LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino says Gorgui Dieng's X-ray looked good, he looks fine in practice, he'll have a couple more days of prep time and the junior center should be good to go against the University of Kentucky on Saturday after sitting out for a month with a fractured left wrist. In fact, Pitino says he expects Dieng to start.
So what does this mean for this rivalry game? Assuming Dieng can play effectively, and by all accounts he has been able to throw and catch hard basketball passes since last week and has remained in good physical condition, it changes quite a few things, perhaps even more than his 8.2 points and 8 rebounds per game might suggest.
A look at some of the Dieng chain-reaction effects:
1). It makes U of L tougher to guard, particularly in zone. Calipari doesn't like zone, and who knows if he would've thrown any out there. But it would've been worth having in the toolbox to take away dribble penetration and force U of L to make perimeter jumpers. It's probably worth trying anyway. Some of U of L's longest offensive droughts of the season have come against zone defenses with Dieng off the court.
But with Dieng on the court, he has to be accounted for in the high post. A guard can't slip over and stop his 15-foot jumper, which he had been hitting with regularity. Dieng had been doing a very good job of distributing the ball -- looking opposite if a wing closed in on him, or hitting a bounce pass to the baseline if the defense came up. His presence gives U of L a much better option against zones than just standing and shooting. It's worth remembering that Dieng ranked second on the team in assists when he went down.
2). It improves the U of L defense. Without Dieng, U of L's defensive field goal percentage crept up above 40 percent for the first time in a long time -- opponents shot 40.1 percent over the past seven games. It was only a few percentage points lower with Dieng over the first five games, but it was lower, and a lot of that was owing to Dieng being perhaps the best help defender on the team. While UK's bigs are more adept at keeping an eye on the weak side and sliding over to block the shots of guys driving in the lane, Dieng's style is more to slide over and engage the driver, either blocking his shot or cutting his path. That, in fact, is how Dieng got injured. Dieng's presence also helps the U of L press. He actually was seeing a significant time on the front of the press initially, but is athletic enough to get back up the court to prevent cheap baskets.
But that's not all his return does for the Cardinal defense. It also makes it just a bit tougher to score against U of L around the rim, and it leaves U of L's guards with a little more license to steal at the point of attack. In fact, in games played with Dieng, U of L averaged 28 points a game off turnovers. That was slightly lower without him, 26.4. (Dieng himself was averaging 1.6 steals per game). Finally this, and this might be the most important factor for U of L's defense. It allows the Cardinals to rotate Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell on Alex Poythress, rather than having Harrell focused on UK's bigs. Poythress, could be one of the key individuals in the game.
3). It creates adjustment challenges -- for both teams. For U of L, it disrupts what had become an offensive flow built around his absence. U of L had to go just a bit back to the drawing board after his injury, given how much he facilitates on the offense end. And it had done that effectively, particularly with Wayne Blackshear blossoming as a mid-range threat and Montrezl Harrell learning to play the center spot, particularly on offense. With Dieng, U of L was averaging 31.6 points per game in the pant. Without him, that number climbed to 39.1. The Cards will need to adjust to having an effective big man, and do it fairly quickly. That's a nice problem to have, but it still can create some coordination issues.
For UK, the scouting report changes. There are more things you have to defend with Dieng -- particularly his mid-range jumper and ability to distribute the ball from the high post. Defensively, he creates a bit more of a challenge inside, and gives U of L yet another body to throw around in there, in addition to Stephan Van Treese, and Harrell playing both the 4 and 5 spots. But it also may leave UK feeling it has another area to attack, particularly using Nerlens Noel's quickness and Archie Goodwin or Ryan Harrow's on the high screen-and-roll.
4). It takes away a potential major advantage for UK. The Wildcats, with Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein, still have a numbers advantage in the post, and I expect they'll look there plenty against U of L. But it's not the gaping hole that could have been, and that's not to put down Van Treese or Zach Price, but UK's bigs are on another level from any U of L has seen outside of Mason Plumlee of Duke (remembering, at the same time, that Van Treese respectably held his own against Plumlee). Still, without Dieng, UK had to look at this as a possible major area of exploitation, but now that becomes a bit tougher.
In all, it has to be considered a gain for U of L. Dieng was a preseason Wooden Award candidate, and beyond that, he's experienced and, with his parents in the KFC Yum! Center stands, will be highly motivated (though sometimes that causes a player to press too hard). And that's not the only motivation for Dieng. After missing a matchup with Plumlee, the chance to play against Noel, a projected top-three NBA Draft pick, presents a major opportunity for Dieng, who has NBA aspirations of his own.
When it's all said and done, I don't expect anyone to say the return of Dieng was the reason the game went the way it did, regardless of who wins. But he does tilt a game already viewed by oddsmakers in U of L's favor slightly more in the Cardinals' direction.