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December 13, 2012Circle Dec. 22 on your calendar, Louisville basketball fans.
It could be a red-letter day for another reason: The return of center Gorgui Dieng.
We'll see, but Pitino is hopeful his 6-11 junior will have recovered enough from a broken left wrist and is in good enough shape to play. Pitino wants Dieng to re-acclimate himself before the Cardinals' annual grudge match against Kentucky (6-3) on Dec. 29 in the Yum!
If Dieng does, indeed, return for WKU, that means he will have missed six games and about four weeks, right on the original prognosis of a 4-6 week absence after he suffered the injury while trying to draw a charge against Missouri in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinal on Nov. 23.
He started working out late last week, catching the ball, dribbling and shooting, but Pitino said he needs to get get into much better condition.
"He's in pitiful shape," Pitino said. "He went through a 20-minute workout and couldn't even breathe. When you're in peak form and then you lose 10 days without doing anything, you get way out of shape. But by (this) Friday we'll have him in great shape again."
As far as his target of having Dieng return for FIU, Pitino said: "I think it's important to get two games under your belt before the Kentucky game. I really do."
Of course, Dieng will play with his left wrist heavily bandaged, but Pitino doesn't see that as a problem. More worrisome is the risk of Dieng falling on his left hand and reinjuring the wrist.
"He's going to be fine," Pitino said. "What we'll do is work with him on drawing charges and landing on his butt. It was an all-out block (vs. Missouri) and not a charge, and that's why he landed poorly."
So far the Cards have fared well without their big guy in the middle, thanks primarily to the play of senior Stephan Van Treese, who had one foot out the door six months ago but now is playing by far the best basketball of his career.
Beginning with the Duke game in the Atlantis final, 6-11 sophomore Zach Price has started at center but is quickly replaced by Van Treese. The 6-foot-9 Indianapolis native is sharing the position with Price but is logging the majority of the minutes and has been by far more productive.
Since being forced into extensive duty due to Dieng's injury, Van Treese has seen his contributions skyrocket. His minutes per game have tripled, his scoring average is five times higher and his rebounds have tripled.
"Stephan has performed great," Pitino said. "He has developed and really helped our team. Stephan does a great job on the backboard, played good defense. I'm really proud of him.
"He plays at the highest level of college basketball, and Stephan is somebody who can play at this level because of that heart. A bright guy, a great guy, gives you a lot of heart. Things have turned out really great for him."
Pitino said Van Treese's effectiveness on the offensive boards would probably translate into one of the highest number of rebounds at that end per minute played in the nation.
Before Dieng went down, Van Treese was averaging just 8.8 minutes per game, 0.8 points and 2.6 rebounds. In the last four he has averaged 24.5 minutes, 5.5 points and 7.8 boards.
While Van Treese isn't the intimidating presence in the paint or the shot-blocker that Dieng is, Pitino said he has surpassed Dieng in another area -- getting shots for guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith with his screening ability.
"One thing we have gained, there's a weakness Gorgui has that's glaring from a coaching standpoint," Pitino said. "And that is he doesn't screen great because he's very thin in the lower body. Stephan takes out the guy, and that frees Peyton and Russ."
The one area where Pitino would like to see Van Treese improve is in his lack of aggressiveness in looking for his shot. He would prefer that he make more moves to the basket once the ball goes into the low post.
"I tell him, 'Stephan, there's a reason they're throwing the ball to you,'" Pitino said.
Van Treese said he has found it difficult to change his approach because he has always been a role player, providing defense and rebounding, and he knows those are the main things Pitino wants from him.
Regardless of how well Van Treese -- and to a lesser extent, Price -- are filling in, the Cards will be glad to see Dieng back on the court. But that doesn't mean they can't take a few good-natured jabs at him in the meantime.
Asked about UofL's performance without him, Siva grinned and looked around the locker room to see if Dieng was within earshot (he wasn't).
"We're a lot better without Gorgui. Where is he?" Siva joked, then added: "Naw, we're just trying to improve. We can't replace Gorgui, he's a pivotal part of our team. Our main focus with him out is for our centers to get better, and they're doing an excellent job of it now."