UC Irvine's 7-6 Mamadou Ndiaye doesn't shrink from Louisville challenge

Mamadou Ndiaye, UC Irvine's 7-foot-6 center, looks forward to facing 'the big team,' the Louisville Cardinals

UC Irvine players say Friday's historic NCAA tournament game against Louisville will not be too big for them.

Not with the tallest player in Division I on the court for the Anteaters.

"I'm excited for this opportunity," 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye said Tuesday after practice. "We're going to face the big team."

Louisville has won three national titles and is making its 41st NCAA tournament appearance.

Irvine is in the tournament for the first time.

Ndiaye, a sophomore, said he recalled watching Senegalese friend Gorgui Dieng play for Louisville a few years ago. Dieng now plays in the NBA for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"It's fun to face the big guys," Ndiaye said.

Ndiaye sat out 19 games during January and February because of a foot injury. But he has been effective since returning.

Last Saturday, Ndiaye scored eight points, took six rebounds and blocked two shots in 22 minutes in the Anteaters' 67-58 victory over Hawaii in the Big West Conference tournament championship game.

He is averaging 10.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.

Irvine Coach Russell Turner has told his players that they must be physical to match up against Louisville.

"I like this kind of game," Ndiaye said, "because it's more fun. It's more physical."

Ndiaye said he would not be nervous Friday when the Anteaters take the court at KeyArena in Seattle.

"It's not like we just made it and now we're done," he said. "We're going there to make more history for the school."

Finals fever

Senior forward Will Davis II did not have much time to bask in the glow of Sunday's bracket announcement.

Davis took a final on Monday night, anotherTuesday morning and was preparing for his last exam Tuesday night.

"After that," he joked, "I can focus on the game."

Davis could get much of Louisville's attention.

The 6-foot-8 senior forward averages a team-best 12.9 points and seven rebounds.

Davis graduated from Sacramento High and then attended New Hampton Prep in New Hampshire before coming to Irvine.

He said that during his recruitment, a coach from an East Coast school that had been to the NCAA tournament questioned why Davis would consider Irvine and other schools.

"So, you're not interested in winning?" Davis recalled the coach saying.

Davis scored 10 points and took 10 rebounds in the conference tournament championship game and is thrilled to finally experience March Madness.

"I just assumed where I went, we'd win," he said.

Coach's rewards

Some of the most enjoyable parts of gaining the tournament berth were "the little moments" that he did not expect, Turner said.

"Just the people I've heard from in my past," he said, adding, "That's about as good as can happen for anybody doing anything — to be acknowledged from people who have had an impact on your journey."

Turner also noted a meaningful moment with his 7-year-old son. They were watching television when a montage of images of the teams that made the tournament came up on the screen.

"Just the way he cheered, and the pride he felt in seeing me," Turner said. "It was like the pride I felt when I was expressing myself the way I did."

Quick tips

Irvine fans are invited to send off the Anteaters on Wednesday at 2:45 p.m., outside the Bren Events Center…. A watch party for Friday's 1 p.m. game will be held at the school's Newkirk Alumni Center. Doors open at noon.

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

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