Dieng, Davis Share Kentucky-Louisville Connection
Dieng, Davis Share Kentucky-Louisville Connection
Gorgui Dieng didn’t quite know what to expect from the University of Kentucky and Louisville rivalry when he first entered college, and during his freshman year with the Cardinals hosting the Wildcats in their lone non-conference meeting of the season he didn’t get to feel the wrath of a Rupp Arena crowd until his second year in red and white.
Once he did, on Dec. 31, 2011, it was just another part in this UK-Louisville experience that seemed awfully surreal. As he walked in, he got yet another indication of how big this matchup is inside a state that lives and breathes basketball.
“It was ugly,” he said. “You see 27,000 people, all in blue shirts, and they hate you. But it helped with motivation, and it pushed me to play harder. It’s good to have a little pride when you have 27,000 people that want you to fail, and you’re going to fight to the end.”
Dieng’s Cardinals lost that day, 69-62, to that eventual national champion Kentucky squad. But there were two things that came out of that matchup that would be telling for the future. One, the Wildcats and Cardinals would square off later that year in the Final Four—taking the already intense rivalry and adding higher stakes. And two, Dieng and freshman sensation Anthony Davis would go head-to-head for the first of two times in their college career.
Flash forward to tonight as the Wolves host the Pelicans at Target Center, and it will be the first time those two will be on opposing teams since those two collegiate matchups during the 2011-12 season. As is stands tonight, Davis is a budding star in the Big Easy. He’s averaging 19.5 points, 10.5 boards and a league-leading 3.2 blocks per game heading into tonight. Dieng, a rookie this year, is continuing to learn and grow at practice while not seeing a ton of time on the court in games to date.
Two years ago yesterday, the two were squaring off at Rupp Arena for the first time and put on show in the paint. Both Dieng and Davis blocked six shots that night—Davis added 18 points and 10 boards, showcasing the skills that would earn him the top overall pick that April.
Dieng called Davis the best college player he played against—which says a lot, considering Dieng himself would play three seasons in the Big East, reach two Final Fours and win a national championship of his own in 2013. In that one season at Kentucky, Davis showed he was worthy of that top overall pick and continued to get better throughout the year.
He said he could tell Davis continued to get stronger during the season, and it was evident when they matched up in April during the Final Four.
“They beat us in the Final Four because of him,” Dieng said. “He played very well in the Final Four.”
Davis said he detected Dieng would be a future NBA player because of how he played against him during that lone college season. Dieng protected the rim very well, he said, and has a big body type that can alter shots.
He said Dieng’s key will be continuing to improve on a daily basis at the next level—something Dieng is taking very seriously through extra post-practice work.
“He plays very hard, and he’s a good defender,” Davis said. “Long, big body. That’s what they’re looking for in this league. Anybody can get drafted. It’s about what you’re doing, how you keep working to get better.”
A lot has changed since that Kentucky and Louisville matchup two years ago. Since then, both Davis and Dieng have become national champions. Both became first round NBA draft picks, and now both will be suited up together in the same NBA game.
They share a connection through that Kentucky-Louisville rivalry—something only a few in the NBA can fully appreciate. They grew up as basketball players by enduring not only the talented competition on the court between those two schools but also the fierce passion that fans brought during those head-to-head matchups.
Dieng said it helped him become better prepared for the NBA.
“You just learn from it—I don’t really get nervous when I get to the basketball court, because I know I’m not going to see something I haven’t seen before,” Dieng said. “There’s nothing they’re going to do that can make me feel nervous or uncomfortable. But the NBA is different, and you have to learn. I’ve been learning since I got here, and I think I’m getting better in every aspect. I just need to keep learning and keep working.”
Davis agreed—even though he and the Wildcats approached Louisville in the regular season and the Final Four as just another game, he understands the importance to the fans on both sides.
“It’s a rivalry—it’s a big game for both teams,” Davis said. “It’s fun to play against them, especially when you win. It’s a big game in the state of Kentucky. Both teams are very good, both teams compete and battle hard each year.”
And there’s a chance the successes and failures Dieng had against Davis and the Wildcats helped form the Cardinals into a champion the next year.
“Maybe losing to Kentucky that year pushed us to a win the next year,” Dieng said. “Any time you fail, you’re going to learn from it and try to build from it.”