Trio of 7-footers aiming high at UC Irvine
NOV 07, 2013 2:08p ET
IRVINE, Calif. — There's something big going on down in south Orange County.
UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner is a pretty tall guy himself at 6-foot-7, but as his team gathers around him and his clipboard at practice, Turner is dwarfed.
Two players at 6-foot-10, Connor Clifford at 7-even, Ioannis Dimakopoulos at 7-foot-2 and then finally, the one that stands more than a head taller than the rest is Mamadou Ndiaye – a 7-foot-6 center born in Senegal that prepped in Huntington Beach.
The Anteaters can confidently say they boast the tallest team in the nation.
"It's hard enough being amongst the trees," said sophomore guard Travis Souza. "It's a lot harder to score in the key during practice. I see these guys every day and it's still hard to get used to it at practice."
Last year, the Anteaters were knocked out of the Big West Tournament in the championship game. The excitement has carried over this season, as the buzz around the team has become as big as their big men. A crowd of 1,601 was on hand for a recent exhibition game against nearby Vanguard University.
Last season, only 846 showed up for the same exhibition contest and that was thought to be a big crowd.
"I think it's a product of the excitement around campus and they know we have a chance to be good," Turner said.
"Also, we've got visible guys," he said, pointing to Ndiaye.
The legend around Ndiaye has grown to almost the stature of his extra-tall frame. The stories are all true: He does back flips, plays soccer, rides a bike everywhere he goes and sometimes, when the biggest man on campus doesn't feel like being bothered, he wears headphones connected to nothing but his sweatshirt pockets.
Taller than any player on an NBA roster, Ndiaye played only seven years of organized basketball but excelled quickly. Turner won't say that he is in any way a finished product, but more so an intriguing and fast-improving prospect.
"I feel my body starting to change and the coaches are helping me with my moves, my footwork and everything is getting better," Ndiaye said. "He's helping me to get better and go to the next high level."
The important thing is that Mamadou wants to get better, as do the rest of the Anteaters after coming so close last season. Now in his fourth season, the former NBA assistant has worked on developing a culture. His players are good students, good people and represent the university in a positive way while still being competitive in the Big West and beyond.
But now, that culture needs to be a winning one.
"We've got good guys who are trying hard to make us better," Turner said. "We talk about commitment, we talk about integrity, we talk about appreciation for the opportunituy…I feel good about the establishment of those things, but those things don't win games."
A few years ago, the country fell in love with the Anteaters when the upstart baseball team made it all the way to the College World Series in Omaha. The baseball program is now a perennial contender. Men's volleyball has won two-straight NCAA Championships and four in seven years.
It could finally be basketball's turn.
"Everybody thinks about that (championship) game a lot," Souza said. "You can feel it around school how much more basketball means to the school and to be known as the first group that kind of crossed the barrier to make that first Tournament appearance would be great."
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