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UC Irvine center Mamadou Ndiaye creates altering reality for opponents

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Four points, 11 rebounds, four blocked shots. That was center Mamadou Ndiaye's contribution last week in 33 minutes toward UC Irvine's 46-44 victory over Long Beach State.

It might be the most deceiving box score line in college basketball this season.

"I don't think I've ever seen anybody influence a game more than he did and only score four points," Long Beach Coach Dan Monson said of Ndiaye, a 7-foot-6, 300-pound freshman who is the tallest player in the nation.

"He even altered some shots when he wasn't in the game. I'm being totally serious. Our guys would go inside, and they're looking around for him. He was a game-changer."

With a wing span of 99 inches — more than 8 feet — Ndiaye can touch the rim without jumping. And with startling quickness for his size, Ndiaye (pronounced "en-Jye") seems to cover as much space as the back line of a 2-3 zone . . . by himself.

He altered at least a dozen other shots beyond the ones he blocked against the 49ers, and he was the primary reason Long Beach shot 31.5%. Ndiaye also dunked with 2 minutes 6 seconds left for a 45-43 lead, ending an 81/2-minute Anteaters scoring drought, and took a charge for a key 49ers turnover with 1:34 left.

"I feel like he was part of messing up my groove," said Long Beach's star guard, Mike Caffey, who missed all eight of his shots. "When my shot isn't falling, I try to get inside, but he's really effective in there."

It's one thing to dominate at a tiny high school like Huntington Beach Brethren Christian, where Ndiaye averaged 27 points, 14 rebounds and 4.5 blocks a game last season.

It's another to step — even with size-19 high-tops — into an immediate starting role for a Division I program, pitted against players who are much bigger, stronger and quicker than anyone you have ever faced, and be a disruptive force in your third year of organized competition.

"A lot of people seemed to have great questions about whether he'd be a good Division I player," Irvine Coach Russell Turner said. "I never did, and I thought those who did were a little bit foolish and didn't try to get to know him or watch him more than a time or two.

"Because if you focus on what he doesn't do, you can make a great case for him not being very good. But if you look a little deeper, it's pretty obvious he's going to be a real good player."

How good? Turner snickers and rolls his eyes when asked if Ndiaye is "NBA material."

"I mean, is the sky blue?" said Turner, who spent six years as an assistant with the NBA's Golden State Warriors. "It's not like he's just a 7-foot-6 guy. He's a 7-6 guy with an incredible desire to be good, with great athleticism, great length, and skills that are rapidly improving."

First things first

An NBA career was the furthest thing from Ndiaye's mind 3 1/2 years ago. All he wanted was for the headaches to stop.

Ndiaye had traveled more than 6,000 miles from his home in Dakar, Senegal, the westernmost major city in Africa, to Simi Valley in the fall of 2010 to attend Stoneridge Prep, a private academy and haven for hoops-playing foreign exchange students.

"It was scary," Ndiaye, 20, said. "I didn't know anything about the U.S. I didn't speak English. Everything was different."

Including him. It's hard to fit in when you have to duck under doorways, when you're so large your handshake grips another person's forearm.

"Some of my friends were a little scared of me at first," Ndiaye said.

Then Ndiaye got a scare. Soon after enrolling at Stoneridge, he was diagnosed with a tumor on his pituitary gland, which controls growth. The golf ball-sized mass was pressing on Ndiaye's optic nerve, threatening his sight.

Stoneridge didn't have adequate insurance to cover surgery but found charitable foundations in Orange County that would. Ndiaye commuted from Simi Valley to Newport Beach for doctor visits and underwent two operations at Hoag Hospital to remove the tumor.

An intensive care unit nurse who met Ndiaye offered, with her husband, to become his legal guardian. Ndiaye agreed. He moved into the couple's Huntington Beach home in January 2011 and enrolled at Brethren Christian, where he played his junior and senior seasons.

"I was driving two hours from Simi Valley to Newport Beach every day, and I couldn't handle it anymore," Ndiaye said. "I met a nice lady who worked at Hoag. She said I could stay with them, that they had a nice school here. I said that was fine.

"I wasn't worried about basketball, I was worried about my health. If there was an emergency, I wanted to be close to the hospital."

Big man on campus

Ndiaye and Brethren Christian, a school of 250 students grades six through 12, were a comfortable, easy pairing.

Within weeks, Ndiaye was high-fiving — well, for him, low-fiving — classmates in hallways. Even players from opposing basketball teams grew to like him, chit-chatting and trading fist bumps with him during games.

"From day one, his personality was as big as his body," Brethren Christian Coach Jon Bahnsen said. "He's a character. He likes to have fun. He enjoys all different types of people and gets along with everyone."

Ndiaye's transition to UC Irvine has been just as smooth. The schoolwork is difficult, and it's a challenge squeezing into the small seats on the commuter jets the team takes to some games, but Ndiaye, who speaks four languages — English, French, Arabic and Wolof — had no trouble fitting in.

"He's an incredibly positive guy," Turner said. "He has more patience than anyone I've ever seen. Everyone who sees him wants to take a picture with him. . . . But he manages it with an aplomb that shocks me."

What allows Ndiaye to see beyond the gawks, stares and double-takes?

"He has a special charisma that not many guys have," Turner said. "The guy smiles like Magic Johnson. He lights up the whole room."

Ndiaye greets classmates and teammates with a booming, baritone voice. He's quick with a joke or laugh. He loves hanging out with friends, watching movies, eating at In-N-Out Burger.

"People ask me all the time — 'How big is your bed? How big is your shower?' It's hard, but if you humble yourself, it will be all right," Ndiaye said. "I don't get mad. I do what I can to have fun. I thank God for helping me handle it."

On-the-job training

On the court, Ndiaye is no Mr. Nice Guy. He's a bruiser, as Irvine sophomore Conor Clifford, a 7-footer from Huntington Beach Ocean View High, can attest.

"I played against him in tryouts for a traveling team a few years ago, and I was like dead for three days," Clifford said. "I was exhausted."

Now Clifford bangs against Ndiaye every day in practice.

"It's a great physical challenge because he's stronger than anyone I've faced," Clifford said. "You have to be on your A game, because he's going to push you around."

With a sound body and added muscle from increased weight-room work, Ndiaye has grown stronger and more durable than he was at Brethren Christian.

"He was never healthy in high school," Turner said. "To compare him now from then is like comparing two different people."

Ndiaye's game, especially on offense, is still raw. His low-post moves are limited, and double-teams can confuse him. Defensively, he goes for a few too many head fakes and can get into foul trouble.

He's averaging 8.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in 20 minutes per game and is shooting 76.8% (63 for 82) before Thursday's game against Cal State Fullerton, but most baskets are dunks. He's shooting 40% (24 for 60) from the free-throw line.

"His weakness is a lack of experience and instinct," Turner said, "and that shows up sometimes with his footwork, his hands, his reactions."

But Ndiaye can also resemble a young Patrick Ewing, so menacing is his shot-blocking ability. He jumps well for his size, his stamina is improving, and he's more athletic than he might seem.

"I've seen him stand by the side of a swimming pool and do a standing back flip into the water," Turner said. "Think about that for a second."

Ndiaye watches video of Shaquille O'Neal for inspiration. He admires Kobe Bryant and has met the Lakers star several times.

His immediate goal is to lead Irvine (11-7) to the Big West Conference title and its first NCAA tournament appearance. But, improbable as this might seem, he aspires to greater heights.

"I can definitely imagine playing in the NBA," Ndiaye said. "I hope to have the opportunity."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna

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