Pitino surprised by international recruit's difficult journey to Minnesota

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 3, 2014 - 8:35 PM

Diedhiou’s difficult journey to Minnesota surprised coach Pitino.

After months of complications, University of Minnesota basketball recruit Gaston Diedhiou has finally made it to campus.

But beyond his physical location, Diedhiou has little in common with the basketball team.

Trapped in a sort of admissions purgatory after being denied entry to the university as a full-time student, the Senegal native arrived late last week and is enrolled in the Minnesota English Language Program (MELP), which is housed on campus. He isn’t allowed to participate in any team activities save from watching practices from the sideline.

Diedhiou, who played at a Canary Islands high school last season, passed the NCAA clearinghouse — typically the biggest academic hurdle for foreign recruits — earlier this summer as a full qualifier. But sources close to the program told the Star Tribune earlier this month that Diedhiou’s English proficiency test scores were cited as a major reason he was not admitted.

Minnesota coach Richard Pitino, who is not permitted to speak about specifics of Diedhiou’s situation per university rules, said his staff was stunned by the decision, which ultimately was made by Director of Admissions Rachelle Hernandez.

“We were surprised by it,” Pitino said. “Anytime you have a bright kid who is a full qualifier, you normally expect him to be admitted. Certainly, we had penciled him in on the roster as one of our frontcourt guys we could rely on and then, when he’s not admitted at the end of the day, it’s a bit of a curveball, a bit of a tough situation.

“But like anything else, we’re trying to make the best of it and certainly trying to get him here second semester, get him ready to go.

While in the English language program, Diedhiou can retake the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam, but the earliest he could be eligible is January when the new semester begins.

Minnesota doesn’t have any minimum TOEFL score requirements for prospective students, and Hernandez said admissions never denies an applicant — who is evaluated in a holistic review — because of one criterion.

In the meantime, Diedhiou is living on campus and enrolled in the 15-week language program that costs around $13,000 for tuition and expenses ranging from medical insurance to books. It can be paid for by anyone outside the program.

Diedhiou cannot accept any monetary help or food from any of the coaches, but he can access the program’s weight room and work out on his own. The coaches are not allowed to watch him work out or practice, and he can’t receive coaching from the staff — facts that could make integrating him into the Big Ten schedule challenging.

“It’s going to take a lot of time for him to be ready to compete,” Pitino said. “He’s going to be way behind the 8-ball, which is natural. It’s going to be something where he just has to do his best to stay in shape and try to stay ahead of that learning curve. That’s very difficult for anybody, to be put in that.”

When the Gophers recruited the 6-9 Diedhiou, they envisioned him playing a big role as critical depth in a frontcourt that otherwise had just two holdovers from last season taller than him. And both of them, centers Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker, are seniors. Minnesota also recruited Mali native Bakary Konate, who was admitted to the school and the 6-11 center is practicing with the team.

But for now, Diedhiou is a student in an English language program, not a Gophers basketball player.

“We weren’t expecting it,” Pitino said. “We deal with it and we continue to move on.”

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