INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) -- The night the University of Louisville basketball team beat Oregon to advance to the Elite Eight, the Cardinals got back to the hotel at about midnight, but even though they were fighting an illness, Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng couldn't sleep.
They sat up in their hotel room and talked till 2 o'clock in the morning. They talked about what they want to accomplish, how much they want to win, and who knows what else. For those who have followed this team and these two players, it's a conversation you'd pay to have had preserved.
Smith is the engine of the Cardinals' basketball team. Dieng is its cerebral cortex. Smith talks the way he plays, he just wades in. Many of his comments are preceded by the words, "To be for real . . . "
Dieng is more philosophical in his expression. One minute he'll be talking about Duke, the next minute, or even simultaneously, life.
Regardless of the outcome of today's Midwest Regional Final against Duke, these two players, along with Peyton Siva, have etched their own significant niche in the history of U of L's program, and in the hearts of its fans.
An example. When discussing the upcoming game Saturday, Dieng suddenly lapsed into a kind of soliloquy.
"I dream a lot," he said. "I want to do extraordinary things. Someone was telling me that only ordinary people do extraordinary things. I want to be part of them. I am really looking forward to going back to the Final Four again. Win one more game, then another, and then win the national title. It will be one thing I will never forget. We are going to be a part of history forever. We have high respect for Duke. They beat us, but we forgot about it. This is a new game. It's 0-0. We need to compete. I don't know what the outcome is going to be, but I am sure we are going to compete and show a lot of energy."
At one point during Saturday's news conference with the national media, Pitino referenced a conversation that he and I had with Deing during a book-writing session a month or two back. The subject was why some people can heed advice and read the signs in their careers or lives and why some cannot, and Pitino said suddenly, "We need to see what Gorgui thinks about this."
A phone call later Dieng was on the other side of the round table in Pitino's office, and for about 15 minutes talked about the things that shaped him as a person, about growing up in Senegal, about coming to the United States.
"He said that he goes home to his country, and if there's a 25-year-old that doesn't have a seat and he's sitting there at 23, he's got to give the seat up for the 25-year-old. And he says his culture is you listen to anybody who's older than you. Anybody," Pitino said. "And that's why he's able to grow so much, because there's nobody else in his ear. Like I said to him after the season, Gorgui, I want you to put your name in (for the NBA Draft advisory board). We'll see if you're a first-round draft choice and we'll go forward. We'll decide from this.
"He said, I will listen to everything you and Amadou say. Amadou is a young man who works in the NBA from Africa. He says, whatever you guys tell me to do, I will do exactly. I said, Gorgui, some agents or runners may try to talk to you. He said, I don't listen to runners. I don't listen to agents. I'll listen to Amadou and you. That's what I'm taught to do. He's far different from the young kids today."
But Dieng is picking up the culture nearly as quickly as he picked up the language. When asked about Dieng, Smith smiled.
"Gorgui's, obviously, he's African, but he's pretty much American now, with the stuff he watches and what he does," Smith said. "Gorgui was always, like, a one-dimensional guy. If the TV was on, he only wants to watch TV, he doesn't want to listen to music while being on the phone while watching TV. Now, the TV's on mute watching the game, then we have the iPad watching something on YouTube while he's on his phone while music is playing in the background. So Gorgui can pay attention to six things at once. I think it's pretty cool. Gorgui's, like, really American now."
Dieng is an X-factor in the Duke game. He didn't play when Duke edged Louisville in the Bahamas in November. And he played one of his better games of the season against Oregon in the Sweet 16. Twice the Cards simply fed him the ball in the low block and he turned and scored with impressive moves. He has not been a traditional post-up scorer all season, but in that game, showed it could be a dangerous part of his game.
Mainly for the Cards, he brings an immense knowledge of how their defense works. He's constantly talking and shifting teammates in the Cardinals' zone. Earlier this season, after Dieng returned from a broken wrist, Pitino admittedly played him too many minutes, because he was afraid to take him off the court. Though Dieng is not a bruising big man, he brings the Cards toughness on the interior nonetheless. But his brand of toughness is, of course, something different.
