LAFAYETTE — Shawn Long has gone up against bigger players before on the basketball floor, but most were only marginally larger than Louisiana-Lafayette’s 6-foot-11 senior forward.
That changes in a big way Wednesday night.
Make that a gigantic way, when the Ragin’ Cajuns take on UC-Irvine in the quarterfinals of the CollegeInsider.com tournament.
The biggest thing in college basketball — literally — will hit the Cajundome floor for the 7:15 p.m. tipoff, with 7-foot-6 junior center Mamadou Ndiaye part of what could be the country’s biggest basketball team, the NBA included.
“They’re very big, and they’re very experienced,” Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said of the Anteaters (26-9), the No. 1 seed in the CIT. “They were in the NCAA tournament last year, they led Louisville in that first round and they start three seniors and two juniors.”
The Anteaters are also quite likely the tallest team the Cajuns have faced since going against Minnesota in the 1980 NIT. Along with Ndiaye, UCI starts 6-10 senior forward Mike Best, and 7-2 Ioannis Dimakopoulos and 6-10 Jonathan Galloway also play regular roles.
But it’s Ndiaye who turns heads.
The Dakar, Senegal, native averages 12.2 points and 7.1 rebounds, and if he makes his expected move to the NBA, he’ll tie for the third-tallest player in league history.
Only Manute Bol and Gheorghe Muresan, both at 7-7, stood taller.
The NCAA doesn’t have full records on tallest Division I players, but Kenny George played at 7-foot-8 for UNC-Asheville from 2006-08 and is acknowledged as the tallest regular performer.
But Marlin said Ndiaye’s presence means much more than those inches and those numbers. Marlin also remembered one moment he saw while watching UCI’s semifinal loss to Long Beach State in the Big West tournament.
“There was a play where the ball got stuck (between the rim and the glass backboard),” Marlin said. “Ndiaye stood up flat-footed and pulled it down. I’ve never seen that in all my years of basketball.
“He’s a lot bigger than Shawn. ... That’s a big difference. You wouldn’t think it would be, but the guy’s almost a foot taller. It’s a problem for us. He’s got such a wingspan he can block a lot of shots.”
The Cajuns (19-14), making their second CIT quarterfinal appearance after losing to eventual champion Evansville last year, are facing UCI for the first time. The winner advances to the semifinals against an opponent to be determined, with three of the four CIT quarterfinals Wednesday and the other Thursday.
If UL-Lafayette should win, the Cajuns likely will host a semifinal game Easter Sunday since the Cajundome is not available Saturday. CBS Sports Network will air both CIT semifinals and the March 29, championship game.
Long (19.2 points, 12.1 rebounds) enters Wednesday’s game tied with David Robinson (Navy) and Keith Lee (Memphis) for 12th on the NCAA all-time double-double list with 74. He’s the NCAA’s active leader in double-doubles and rebounds (1,436), which is also the top mark in school and Sun Belt Conference history. He also ranks second among active players in points (2,332) and fifth in rebound average (10.7).
In Saturday’s second-round 80-72 win at Furman — a game that wasn’t as close as the final score — Long became the third player in school history to grab 400 rebounds in a season. He’s the leader of the nation’s 11th-ranked team in rebound margin (plus-8.3).
But those numbers came against teams that didn’t come as close to the Cajundome ceiling as the Anteaters, who edged North Dakota 89-86 in a first-round game last week and got a bye in the second round thanks to their Ken Pomeroy rating.
Ironically, UCI’s biggest scoring threat isn’t one of the towers. Guard Luke Nelson of Worthing, England, at a mere 6-3, leads the team at 13.9 points per game, and point guard Alex Young is at 10.2 points and 4.5 assists.
“Nelson is a very good player, probably making about 40 percent from 3-point range,” Marlin said. “Alex Young has a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and makes all the right plays.”
Long was handicapped by foul problems at Furman after getting 17 points and 10 rebounds in the opening-round 96-72 win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
Devonta Walker had a double-double by halftime against the Paladins and finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds, while guard Kasey Shepherd had a team-high 18 points and went over 1,000 for his career.