March Madness is as big as college basketball gets. And Mamadou Ndiaye is the biggest of that big.
The 7-foot-6 center from Senegal is the tallest basketball player in America. Next to his the 6-5 teammates and his 6-7 coach, Russell Turner, people he calls “little guys,” he seems almost as tall as the Space Needle. That’s what Ndiaye will be playing under Friday afternoon when he and 13th-seeded UC Irvine (21-12) try to become the latest double-digit seed in this already wild NCAA tournament to win, against fourth-seeded Louisville (24-8) at KeyArena.
Louisville has the same key to this second-round game as every other team that’s faced the Anteaters this season: Go right at Ndiaye, more specifically go at his legs, to get him in foul trouble and thus out of the game for long stretches that would change and essentially debilitate UC Irvine.
“We’re different when he’s out there because we have a guy who is a half-foot taller than anybody’s ever seen on the floor,” Turner said of his Big West Conference champions.
Ndiaye is so tall his coach bought combat gear for the poor saps who have to guard the towering center in practices. His elbows are at the level of their faces.
“In fact, I bought MMA headgears for my backup post players that they have worn,” Turner said, “because he is big and he’s powerful — and for that reason he is dangerous when he just makes normal basketball plays. When he pivots legally and his elbows are up, if you’re in the wrong spot, you’re going to have a problem.
“It’s hard to imagine his size, his height and his length.”
Or how he got here.
He arrived from Senegal, on the west coast of Africa, as a 16-year old and the tallest soccer defender imaginable. He had been playing basketball for all of one year when he came to Simi Valley northwest of downtown Los Angeles to Stoneridge Preparatory School, a landing spot for many international players. Seven months after he arrived in America, doctors found the reason Ndiaye was already 7-5.
A brain tumor had grown to the point it was pressing on and affecting the regulatory functions of his pituitary gland — but not his ability to speak his five languages: French, two native Senegalese dialects from each side of his parents’ families back home, plus Arabic and now English.
Doctors successfully removed the tumor with no further effects — other than Ndiaye remaining the tallest basketball player in the U.S. He had grown 89 inches before the surgery, and only one more inch, to 7-6, in the two-plus years since his procedure at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, down Interstate 405 from Stoneridge.
He stayed in Orange County when a nurse at Hoag and her husband basically adopted him. He attended and played for Brethren Christian in neighboring Huntington Beach. Ndiaye found UC Irvine by playing pickup games inside the UCI campus gym, about 10 miles away.
Oh yes, at 7-6, he was conspicuous. Plus, his soccer experience gave him quick feet and athleticism. Arizona, Georgetown, Baylor and USC drooled and offered him scholarships to play for them.
Uh, no offense, but why in the name of an Anteater did Ndiaye chose Irvine over some of the more established programs in this tournament?
“Playing open gym there, I had made a lot of friends,” he said Thursday before practice, leaning not against but over a soda cooler with a ducked head inside Irvine’s locker room. “It was tough. A lot of people said, ‘C’mon! Why are you going to go to UCI?’
“But for me it was just like a friendship. It wasn’t like, ‘This program is better.’ And then I found out UCI has a good education to offer.”
What has he learned about college basketball, besides enough to know Louisville is going to be coming after him with everything but coach Rick Pitino’s famous white, designer suits to try to get him in foul trouble Friday?
“It’s more exciting. It’s more fun,” he said. “You aren’t playing for money. You are playing for your school, your teammates. That’s why it’s more exciting. It’s for the school.”
Still just a sophomore, he has yet to declare a major but says he is seeking a business degree. He’s going back and forth on whether to return after graduation to Senegal to use that degree — his family still lives in Dakar, and in France — or stay here in the States. And, of course, there’s the fact he undoubtedly will pique the curiosity of professional basketball.
“Only God knows what’s in store for me,” he said.
This will be Ndiaye’s eighth consecutive game played since he missed 10 with a foot injury. The last time he played in Seattle, early last season as an even-more-raw freshman across town at the University of Washington, he had 18 points and a then-team record nine blocked shots as UC Irvine stunned the Huskies, 86-72. In February 2014, Ndiaye set the Big West record with 11 blocks in a win over Long Beach State.
He’s told everyone with ears, in all five of his languages, that playing in the NCAA tournament was a dream of his.
Friday at 1:10 p.m., it becomes reality. His long journey halfway across the world with a view highest of all reaches its loftiest point yet.
The “Big Dance” will feature its biggest dancer, one who holds the key to whether the Anteaters can become the latest darling underdog of America’s favorite multiweek sporting event.
“I told them when I came to UCI that I would play with them in the NCAA tournament,” he said, smiling.
“Here I am.”