As a promising prospect in both academics and athletics, Dieng attended high school at the SEEDS (Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal) Academy started by former Dallas Mavericks personnel director Amadou Gallo Fall in 2007, a school in Thies that prepares students to continue their studies in the U.S. Dieng landed at Huntington (W.Va.) Prep, where he played one year for coach Rob Fulford and expanded his limited command of English, which is his fifth language. "He was different from a lot of African kids," says Fulford. "Even though he hadn't been playing basketball for very long, he knew the game. His footwork was so good, he led our defensive slide drills, and we had no problem switching him to [defend] the other team's point guard."
Pitino and then assistant Walter McCarty were scouting another player when they first saw Dieng in a game. Pitino was dazzled by Dieng's height, agility and 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. He said, 'What do you mean by drive?' And I said, 'You're going to see.'"
In daily small-group workouts with Pitino, Dieng, who says he never played defense in high school, has learned the nuances of guarding the post and protecting the paint. "He changed my whole focus to defense," says Dieng. "I never get frustrated when my teammates don't pass me the ball. Anybody can score, but few people have the timing to block shots, rebound or play good defense."
As Pitino personally honed Dieng's skill set, other staff members worked on getting the rail-thin player, who came to Louisville at 197 pounds, bulked up for Big East battles. The two-pronged approach of weightlifting and improved nutrition hit a snag last summer when Dieng, a devout Muslim who prays five times a day, tried to fast for Ramadan while keeping up the same workout schedule. "It was too hard, and I had to stop [fasting]," says Dieng, who now weighs 238 pounds. "When the season is over, I'll make up for it."
Smith, who has been known to sneak up and flash bunny ears behind Pitino while he's being interviewed on TV, frequently makes Dieng giggle. So does Pitino. When the coach starts ranting in a huddle, Dieng sometimes has to bury his face in a towel. "Anytime I see Coach get mad, that tickles me," he says. "Even in film, when everyone is serious, he gets mad at somebody and I'll start laughing. I tell him, 'I'm not disrespecting you. I just can't control myself.'"
More often than not, Pitino is joining in the laughter, at least outside the lines. "These guys really enjoy playing the game, learning the game, trying to win," says Pitino. "They are very motivated for the right reasons, and that's why it's so much fun. Even last year when we got knocked out in the first round, it was a lot of fun. Nobody in two years has said, 'Can I get the ball more, can I play more, can I get more touches?' They're all really humble; in that respect they remind me of that Providence team."
Pitino was reminded of the Friars often in Phoenix, and not just because of the Donovan connection. All weekend he was fielding texts inquiring about the team's 25th reunion, which he's supposed to be hosting in Miami in May. Like any good coach, he saw an opportunity to motivate his team. He told the Cardinals before Thursday's game, "You're two games away from having a 25th reunion yourself."
After the victory over Florida his message was already spinning forward. "The only thing I ask," he told them, "is that you not be satisfied just going to the Final Four."
After all, nobody forgets a champion.