Mangok Mathiang has always wanted to be Gorgui Dieng. What a coincidence, because University of Louisville fans want that for Mangok, too! (To be honest, Louisville fans want everyone to be Gorgui Dieng. The world would be a much better place if it were so. Alas…) And while the preseason buzz around the Cardinals has mostly been about Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier, if Louisville is to reach its potential this season (and if you read what college basketball pundits are saying about this team, the ceiling for this Cards team could very well be a National Title), the most important player for Rick Pitino’s squad just might be the dude manning the pivot.
Mathiang has no chance of being the star of this team, but he could be the player with the biggest impact.
Louisville is not an especially deep team this year, and is projected to go about seven deep at the beginning of the season. The depth situation obviously puts the onus on each of the rotation players to not only play better than they would have to otherwise, but also for them to play with more consistency. Cards fans essentially know what they’re getting from the rest of the starting five, but Mathiang is the big question mark that could move this team into the upper tier of college basketball teams.
If Mathiang begins to approach his goal of becoming Gorgui Dieng, it could be another special year for Rick Pitino’s squad.
The first thing Mathiang must do to help his team is stay on the court. Mathiang was simply not strong enough to bang in the paint last year, and as a result he only reached 20 minutes of action in seven of Louisville’s 37 games last year, and didn’t reach 20 minutes once in the Cards’ last 24 games. He has gained muscle in the offseason in hopes of being less of a liability against stronger big men. With such a short rotation, Pitino must be able to trust Mathiang enough so that he doesn’t have to give too many minutes to his stable of young bigs, who, like all Pitino freshman, will struggle to acclimate to the college game. Plus, if Mathiang can be more than serviceable, he can be the insurance this team needs if Harrell gets in foul trouble or has an off game.
Mathiang doesn’t have to be an All-Conference selection, but he must be a guy that opposing teams account for in the scouting report. If Mathiang is operating efficiently on offense, it opens up more offensive boards for Harrell (a beast on the o-boards already), allows for more creative off-ball movement when Mathiang is in position to pass, and opens up more scoring when Louisville runs pick and roll. Louisville is notorious for their ability to score in transition (although that aspect of the offense will necessarily suffer with the loss of the one man fast break, Russ Smith—let’s just hope he learns to share some of those transition buckets with Anthony Davis for mind-melting alley-oops) while struggling in the half-court.
Any offensive development by a rotation player will significantly help a Louisville team that has Chris Jones effectively punting on offense with ill-advised pull-up jumpers. Mathiang doesn’t have to be the reason that the Louisville offense works, he just can’t be the reason it doesn’t. If he is a black hole on offense that can’t score easy buckets, turns the ball over at a maddening rate, and shrinks the court by having his offensive inability allow his defender to sneak away in help defense, Louisville simply won’t have an efficient half-court offense.
Now to the most important part of any center’s job: rim protection. If Mathiang can impersonate Dieng in only one aspect, this is the one he should choose. Rim protection is obviously key to any successful defense, but this is especially true with a team like Louisville. Pitino’s clubs thrive off ball-pressure, and if Louisville’s guards can gamble knowing they have an insurance policy waiting at the rim, they can force tougher shots and generate more turnovers by really getting into their man, all without sacrificing the integrity of the team defense. It’s the same principle that applies to cornerbacks: if an average cornerback has 2004 Ed Reed behind him, he doesn’t need to shut down his man on every play; he can play the receiver honestly, funnel him towards the ball hawk destined for Canton, and even go for an interception knowing that his back is covered. But what if you have 2014 Ed Reed as the safety? Then the corner has to decide whether to give up short completions or defend against the big play; either way, the offense knows it can attack that matchup and the whole defensive scheme gets thrown out of whack just trying to compensate.
Obviously, you can win a National Title without being in the top tier of college basketball teams (see Huskies, University of Connecticut, 2011 and 2014.) Louisville has the talent to be in the top tier, it’s all just a matter of player development and the team coming together. But, if Louisville fans really want to know whether they should book their tickets to Indy early or not, they would be wise to keep an eye on the man trying to be Gorgui.
*Section Photo credit to Andy Lyons, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Jamie Rhodes, USA Today Sports