One of the few knocks against Lorenzo Romar during his wildly successful tenure as head coach of the University of Washington basketball team has been his inability to recruit a dominant big man. There’s a reason for that–talented big men are as rare on college campuses as Lawrence Welk records. Even Arizona coach Lute Olson, who took the Wildcats to four Final Fours, had just one in 25 years.
But it looks like Romar scared one up, via Senegal, an Illinois prep school, and the College of Southern Idaho. Meet seven-footer Aziz N’Diaye. You and I will have our first chance to see N’Diaye Saturday afternoon, when the Huskies play Saint Martin’s in a exhibition game. From what I’ve been hearing about him, I can’t wait.
His conditioning: N’Diaye, who, let me repeat, is seven feet tall, ran the mile in 5:21. (Try that pace for even a quarter-mile next time you’re on the treadmill.) He finished first of all Husky players in Romar’s annual mile run.
His intensity: Abdul Gaddy says of N’Diaye’s defense: “He’s kind of like a Venoy, but he’s a big guy in the middle.” Venoy being Venoy Overton, the disruptive defender who led the Huskies in steals last season.
His work ethic: “If we had a workout at 6 in the morning, he’d be there at 5,” says N’Diaye’s prep school coach. “He knows this is his chance and he’s just working his butt off every day.”
His non-Hawes-ness: “We have not had a 7-footer that goes in there and mixes it up, a rebounder-enforcer type,” says Romar. “We haven’t had one that has had the defensive presence that way.”
You can’t read that quote without thinking of Spencer Hawes, the seven-foot center who played one disappointing season for the Huskies. Though he’s got center height, Hawes prefers to roam the perimeter. Or, as a friend put it, Hawes “doesn’t have a pair.” Now in his 4th NBA season, Hawes continues to struggle to do big man things. Though he’s Philadephia’s starting center, he’s seventh on the team in rebounding.
The last good Husky center was Todd MacCullough (now a professional pinball star), but he lacked N’Diaye’s athleticism. You really have to go back to Chris Welp, UW’s all-time leading scorer (1984-87) or James Edwards (1974-77), the last Husky big man to be named All-American, to find excellence at the center position.
The missing ingredient in the Huskies’ recent NCAA tourney runs has been height. Last year, they fell to a West Virginia team with three starters taller than 6’7″. Two years ago, Purdue’s 6’10 JuJuan Johnson had four key blocked shots in a two-point Husky loss. Against UConn in ’06, future NBA starting centers Josh Boone and Hilton Armstrong pushed the Huskies away from the basket in an OT loss.
If what we’ve heard about N’Diaye is true, the Huskies may finally have assembled a team with a chance at cutting down nets on CBS.