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UC Irvine coach, players preview Louisville

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Transcript via ASAP Sports


(Will Davis II, Mamadou Ndiaye, Luke Nelson, Travis Souza, Alex Young)

THE MODERATOR: We'll take questions for the student-athletes, please.

Q. Will and Travis, could you just talk a little bit about Coach Turner and his influence in recruiting and your decisions to come to UCI?

WILL DAVIS II: When I decided to come to UCI, I knew that he was a new coach here at Irvine and that he had been at winning programs previously. So, in my recruiting process I knew that if I went under Coach Turner's wing that he would turn the program around and make it into a winning program, and that's what he's done here at UC Irvine.

TRAVIS SOUZA: I knew he was a new coach here and kind of a place that you could start from the bottom and build up. I knew he was a pretty cerebral coach as well, so I felt like it would be a good fit for me.

Q. For any of the players, but maybe start with Will, maybe a couple others, when you guys played Arizona, it was a very close game and you were leading deep into the second half. I wonder if you took any lessons from that. I know that was early in the season, but anything that you can apply from playing a big opponent, big stage, to this game?

WILL DAVIS II: I feel like that game we got some experience because they're like a powerhouse. They're a major team playing in the Pac-12 and having experience in the NCAA Tournament. So I feel look we can take some experience from that game, because it will be a high level of competition on Friday and we can take how we played for the majority of that game and maybe carry it over into this game.

LUKE NELSON: It was a good experience for us. We kind of -- it was good for our season overall because we felt we were with them the whole game but couldn't quite finish it out. And that experience is going to help us a long time. It helped us in the Big West Tournament, and it should help us in this tournament as well.

Q. Mamadou, Louisville plays three different centers and they have not been terribly productive this season. What have you seen on film of them and what sets them apart from each other?


Q. The Louisville centers. Louisville plays three different centers and they have not gotten a lot of production. Do you see anything about them individually that you can separate the three, what makes them go, and what you have to look out for?

MAMADOU NDIAYE: Yeah, one thing is they get a lot of rebounds, offensive and defensive. The one thing we can do is just try to block them out, box them out, make them not get the rebounds from us.

Q. Alex, the other day I was talking to Coach Turner, and he said anybody who's been around this program knows I'm kind of an emotional guy. What can you tell us how, how do you see that? His emotions, how do you see that in practice and games?

ALEX YOUNG: Well, he's just really a competitive guy. I think that rubs off on all of the players here in our program. The coaches too. So, just his fiery passion for the love of the game, that's really helpful to us because we just see how much he cares about the game and how much he cares about us.

Q. Travis, do you look at what Louisville -- do you look at the record book? They have such a good history in the NCAA Tournament. Do you guys look at that, or does it matter whether a program has history or whether Rick Pitino has been to seven Final Fours or, you know, is it just another team?

TRAVIS SOUZA: You kind of look at it both ways. You see the history they have had in the past, and you got to respect what they have done. Obviously they have the experience, players-wise and coaching-wise. But every year's different. Obviously they're typically an up-tempo team, but every year is different. So we feel like we have the personnel to run with them and give them a go. But, yeah, we have to approach it just like every other game, but we know we're going to be in for a fight.

Q. Mamadou, could you tell us how -- what your introduction to basketball was and if you liked it at first.

MAMADOU NDIAYE: Yeah, my first time -- I used to play soccer before the basketball. I have a lot of experience about soccer, and I remember I used to study basketball and I always played around, played around with my friends. And it's become more and more now. I like it more than soccer. I play basketball more than soccer right now. Yeah, I enjoy it and it's a fun game, yeah.

Q. Mamadou, how old were you when you first played basketball? And I'm sorry to make you retell your story on how you found Irvine or how Irvine found you.

MAMADOU NDIAYE: I started playing basketball in like high school. I was 15. I decided to play basketball. I came to the United States when I was 16 and played in high school. And I -- yeah, I found UCI. I used to go play there, play open gym with my friend. And the coach saw me there and asked me if I wanted to come play basketball there. The first time I decided no, I'm not going to come here, because I have an opportunity to go anywhere. I mean, I seen the program there. It was growing up and the people there are very nice, and that's why I became the UCI player.

Q. For any player, maybe Alex or Travis, there's already been one big upset this morning. I wonder if you guys noticed that or take any motivation or excitement from that.

TRAVIS SOUZA: Yeah, I'm sure I saw most of the guys on the team saw it. It kind of proves the point that in March Madness anybody can win. It kind of assures us that although we know it's going to be a big battle out there, we think we have the ability to pull it off.

ALEX YOUNG: I'm going to piggyback on what he said. It's March. Anything can happen in the tournament. Seeing that score, just it kind of gives you a sense of confidence that anything can be done at this time of the year. But we know that Louisville's a great team and we're not going to take them any different than any other opponent. We just got to go out there and prepare and execute.

Q. For Will, Mamadou's numbers have been kind of up and down and he's missed some games, but when he's playing well, how much better are you and what do you see in terms of his upside as far as being a more consistent player?

WILL DAVIS II: I feel like when he's playing well, it just makes our whole team play well also, because when he plays well offensively, his defense flourishes also. And even if he's not playing well offensively, I don't think his defense ever suffers, because he's such a presence in the paint on defense and it's so hard to score over him. Then for our team, I feel like he helps us just go as a team and he can carry us further if he plays well.

