Louisville's Gorgui Dieng has taken advantage of learning opportunities… (Matt York / Associated Press )
Three years ago, Louisville sophomore center Gorgui Dieng couldn't speak English.
Last year, he didn't know how the NCAA tournament worked. When Morehead State eliminated Louisville in the first round, Dieng said he asked his coaches, "Why can't we play anymore?"
He wasn't kidding.
"I had no idea," he said. "I didn't know Sweet 16 last year. Honest."
Louisville has come a long way to reach its first Final Four since 2005, after finishing seventh in the Big East Conference. The Cardinals play archrival Kentucky on Saturday in a national semifinal in New Orleans.
Dieng has come even farther — from Senegal in West Africa. He has grown up in every way conceivable — physically, emotionally, culturally — since arriving in the United States.
Dieng will never forget the date — Nov. 28, 2009 — when his journey began at prep school in Huntington, West Virginia. He was 6 feet 10, weighed less than 190 pounds, and was initially the town's tallest agoraphobic.
"The first week I would just stay in my room," he explained. "I couldn't speak to anybody. I couldn't do anything because I didn't speak one word of English. I'd just look at you, I didn't know what to say."
He phoned home every night to a faraway father who encouraged his son not to be a wallflower.
"He told me, 'You need to communicate with people so you can pick up the language very quick,'" Dieng said. "He said, 'You can't stay in your corner and not talk to anybody.'"
Gorgui Dieng (pronounced GOR-gee Jeng) immersed himself in a foreign society. He asked questions. How does this work? What does this mean?
"Everywhere I go, I want to learn something new," he said. "Every day I get up, I want to learn something new."
Saturday at the Superdome, Dieng will be the "other" tall, skinny, shot-blocking center in the game. He'll play second bluegrass fiddle to Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis, the national player of the year.
Dieng might be able to hold his own. Both players disrupt and intimidate on defense. Davis has been touted for his 7-5 wingspan. Dieng's wingspan is 7-4.
Davis has 175 blocked shots; Dieng has 124.
Dieng blocked seven shots last Thursday in a West regional semifinal win over Michigan State and surprised everyone when he made his first three-pointer of the year on only his second attempt.
He has quickly picked up the culture and the game. After last year's loss, Dieng asked his coaches to explain the history of the NCAA tournament.
"Now I know it's six games to get to the national championship," he said. "If you don't win, you go home. That's what I know. That's the most important thing. To understand if you don't win you go home."
Dieng, who turned 22 in January, is getting better with age. He's bulked up to 235 pounds and his English is so good Coach Rick Pitino jokes he's more fluent than half his American-born players.
Dieng's game also has improved. He told Pitino early that his one goal was to make the NBA. Pitino said he would have to "drive" Dieng very hard.
"What does 'drive' mean?" Dieng asked.
"You're going to see," Pitino told him.
Pitino said it was a crime this season that Dieng wasn't chosen to any of the All-Big East teams — first, second or third. Dieng has 11 double-doubles in points and rebounds.
He is nothing like the 187-pound waif Pitino and then-assistant Walter McCarty stumbled upon at Huntington Prep School.
Pitino was scouting another Huntington player, Justin Coleman, but became fixated on the skinny African.
"I like the big guy better," Pitino said he told McCarty.
McCarty's response was: "Really?"
"Yes, he's just weak," Pitino said. "His potential is unbelievable."
Dieng says if he had known he was going to be this good at basketball he would have taken it more seriously when he started playing at age 5.
Soccer was his first love and his country's sport. The second youngest of eight children, he played midfield and forward.
Could he bend it?
"I was nice," he said. "I can show you some video if you want."
At 13, though, he had outgrown the sport — at least vertically — and started concentrating on basketball.
He eventually made the Senegal national team and impressed American coaches in August 2009 at the Nike Global Challenge in Oregon.
Dieng returned home and told his parents he wanted to play basketball in the United States. They agreed, so long as Dieng promised to bring home a diploma.
"My dad, he don't care about basketball," Dieng said of his father, Momar, a school principal in their home town of Kebemer. "If you tell my dad about basketball, he just ignores you. All he cares is how I do in school, am I making good grades, have I missed class, am I doing my homework."
Dieng and Kentucky's Davis will meet Saturday and then someday in the NBA, perhaps, although they are on completely different tracks.
Davis is a likely "one-and-done" and the presumptive first pick in this year's NBA draft. Dieng is almost a cinch to stay in school, hone his skills and keep a promise.
"I'm going to get my degree one day and make it to the [NBA] one day," Dieng said.
There are still some adjustments to make. For example, Dieng is fascinated by America's obsession with fast food.
Back home, he says, his family always ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together.
Dieng also might be the only person associated with Louisville in the Superdome on Saturday who hasn't an ounce of animosity toward Kentucky.
"I don't care about rivalries," he said. "I don't want to play basketball to make enemies. I just want to have fun with people. . . . I've never seen a basketball game that a fan steps on the court and helps the team. I haven't seen that yet. I think rivalries and rankings, that's for the fans. Not for me."
Dieng says one of his goals is to meet President Obama.
With four wins recorded, Dieng can tell you now, in almost-fluent English, he's only two wins away.