"Toughness is not fighting on the court or shoving people," Dieng said. "Toughness is helping your team win. Toughness is when my teammates are down, helping them up. If I see Chane (Behanan) didn't have a good game, I talk to him and try to bring him back into the game. I don't think toughness is fighting on the court, talking trash, nothing like that. I think you are tough when you can help your team win and stop your opponent. Taking charges is toughness, blocking shots, rebounding the ball, stuff like that. Talking trash has nothing to do with toughness. When I am playing against someone and he is on the floor, I can help him up. He is not going to change the score. It is a thing people need to understand. People have the wrong idea of being tough."
Smith is as tough as they come. He's averaging 27 points a game in the NCAA Tournament. Every team U of L has faced came into it with the idea of containing Smith. It's hard to contain someone who is on the edge of the control envelope. In the biggest situations, Smith is taking, and usually making, the biggest shots.
But he has become so tuned into scouting reports that he no longer is a liability. He's not taking bad shots. He'll take some crazy ones at the end of the shot clock, but he's the player Pitino wants with the ball at the end of the shot clock. That's his job. And shots that look crazy to many also are shots he can make.
"On the court, if I can get a transition basket or if I can beat somebody to the rim or get foul, I look at that as being our best offense," Smith said. "If I can draw a foul on a guy who plays major minutes along with getting a free throw and knock it down, then it enables us to set up the press. I think if I can do that, it's pretty good, I just can't get out of control about it. So I go in there, and if I can't get anything I dribble out, and coach and Peyton have helped me with that. So that's all I do, and I try to do it to help the team, there's nothing selfish about it."
After Smith's 31-point performance against Oregon, Pitino said, "Russ is able to get to the foul line, get a shot off, make the play, turn around and guard. I'd have him in the top twelve in the draft because of the way his game transcends to the next level. I'm very happy that everybody's missing the boat because I'll have him for another year. But I really, I really can't believe what I'm reading sometimes of this kid, because he's -- to me, I thought he was a runaway Player of the Year. Runaway. And that's no knock on the other guys, because they're great too."
Even staff around the program have picked up the slogan, "In Russ we trust."
"There's not a better transition guard in the country -- I'm trying to think of one in recent memory --‘ as Smith," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He is courageous, plays with great heart. I'm getting old. If I need a transplant, I hope he would give me his. He could give me part of it and I'd have more courage than I have right now."
Pitino said he believes Smith is up to the challenge, and up to the defense Duke is about to throw at him.
"I told Russ this morning, I said, Russ, Duke trapped you every time on a pick and roll, and Duke is going to try to take you out of the game early on," Pitino said. "I said, You've got to get the other guys the ball. Our guys know that. There's no jealousy. They know Russ has bailed us out of a lot of tough situations. We've got a lot -- Russ knows that -- we have a lot in our favor."
Neither Deing nor Smith was a highly heralded recruit. There even was head-scratching at the value of both when they got to campus. Both have suggested that once they're gone, Pitino may find replacements with more talent. But both will be hard to replace.
"The good thing about Gorgui and Russ is as the season's gone on, they've been like a great stock," Pitino said. "They just keep adding to their games. Russ, as a freshman, it's been well-documented that he thought about transferring. I thought about shipping him to a different planet. And he stayed and really studied his game and said, okay, I took 18 shots last night and 17 were bad ones. Now he's evolved into a basketball player that maybe takes one difficult shot per game, plays good defense, makes good passes, makes good decisions. And the two of these guys, probably out of ten guys I've coached, have improved dramatically as much as anybody I've coached."
But they've added more than moves on the basketball court. They've given the Cardinals a personality, Krzyzewski called it "verve." Pitino named horses after both of them. The Cardinals are hoping to ride them down the home stretch of something special.