One of two international recruits the Gophers men’s basketball team was counting on this season has been denied admission by the University of Minnesota.
Gaston Diedhiou, a 6-9 forward and native of Senegal who played at a high school in the Canary Islands last year, passed the NCAA Clearinghouse — typically the major academic hurdle — as a full qualifier earlier this summer, but he was denied by the school’s office of admissions, which deemed him unprepared for academic success at Minnesota, according to multiple university officials.
Those sources told the Star Tribune that Diedhiou’s English proficiency test scores were cited as the major concern. Minnesota does not have any thresholds for proficiency test scores set in stone, director of admissions Rachelle Hernandez said, but the results are considered as part of a holistic review done for every applicant. After being advised by other members of the department, Hernandez ultimately makes the decision whether to admit the prospective student.
“Our assessment is really related to can the student be successful academically and can they be successful in an English-speaking setting,” Hernandez said, speaking generally about the admissions process. “Admissions decisions are never based on just one thing.”
Bakary Konate, Minnesota’s other foreign recruit, has been fully admitted and is eligible, but that admissions process, too, was far from smooth, according to sources. The 6-11 Mali native, a shot-blocker who is also developing an outside shot, is expected to see playing time as a true freshman this fall.
Diedhiou can retake the proficiency test — Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) — before next semester and could be admitted to school and be granted eligibility to play at that time. In the meantime, Diedhiou, who is expected to arrive on campus yet this week, will participate in an English-intensive program on campus as a non-student — which is not covered by his pending scholarship — this fall.
The program is hopeful Diedhiou will be eligible for the second semester and playing for the team this spring, a source told to the Star Tribune.
The Diedhiou denial, however, comes at a bad time for Minnesota. The Gophers have only two returning players taller than 6-9 on the roster: senior centers Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker, both in their final year of eligibility. Diedhiou, a power forward, and Konate, a center, represent essential cogs in the frontcourt depth. The hope was for both to play big roles in 2015-16, and this season was seen as critical to that development.
International prep stars playing top-level college basketball is becoming a growing trend as recruiting becomes more competitive and comprehensive, the NCAA extends its reach overseas through promotional games and programs develop deeper financial resources.
The previous two national championship teams have had a notable international presence. Connecticut had four players born outside of the United States on its title-winning roster this past spring. Louisville boasted two foreign-born players — including Gorgui Dieng, who Gophers coach Richard Pitino was heavily involved with recruiting when he worked for his father, Rick — when it cut down the nets in 2013. Three of the top five picks in this spring’s NBA draft — Andrew Wiggins (Canada), Joel Embiid (Cameroon) and Dante Exum (Australia) — were one-time international prep stars.
The Gophers have one other foreign-born player on the roster in Walker, an Ontario native. But recruiting international players is expected to be a growing strategy under Pitino. In May, the second-year coach was asked about recruiting outside the U.S.
“I think we want to look at all options,” he said after landing Konate and Diedhiou. “Especially when you’re trying to build up a culture, build up a brand. Minnesota does not have, yet, a brand which really recruits itself. I think we’ve got to build that and that’s going to take time.
“I was able to coach a kid at Louisville — Gorgui Dieng — who not only became a much better player but he’s like one of the most enjoyable people to be around on a daily basis. And I think it’s because they’re so appreciative. Bakary will text me every single night and ask me how my baby’s doing. And that’s not normal. And it’s so nice. I’ve had good experiences with international kids before, and if they’re good enough, certainly we want to look at every single option possible right now.”
When the Big Ten portion of the schedule rolls around in January, there is a chance the Gophers could have both international freshmen post players in action. Until then, Diedhiou will try to emerge from something of an admissions purgatory in Minneapolis, unable to begin his scholarship and college playing career.