- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- It was only four months ago, but both Louisville and Duke have decided that their beachfront meeting in Atlantis qualifies as ancient history.
The teams have changed, the stakes are different, and the fact that Duke won, both sides insist, has zero relevance. The game might as well have not been played.
Except for one small caveat. Well, maybe not so small. The caveat is 6-foot-11, 245-pound Gorgui Dieng.
Dieng missed that Battle in Atlantis title game in November because of a wrist injury, an omission that changed things dramatically for Louisville and might have aided the result for Duke.
So the big question, the big unknown really, in Sunday's Elite Eight matchup is how significant will Dieng’s presence be.
The agreed-upon answer: pretty big.
“It helps their defense because he’s such a great rim protector," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They hit you with different types of defenses, and you can be even more aggressive knowing that your basket is protected."
A onetime defensive shot-blocker with a limited offensive game, Dieng has evolved into a more than capable scorer. He is the Cardinals’ second-leading scorer, behind Russ Smith, and the team’s leading rebounder.
He got there the old-fashioned way, by working hard. Rick Pitino said Dieng’s combination of intelligence and cultural belief that you simply do what your elders tell you has built him into a force.
“When he goes home, if there’s a 25-year-old that doesn’t have a seat and he’s sitting there at 23, he’s got to give the seat up for the 25-year-old," Pitino said. “His culture is you listen to anybody who is older than you. Anybody. And that’s why he’s grown so much, because there’s nobody else in his ear."
The deferential Dieng, who grew up in Senegal and came here through his country’s SEEDS program, is maybe the only person on either roster who is making a big deal about the first meeting in November.
He spent Friday night chewing the ear of his roommate, Smith, telling him how awful and helpless he felt in that Atlantis game and how much he is looking forward to another chance.
“I never had that feeling in my life, just sitting on the bench, seeing my team losing," Dieng said. “If I had my choice, I would have worn a jersey and stepped on the court."
WHO TO WATCH
For Duke, Quinn Cook is the key. The point guard was less than stellar against Michigan State, shooting 0-for-5 from the floor and committing three turnovers. Cook was sensational the first time the Blue Devils played Louisville, scoring 15 points. But he did cough up four turnovers -- and that was before the Cardinals found their new defensive gear.
He doesn’t have to be great against Louisville, but he has to be solid against the Cardinals’ defensive pressure. Cook has been pretty consistent all season, averaging just 2.2 turnovers per game. But it’s more his ability to dictate tempo and keep his composure that matters.
For Louisville, keep an eye on Luke Hancock. The Cards' best 3-point shooter can spread the floor much like Ryan Kelly does for Duke. Hancock hasn’t had a big game yet in the NCAA tournament, or even stretching it to the Big East tournament final. Through those last four games, he is just 3-of-11 from behind the arc, having taken just 16 shots from the floor.
Louisville hasn’t needed him to be strong lately, which is the good news for the Cardinals. But he’s due for a big game. This might be a nice time for it.
WHAT TO WATCH
It may not be terribly gripping viewing, but keep an eye on the fouls. Duke has a habit of getting to the free throw line and doesn’t miss much once it’s earned a ticket. Against Michigan State in the Sweet 16, the Blue Devils made 26 attempts and drained 24 of them. That’s a huge number, one that Louisville, which can get into foul trouble, has to be aware of.
Meantime, the Cardinals had to play the better part of their Sweet 16 first half against Oregon without Peyton Siva. Kevin Ware helped stem the tide against the Ducks, but Louisville can’t afford so much bench time for Siva, Smith or Dieng against the Blue Devils. Louisville has to toe the line it has walked so well late in this season, being aggressive without being foolishly risky.