie Fine was dismissed amid a sexual abuse scandal. Head coach Jim Boeheim made comments backing the assistant that he later retracted. A media firestorm ensued.

[+] EnlargeCooley
Matt Cashore/US PresswireSyracuse has proved vulnerable to physical big men like Notre Dame's Jack Cooley.
Yet the Orange stayed focused.

It looks like a team that’s built for a Final Four run. It's a balanced squad.

And this just in … Syracuse is a very deep team. The Orange have a 10-man rotation.

Dion Waiters is one of the most dynamic reserves in the nation. They’re led by a veteran guard in Scoop Jardine. Kris Joseph is one of the most talented players in the country.

The Orange have been doubted all season. But they just keep winning. And they’ve found that success despite a serious off-court distraction involving Fine. Plus, Fab Melo missed games due to academic trouble. And they still didn’t collapse.

I think this is a resilient squad that can compete with any team in the field.

But it’s not perfect.

Syracuse will fall when a team exposes and capitalizes on its rebounding woes (the Orange have struggled all year with giving up second-chance opportunities).

During a 64-61 overtime victory against Georgetown in February, the Hoyas had a 20-12 advantage on the offensive glass.

Ball control will be pivotal, too. Syracuse forces 16.6 turnovers per game and uses that defensive prowess to spur its crucial transition game.

A team that limits turnovers can make Syracuse play more honest. It'll lose when an opponent can take advantage of the gaps in Boeheim’s zone. In its only two losses of the season, Notre Dame shot 50 percent from beyond the arc and Cincinnati connected on 45 percent of its attempts from the 3-point line. Makes Vandy an intriguing team in the East region.

But a successful opponent will also have to be strong enough defensively to force the Orange to operate in the half court. They love to run and score on the break. They’re not, however, as creative with their half-court game.

They’re great when they’re running. Hard to stop on the break, but a successful opponent will slow them down and force them to use the shot clock instead of relying on quick buckets in transition.

I know the Orange didn’t have Melo against Notre Dame, but in Syracuse’s two losses, they were bullied by Jack Cooley and Yancy Gates inside. Their interior guys are long and athletic, but they’re not that strong or physical.

A successful opponent will have to take advantage of that.

Strength inside, second-chance buckets, slowing Cuse in transition and connecting on 3s against that zone will be keys against this Syracuse team that’s only lost twice this year.


NEW YORK – When Gorgui Dieng first enrolled at the University of Louisville, he was more exclamation point than Big East post player.

With 187 pounds stretched to its limits over a nearly 7-foot frame, guys like Fab Melo, Yancy Gates, Henry Sims and Jack Cooley could have him used as a toothpick.

And post moves?

Let’s just say Dieng had the moves like Jagger.

“I didn’t have any,’’ the sophomore said.

But after some dedicated weight training and personal tutelage from Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, daily 45-minute private sessions that were about as fun as they sound – “Oh no, it wasn’t fun at all,’’ Dieng laughed – Dieng now is playing like an exclamation point instead of looking like one.

The Louisville big man scored 16 points and yanked down 6 rebounds, shooting a perfect 8-for-8 from the floor to help the Cards beat Notre Dame 64-50 and head to the Big East tournament championship game for the third time in four years.

Louisville will face Cincinnati in a title game that is perfectly emblematic of the shifting sands of conference realignment. This marks the first championship in which none of the league’s founding members are playing.

“Conference USA comes to the Big Apple,’’ Pitino joked, alluding to the two teams’ former league.

It is certainly not the final anyone predicted in November, or maybe January or February for that matter.

Cincinnati looked awful early, took part in an awful brawl against Xavier in December and lost to Rutgers in January.

Louisville, meantime, lost at Providence by 31 in January and spent the entire season blowing the budget on athletic training supplies. It got so bad Pitino worried about having enough players to practice.

Only three – Chris Smith, Chane Behanan and Dieng – have played in all 34 of the Cardinals’ games. Almost as many (Mike Marra and Rakeem Buckles) have missed the entire season with injury; Stephan Van Treese played in just three.

[+] EnlargeGorgui Dieng
Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireGorgui Dieng credits coach Rick Pitino for helping him build the game to take on the likes of Notre Dame's Jack Cooley, left.
Fortunately for Louisville, Dieng was one of the mainstays.

He has not been spectacular but he has been steady, a reliable presence inside defensively and becoming a more deft scorer with every game.

The same player who averaged 5.7 points and 4.4 rebounds a year ago posted 11 double-doubles this season.

He even has moves, plenty of which were on display against the Irish.

“We wanted to go inside to Gorgui because they don’t tap the post and he did a very good job tonight of going to a variety of different moves, especially the jump hook,’’ Pitino said. “He’s becoming a terrific player. He plays real hard and the sky’s the limit to how good he can become down the road when he gets stronger.’’

Ah, the stronger part.

Dieng ballooned from 187 to 244 in a year, taking his charge to gain weight a little too far.

He checks in at a more muscular 235 now, but he’s still giving up plenty in the league. Cooley weighs in at 248 and stands just 6-9, Sims is 245 and 6-10, and Gates, who will Dieng will try to muscle around in the title game, is 260 pounds despite being only 6-9.

“I can tell I was kind of, I don’t want to say soft, but I wasn’t physical at all,’’ Dieng said. “I just got on the court and played. But (Pitino) changed my whole game. He made me like being physical.’’

Charming and friendly, the fish out of water – a Senegalese by birth now dropped in Kentucky horse country – has become a favorite in Louisville.

Fans love him and his teammates love to tease him for his malapropisms and still-balky English.

“He doesn’t get sarcasm at all,’’ Peyton Siva said.

Dieng, though, is getting this basketball thing down.

With an exclamation point.

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