PHOENIX — The first time Louisville Coach Rick Pitino reached this stage — one win from advancing to the NCAA tournament’s final weekend — he guided Providence to a Final Four berth in 1987.
That squad was led by a plucky guard who needed little more than an opportunity and some guidance. The guard’s name was Billy Donovan.
On Thursday, after Pitino had led a team to the Elite Eight for the 10th time in his career, he thought back 25 years and reflected that this year’s Louisville squad reminded him “so much of my ’87 Providence team because they’re so humble and so hungry.”
Fourth-seeded Louisville will square off against seventh-seeded Florida — coached by Donovan — on Saturday in the West Region final, and the Pitino-Donovan connection adds plenty of intrigue to this matchup.
But Louisville has advanced this far in the NCAA tournament because it has something else in common with that Providence squad from a quarter-century ago: The Cardinals possess a player who not long ago needed little more than an opportunity and some guidance, though this time it’s a 6-foot-11 Senegalese center named Gorgui Dieng.
During Louisville’s 57-44 win Thursday over top-seeded Michigan State, Dieng tallied nine rebounds, seven blocks and three steals and did not come out of the game.
Dieng, a sophomore, was physical and intimidating in the post; or, more precisely, everything he wasn’t the first time Pitino laid eyes on him.
Two years ago, Pitino and then-assistant Walter McCarty went to see Louisville commit Justin Coleman play at Huntington Prep in West Virginia.
Pitino said he came away more impressed with Dieng, who also played at Huntington Prep.
“Gorgui was just weak,” Pitino recalled. “He came into this country [weighing] 187 pounds.”
Shortly after Dieng arrived in Louisville, he told Pitino he wanted to play in the NBA one day. Pitino, who coached eight years in the NBA, told Dieng he needed considerable development before that dream would be realistic.
“You’re going to have to bear with me,” Pitino recalled telling Dieng. “I’m going to drive you like you’ve never been driven before.”
“What do you mean by ‘drive’?” Dieng responded.
“You’re going to see,” Pitino said.
Dieng could not work out nor condition with the team in the fall of 2010 because he was academically ineligible for his first collegiate semester. But in the past year, teammates said, Dieng has physically matured and grown more fluent with the English language, and both of those developments have aided him on the court.
It helped that he took the same approach in both areas.
“I’m really stubborn,” Dieng said Friday. “If I say I’m going to do this, then nobody’s going to stop me. I’m going to do it.”
On Friday, Donovan compared Dieng to Kentucky forward Anthony Davis, thought by many to be the national player of the year, in terms of being his team’s defensive anchor.
Dieng is averaging 9.2 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game. He weighs 235 pounds and no longer can be described as weak.
Donovan said he is impressed with Dieng’s transformation.
In some ways, it mirrors his own as a player under Pitino. The first time Donovan met Pitino in 1985, he told Providence’s new coach he wanted to transfer. That didn’t work out — Donovan’s intended destinations didn’t want him.
Pitino challenged Donovan to lose roughly 30 pounds so he could play the Friars’ pressure defense. As a senior in 1987, a slimmer Donovan helped Providence reach the Final Four.
Pitino said that ’87 team recently arranged a 25th anniversary celebration in Miami, and before Thursday’s game he referenced the significance of that squad’s accomplishment to his current players.
That Providence squad, Pitino said Friday, taught him to dream, and now, thanks in part to the efforts of Dieng, Pitino finds himself dreaming once again.
With one more win, Pitino told his team, the Cardinals will be in line for their own anniversary celebration in 25 years.
“Nobody ever forgets a Final Four team,” Pitino said.