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Mamadou Ndiaye makes a big difference for UC Irvine

UC Irvine's 7-6 center is a game changer, but coach worries about officials

It doesn't matter the city or the setting, the day or occasion.

It could be morning, afternoon, night or, as the case here, in comparison-inducing juxtaposition to the Space Needle.

When you stand 7 feet 6, as Mamadou Ndiaye does, the world tends to revolve around you.

"Look at his shoes," a fan said Thursday as UC Irvine practiced at KeyArena in advance of Friday's NCAA basketball tournament opener against Louisville.

Cameras clicked often as Ndiaye, wearing a red No. 34 practice jersey, ran up the court with his teammates.

After practice, Ndiaye patiently posed for pictures and signed autographs. A woman wanted a shot comparing her wingspan to his.

If Ndiaye was bothered, he didn't show it.

UC Irvine's first NCAA appearance is huge, but there is no bigger deal in the tournament than Ndiaye.

Suggesting Irvine is a different team with him on the floor is a giant-sized understatement. "We're different when he's out there because we have a guy who is a half-foot taller than anybody's ever seen on the floor," Irvine Coach Russell Turner joked.

Last week, after Irvine clinched its first NCAA bid with a win over Hawaii in the Big West Conference tournament championship at Honda Center, Ndiaye cut down the net without need of a ladder.

Ndiaye shrinks the game every time he steps on the court. People seem to get smaller, and so does the ball.

Irvine was a different team when he missed 10 games this season because of a foot injury. It is a better team now that he has played in the last seven. He averages 10 points and seven rebounds a game.

Keeping Ndiaye on the floor is one of Irvine's biggest concerns. Louisville won't be the first team that may try to coax Ndiaye into fouls.

Louisville is favored in the game but ranks No. 68 — last — among NCAA tournament teams in three-point shooting percentage (30.4%).

Trying to shoot over a guy with a wingspan of eight feet is not a good way to improve that percentage.

Louisville has one 7-footer and two 6-10 players to throw at Ndiaye. "I know that's their plan," Ndiaye said, "to try to get me in foul trouble. But we'll see."

Ndiaye said he has to play smart and not get tricked.

One problem unique to Ndiaye is that his size requires interpretations of the rule book.

For example, Ndiaye can receive a pass in the post, make a legal pivot, but inadvertently foul a defender with an elbow to the face.

It happened in Saturday's win over Hawaii. In practice, Turner said, some Irvine defenders have taken to protecting themselves by wearing MMA headgear.

"Mamadou's incredibly difficult to officiate," Turner said. "He's dangerous when he just makes normal basketball plays. When he pivots legally and his elbows are up, if you're in the wrong spot, you're going to have a problem."

Turner is asking only that the officials do their homework.

"Mamadou's different," Turner said. "He's got different power. I worry that the rule that exits in college basketball about elbow contact to heads is one that officials can't get their arms completely around sometimes."

Turner said the biggest issue with his center is opponents feigning fouls, "teams that flop."

Louisville Coach Rick Pitino was coy about any strategy to get Ndiaye in early foul trouble.

"I don't think we're too concerned about that because he doesn't play a lot of minutes," said Pitino, noting Ndiaye's 19.1 minutes-per-game average.

Pitino said he is more concerned about early tournament upsets that give confidence to upstarts such as Irvine.

There were two Thursday as No. 14-seeded teams took out third seeds: Alabama Birmingham over Iowa State and Georgia State over Baylor.

"I'm watching all these upsets and can't quite believe what I'm watching," Pitino said.

The Big 12 entered the tournament ranked No. 1 in RPI — a power rating — but is in danger of leading the R.I.P. rankings after Iowa State, Baylor and Texas lost.

"You really have to be on top of your game in the first round," Pitino said.

Irvine players were also following the upsets. "It kind of proves the point that in March Madness anybody can win," guard Travis Souza said.

The Anteaters arrived in the media interview room just minutes after UAB defeated Iowa State.

"Seeing that score," Anteaters guard Alex Young said, "kind of gives you a sense of confidence that anything can be done at this time of the year."

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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