What Does Gorgui Dieng’s Injury Mean for Louisville and the Big East Race?Posted by Will Tucker on November 27th, 2012
After hanging tough with Duke for 39 minutes without Gorgui Dieng, Louisville only trailed by three as the Blue Devils milked their last possession. Thirty-two seconds and six ticks on the shot clock remained when Quinn Cook baited Russ Smith into lunging for a steal beyond the three-point line. With a head of steam and the middle of the floor cleared out, Stephan Van Treese was the only thing with a pulse separating Cook from the basket. The 6’1″ Duke sophomore charged a responsible distance into the lane, pulled up, and effortlessly delivered a floating dagger that put a nail in the coffin of the Cardinals’ comeback.
Simply put, that shot from Cook isn’t there with Gorgui Dieng in the game. The 6’11″, 245-pound defensive juggernaut had broken his wrist the night before in Louisville’s win against Missouri –– appropriately enough, taking a charge. Though Peyton Siva was the preseason favorite for Big East Player of the Year, Dieng is the safety valve that makes it possible for Siva and Smith to play tenacious, often reckless, defense, which yields 5.8 steals per game between them. Louisville’s guards had grown accustomed to being bailed out by Dieng, and on Saturday night they got a taste of life without one of the country’s pre-eminent big man around to anchor its defense. Without Dieng lording over the paint, the psychology of his shot-blocking reputation looming larger even than his 194 career rejections, Quinn Cook pulled up without hesitation, and the rest is history.
Monday we learned that Dieng did, in fact, suffer a fracture to the scaphoid bone in his left wrist, which will require surgery Tuesday and keep him on the bench for 4-6 weeks. The carpal fracture is a problematic injury, and the healing process is an unpredictable one because it’s at such an underserved point in the circulatory system. The stout challenge of filling in for the Senegalese junior will primarily befall 6’9″ senior Stephan Van Treese (2 PPG, 2.5 RPG) and 6’10″ sophomore Zach Price (1 PPG, 1.6 RPG), although Pitino may at times elect to go small with Montrezl Harrell and Chane Behanan splitting duties down low. Van Treese has distinguished himself as a gritty offensive rebounder, although his limited skill set has kept him out of Pitino’s rotation for much of his career. Nonetheless, his pugnacious performance against lottery pick Mason Plumlee on Saturday––racking up eight points and eight rebounds on 80% shooting –– displayed the kind of fearlessness that Dieng’s absence will demand of his backups. Price, for his part, is a former top-70 recruit with great size, but lacks the lateral foot speed necessary to play the athletic man-to-man that has helped make Rick Pitino’s defense the most efficient in the country. He was a huge liability against Duke’s speed the other night, and Pitino will likely have to switch to a more passive zone when Price enters the game.
Louisville fans’ thoughts undoubtedly turned to Kentucky when they learned of their center’s prognosis. While Louisville’s seasoned roster held a slight edge with Dieng manning the paint, nothing can turn the tables faster than losing your most talented player at your thinnest position. Even if Dieng makes an ideal recovery and is cleared for contact again the week of the Kentucky game (December 29), he will still be in the nascent stages of a rehabilitation process that will surely limit his minutes and effectiveness. Van Treese and Price should plan to endure the full onslaught of Kentucky freshmen Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein. Perhaps more importantly, Russ Smith and Peyton Siva will have to tailor their defensive risk-taking in the half-court to the abilities of the personnel in the paint behind them.
What does the loss of Dieng mean for the rest of the Big East? Well, Syracuse suddenly looks like the league’s most complete team, and overtakes the Cardinals yesterday in the Coaches Poll for the first time at #5. More significantly, Dieng’s injury exposes Louisville to some potential stumbles in the brutal latter two weeks of its January schedule. Between January 14-28, the Cards face a gauntlet that includes @UConn, Syracuse, @Georgetown and Pitt. Dieng’s initial medical timetable places him back on the court between the last week of December and the Cards’ road game to Seton Hall on January 9. But how long will it take for Dieng to reach full strength, and how effective willVan Treese and Price have become in his absence? Any upset losses suffered while learning to reincorporate Dieng into the rotation could change the complexion of what initially seemed like a cut-and-dry Big East race.