Oct. 26, 2010
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Aziz N'Diaye was working on post moves before practice. Soon an overmatched, undersized Huskies practice player who had been "guarding" the 7-footer shuffled off the floor.
As the stunned helper stumbled to the locker room Monday, Venoy Overton called over teammate Brendan Sherrer. The walk-on forward got next to the surprisingly solid, 260-pound N'Diaye -- then realized the thankless role he was about to assume.
Sherrer flashed a look of "No way" and walked off. Overton howled.
The Huskies are learning quickly about their new life with a skyscraping enforcer down low.
Sure, Washington has speed and athleticism entering this season of huge expectations. The Dawgs have four starters back from a team that reached the Sweet 16 of last spring's NCAA tournament.
But the defending Pac-10 tournament champions also have new size.
Specifically, they have a weapon coach Lorenzo Romar has never had in his nine years leading UW, in the form of a 22-year-old, a soft-spoken, hard-driving force from Senegal.
Think last March's loss to West Virginia in NCAA's regional semifinals might have gone differently with a 7-foot shot blocker ruling the paint?
"We have not had a 7-footer that goes in there and mixes it up, a rebounder-enforcer type. We haven't had one that has had the defensive presence that way," Romar said of N'Diaye, a former soccer player who didn't begin playing basketball in earnest until he was 14 years old.
"We've played the way we play and have gotten away with it without having one of the key components in making our system work. But now we have someone that is back there who is pretty imposing.
"He complements our style."
Jon Brockman of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks was a brutish force down low at UW. But he wasn't even 6-feet-8. Top-10 NBA pick Spencer Hawes was 7-feet tall, but Hawes liked to play farther from the basket for the Huskies.
N'Diaye (pronounced EN-jai) likes to defend the rim like it encircles his family inheritance.
"We've got a guy who if there is a breakdown, he can clean up that mess," Romar said.
And get this: He can run the floor with Overton, Isaiah Thomas and the rest of those little Dawgs over whom he towers.
"I can run for my size," N'Diaye says with a smile, in one of his three spoken languages.
In the Huskies' conditioning tests a few weeks ago, the 7-footer ran the mile in 5:20. And that's a year after he had reconstructive knee surgery that forced him to redshirt his second junior-college season at the College of Southern Idaho.
When Romar announced N'Diaye's time, he paused to wait for mouths to drop. Then the coach added, "So his conditioning ain't bad."
How did the Huskies' get this phenomenal force from afar, one who has the potential to end Washington's problems when matched against bigger teams, especially in the NCAA tournament?
They harvested SEEDS.
N'Diaye is among a recent crop of U.S. college imports to come from the NBA- and Nike-sponsored Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal. He spent two years in the SEEDS academy in Thies, two hours east inland from his hometown of Dakar.
It was his first time away from home. He was up at 5:30 a.m. for conditioning runs. He then attended high school-level classes. N'Diaye took French (his native language), plus mandatory English and elective Spanish. He also had science, math, history and geography courses before practice each day.
"It's a tough program," he said, strapping on ankle braces and lacing up his shoes for Monday's practice at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. "Everyone who goes there, you can see physically they are getting better every day. It's a good program."
From SEEDS, N'Diaye joined the Basketball Without Borders program. He went to Johannesburg, South Africa, and made that country's junior national team. He went to a camp in Germany, where he met and trained with NBA players.
"That's why I am so used to being away from home," he said.
N'Diaye's long road to UW got shorter when Romar hired Rapahel Chillious onto his staff before last season. Chillious, a former manager for Nike's elite youth basketball program, saw N'Diaye at the SEEDS academy in 2006, when Chillious was the coach at South Kent prep school in Connecticut.
"He was basically the same guy defensively," Chillious said. "It was just his sheer size and ability. Look at the guy's maturity. He's really low-key. He has a quiet intensity. He's definitely the old man on this team already."
Washington's other inside track to N'Diaye came from its strong relationship with the College of Southern Idaho, one the Huskies had even before N'Diaye went to CSI from 2008 through this past spring.
Assistant coach Jim Shaw has made habitual visits to the campus in Twin Falls, Idaho -- not exactly on the usual recruiting path. Often, he has gone when the Huskies haven't been interested in any player on Southern Idaho's roster.
"Just to stop by," Romar says, smiling with the knowledge that such dogged work paid off in signing N'Diaye.
After averaging 8.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game in his first year at CSI, N'Diaye tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and redshirted last season. That is why the junior-college transfer is only a sophomore at UW.
Yes, the Huskies get three seasons to enjoy this potentially revolutionary addition to their running, pressing style.
Yet for all N'Diaye's promise and prodigious size, he is still 2½ weeks away from his first Division I game, Nov. 13's opener against McNeese State. So naturally Romar throws up a caution flag.
"He didn't play (or practice) at all last year. He's still developing as a post player," the coach said. "It may take him a while to get going. So don't expect in the first game he's going to come out and be `Shaq.'"
Those expectations may change, though, come tournament time in March. "Every time we've gone to the Sweet 16, that (opposing) team looks the same," Romar said. "They have different jerseys, but the makeup of that team looks the same: they have size.
"Aziz is the guy that, when we play those type teams, he's someone that hopefully can neutralize their big guys that way."