The 16-1 Cardinals have received a big boost after the return of center Gorgui Dieng from injury.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise Louisville has climbed to the top of the rankings once Dieng returned to the lineup. The 6-foot-11, 245lbs junior has been an absolute force on both ends of the floor. In the five games he’s played after being forced to miss seven games with a wrist injury, the center has already recorded three double-doubles.
He was eased back into the lineup with only 20 minutes against the Kentucky Wildcats, where Dieng finished with six points, seven rebounds, and two blocks. After his first game back, the junior has only been getting stronger helping lead Louisville to a 4-0 start in conference play. Dieng had a double-double in every league game before his streak was snapped against the Huskies. He finished with only six points against Connecticut but was a beast on the inside delivering his second straight 16 rebound performance.
Since his return Dieng is averaging 10.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 1.4 assists. Despite his double-double average in his five games back, the center’s shooting percentages are perhaps his most impressive stats. He’s drained 13 of 16 free throw attempts, including an 8 for 8 performance, and is also shooting 52.7% from the field.
Combined with the five games he played before injury, Dieng is averaging season totals of 9.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 1.9 assists, and 1.2 steals while shooting 51.5% from the floor and 72.7% from the foul line.
Having a defensive presence like Dieng who can also contribute offensively seems almost unfair when you combine it with the Cardinals’ dangerous back court. The center gives Louisville a perfect eraser with his shot blocking skills while playing alongside a pair of the conference’s steals leaders with Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. Dieng turns a good defensive team into a great one, just ask Connecticut about Louisville’s defensive skills after being outscored 45-24 in the second half.
It’s not outrageous to suggest the Cardinals could still be undefeated had Dieng not got hurt during the Battle 4 Atlantis Semi-Finals. Louisville went on to lose their only game of the season in their first game without their center in the Finals against the Duke Blue Devils. Despite being without Dieng, the Cardinals still only lost 76-71 in a game Mason Plumlee finished with 16 points after shooting 6 for 10 from the field. Plumlee would not have shot 60% from the floor had Dieng been able to suit up in the contest.
It’s strange that nearly two months after the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, the two finalists have almost replicated each others situations during late November. At the time of the victory, Duke was looking like a perfect team with the chemistry from their starting five leading to one of the best first months in school history. Now the Blue Devils have lost Ryan Kelly to injury while losing their first game without the senior, showing his void is not going to be able to replace. Meanwhile, Louisville’s starting five is suddenly looking stronger than ever, leading the Cardinals’ to one of their best starts to conference action in recent years.
With Dieng back in the line-up combined with the Cardinals’ explosive back court, along with players like Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan, Louisville is rightfully deserving of their number one ranking.