Dieng putting exclamation point to his game

NEW YORK – When Gorgui Dieng first enrolled at the University of Louisville, he was more exclamation point than Big East post player.

With 187 pounds stretched to its limits over a nearly 7-foot frame, guys like Fab Melo, Yancy Gates, Henry Sims and Jack Cooley could have him used as a toothpick.

And post moves?

Let’s just say Dieng had the moves like Jagger.

“I didn’t have any,’’ the sophomore said.

But after some dedicated weight training and personal tutelage from Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, daily 45-minute private sessions that were about as fun as they sound – “Oh no, it wasn’t fun at all,’’ Dieng laughed – Dieng now is playing like an exclamation point instead of looking like one.

The Louisville big man scored 16 points and yanked down 6 rebounds, shooting a perfect 8-for-8 from the floor to help the Cards beat Notre Dame 64-50 and head to the Big East tournament championship game for the third time in four years.

Louisville will face Cincinnati in a title game that is perfectly emblematic of the shifting sands of conference realignment. This marks the first championship in which none of the league’s founding members are playing.

“Conference USA comes to the Big Apple,’’ Pitino joked, alluding to the two teams’ former league.

It is certainly not the final anyone predicted in November, or maybe January or February for that matter.

Cincinnati looked awful early, took part in an awful brawl against Xavier in December and lost to Rutgers in January.

Louisville, meantime, lost at Providence by 31 in January and spent the entire season blowing the budget on athletic training supplies. It got so bad Pitino worried about having enough players to practice.

Only three – Chris Smith, Chane Behanan and Dieng – have played in all 34 of the Cardinals’ games. Almost as many (Mike Marra and Rakeem Buckles) have missed the entire season with injury; Stephan Van Treese played in just three.

Fortunately for Louisville, Dieng was one of the mainstays.

He has not been spectacular but he has been steady, a reliable presence inside defensively and becoming a more deft scorer with every game.

The same player who averaged 5.7 points and 4.4 rebounds a year ago posted 11 double-doubles this season.

He even has moves, plenty of which were on display against the Irish.

“We wanted to go inside to Gorgui because they don’t tap the post and he did a very good job tonight of going to a variety of different moves, especially the jump hook,’’ Pitino said. “He’s becoming a terrific player. He plays real hard and the sky’s the limit to how good he can become down the road when he gets stronger.’’

Ah, the stronger part.

Dieng ballooned from 187 to 244 in a year, taking his charge to gain weight a little too far.

He checks in at a more muscular 235 now, but he’s still giving up plenty in the league. Cooley weighs in at 248 and stands just 6-9, Sims is 245 and 6-10, and Gates, who will Dieng will try to muscle around in the title game, is 260 pounds despite being only 6-9.

“I can tell I was kind of, I don’t want to say soft, but I wasn’t physical at all,’’ Dieng said. “I just got on the court and played. But (Pitino) changed my whole game. He made me like being physical.’’

Charming and friendly, the fish out of water – a Senegalese by birth now dropped in Kentucky horse country – has become a favorite in Louisville.

Fans love him and his teammates love to tease him for his malapropisms and still-balky English.

“He doesn’t get sarcasm at all,’’ Peyton Siva said.

Dieng, though, is getting this basketball thing down.

With an exclamation point.