Washington's 7-foot tall center is a factor very few teams have: an athletic, ornery, full-throttled big man in the middle.
The players strolled into the East Gym at Hec Ed, as they did almost every day in the offseason. For the first time, they saw the striking 7-footer, wearing a red top with red shorts, and they wondered who the new guy was.
“Oh, that’s Aziz,” Desmond Simmons remembers thinking. “That’s the dude from Senegal.”
That first day, long before the start of the 2010-11 season, Aziz N’Diaye, Washington’s junior center, ran the floor like a quarter-miler, blocked shots, knocked down fadeaway jumpers and dunked and dunked and dunked.
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“We thought, ‘Wow, he’s going to be special,’ ” Simmons said before Tuesday’s practice. “We definitely saw a bright future for him.”
N’Diaye’s future is now. As Washington closes in on another 20-win season, as the prospects for a fourth-straight trip to the NCAA tournament become more real, N’Diaye is the Huskies’ X factor.
He’s the element very few teams have: an athletic, ornery, full-throttled big man in the middle. He’s a shot changer and a game changer.
Teams may obsess about ways to stop Terrence Ross’ inside-outside game.
They may game-plan to force left-handed Tony Wroten Jr. to go right.
But they can’t plan for N’Diaye’s length and his instincts and his toughness.
“I was telling my assistants today,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said, “that when I watch football I will make myself watch this lineman who’s supposed to be so good. If I don’t make myself watch that lineman block, I’ll lose sight of what he’s doing out there.
“Why do I bring that up? Because with Aziz, if you’re just watching the game and only focusing on what he does when he gets the ball, you miss out. In that Arizona game (Saturday), and he’s done this before, he controlled our defense like no one I’ve ever seen before that’s ever played here. He was everywhere.”
N’Diaye was the difference in that 79-70 win. He was the question Arizona couldn’t answer. His long-striding, steal-and-volleyball-pass to himself over Nick Johnson and thunder dunk early in that game already has become a moment in Washington hoop history.
It was a top-10 play in a topsy-turvy season. But it was just the most spectacular play in his 28 intimidating minutes.
N’Diaye was a menacing disruption on ball screens. He left his man to disrupt drives to the basket. He stuck his quick hands into passing lanes. And he played solid on-the-ball defense against quick Arizona forward Jesse Perry.
N’Diaye finished with 12 rebounds, four shots blocked and eight points. His value, however, far exceeded his numbers. He owned the paint.
“Not a lot of people can do what Aziz did in the game,” Romar said, “and I think sometimes we can take that for granted.”
Romar first saw N’Diaye on tape when he was playing for College of Southern Idaho.
“His size stood out, and the aggressive way he went after shots stood out for me,” Romar said. “And then, the first time I met him, I couldn’t believe that as aggressive as he was on the floor, how much of a gentleman he was off the floor. He was real respectful and intelligent, soft-spoken and my thought was, ‘Wow, what a great kid he is.’ “
Part of the beauty of college basketball is watching the maturation and evolution of young players. It’s a treat to see teenagers slowly grow comfortable in games and in interviews.
For N’Diaye, who came to Washington as raw as sushi, the growth has been dramatic, but Romar said it hasn’t been a surprise.
“And I’ll tell you why,” he said. “Aziz is such a hard worker. No matter what you tell him about what it’s going to take to make him successful, he’s going to do it. And he’s going to do it with everything that he has within him. If you explain to him how he’s supposed to do something, he’s going to do it.”
N’Diaye, who is third in the Pac-12 in rebounds and seventh in blocked shots, plays basketball like a linebacker. He is relentless in his pursuit of the ball. He delivers hits. It hurts to drive on N’Diaye. But he also pays the price in bruises and strains and sprains.
“He has a warrior mentality,” Simmons said. “With Aziz, it’s never about him. It’s always just about him trying to win. He gets so mad at himself, but he plays as hard as anybody I know.”
He missed two games earlier this season, including the disastrous home loss to South Dakota State, because of a sore knee. He is playing with a heavily bandaged left hand.
He has to stay on the floor. He has to stay healthy if the Huskies are to have success in March.
“When he goes out, our team changes drastically,” point guard Abdul Gaddy said. “We need him on the floor for us to be as good as we can be. He’s our force. He’s our back line. We have him to block shots, but also to change shots, force players to shoot over him. He gives us a physicality that we need on the inside.”
Aziz N’Diaye is Washington’s X factor, the kind of player who, as he did last Saturday, can alter the direction of a game and a postseason with his instincts, his speed, his warrior mentality.