Q. I'm wondering, for anybody that wants to jump in here, the difference between being in the tournament instead of outside of it. You guys won the regular season title last year and you didn't get in. Did you watch the tournament last year? I know you were in the NIT and went out, but how much did you follow the tournament and wonder what it was going to be like, thinking you should have been there and then actually being here?

TRAVIS SOUZA: We were pretty upset for not making it. But it it's still something that we're a part of and still part of the NCAA. So I can't speak on behalf of the other guys, but I know I was -- I watched pretty intently all the games, just watching all the games and hoping next year we could be there. And here we are now. So it's nice.

Q. For any guys, talk about Louisville's pressure and what you have seen and how you can kind of maybe try to break that. And then for Will, also talk about Montrezl Harrell and what you've seen on film with him. He's kind of their energy guy.

ALEX YOUNG: We have played teams that kind of pressure like Louisville does. We just played Hawaii in the Big West Championship. They're a team that presses just about the entire game. I think Louisville does the same thing. It's going to be a game where we definitely have to take care of the ball because we can't give them any live ball turnovers which they can create into points for themselves. So it's going out there and take care of the ball and limit our turnovers.

WILL DAVIS II: Montrezl Harrell, he's a really big-energy guy. I seen him play throughout the year this year and we watched a little bit of film on him so far, and I feel like we're going to have to match his energy because he's a beast on the offensive boards and defensive boards and I feel like we just have to match his energy level.

Q. Will and Travis, how unusual has this week been for you guys, adjusting to something so different in going to the tournament, taking finals? It's just got to be something you haven't had to deal with, obviously.

TRAVIS SOUZA: Yeah, it's pretty different. As far as finals, I think everybody got their finals out of the way, so the whole team could focus on what's ahead of us. But just the little things. Like the private charter plane, stuff like that, stuff we're not used to. But it's fun. But we are here, we know what we are here to really do, and that's just the cherry on top. But we are here to try to play Louisville and try to get the W.

WILL DAVIS II: It's different for all of us because this is our first time here in the NCAA Tournament and we obviously love everything that's going on right now, but we are here to play basketball. And then so that's mainly been our focus since we have gotten here.

Q. For Mamadou, you know that they're going to try to get you in foul trouble. What can you do? Is it matter of trying not to get tricked into fouls, or how do you protect yourself to stay in the game long enough?

MAMADOU NDIAYE: Just be smarter. Handle the pressure, whatever they bring. I'll just try to go with them. But just pressure them. Because I know that's their plan, to try to get me in foul trouble. But we'll see.

UC-Irvine coach Russ Turner

THE MODERATOR: All right. Thank you, gentlemen. We'll excuse the student-athletes and start with an opening statement from Coach.

COACH TURNER: Nice to be here. (Laughter.)

THE MODERATOR: Questions, please.

Q. What are your impressions of Louisville after having a couple days to look at them, strengths, maybe some areas where you can go after them?

COACH TURNER: Well, we know Louisville is an outstanding program led by a Hall of Fame coach with great tradition in this tournament. We knew all that the day we saw their name on the Selection Show. Since watching them, what I recognize is that they are like us. They're a defensive-oriented team first. They have great athleticism, strength at every position defensively. They really bother teams when they can take the ball away from them. So we will have to do a great job with that. They're an outstanding rebounding team. They really attack the glass to score. They're a formidable opponent, and we know that.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about how your team is different with Mamadou on the floor or not on the floor and how much better he makes you, if you're completely different, and what -- if he has the potential, if he can stay on the floor, to really dominate in the tournament.

COACH TURNER: Well, we're different when he's out there because we have a guy who is a half foot taller than anybody's ever seen on the floor. (Laughter). I think that's especially a factor when a team is playing against Mamadou for the first time, because it's hard to imagine his size, his height, and his length. So he's a great presence. He really affects the game on both ends, because people don't realize how strong he is offensively. He's not a guy that is easily moved from his spot, and so you have to pay a lot of attention to him when he's out there. Because if he catches the ball near the basket on the offense, offensive end, he's really effective with his field goal percentage.

We have known since last year when Mamadou was a freshman that we are a good enough team defensively when he's out there most of the time to play well with anybody. That's something I think we still believe. We have gotten better at playing with him on both ends of the floor, because it's really different for us as well to play with a guy with his size and the elements that he brings to the game. I feel so fortunate that we have got him. He's an incredible fit at UC Irvine. He wants the academic challenge that we have given him. He's one of the most charismatic players I've ever been around. So he's a real personality on campus.

Q. Rick Pitino's had to make some changes, personnel, losing Chris Jones, and recently has changed the structure of his defense, I think, as he put it, to simplify it or dumb it down for freshmen. Can you see a difference as you look at the film pre-Jones dismissal and post-Jones?

COACH TURNER: Anytime you lose one of your top players, there's a difference. I don't feel sorry for him. We have had to go through that this year as well with Mamadou missing a bunch of games and Luke Nelson on our team, among other guys. So, that's part of it. That's all the adjustments that go in to facing adversities you face during the season. As for how they're different, yeah, Jones was one of their most athletic guys, one of their best steals players. Defensively he's a difference-making perimeter guy. But they're very, very good in replacing him too. There are other recruits and athletes that Louisville has that are outstanding. So, they miss him, clearly. But they're also very good in his absence.

Q. I want to ask you about separating the lore from the reality. If you look through Louisville's history and their record books, it can be intimidating. Even going against someone like Rick Pitino, do you get caught up in that a little bit, I mean, I'm going against -- here's a guy that's -- seven Final Fours, and do you have to catch yourself from getting too caught up in that?

COACH TURNER: No. I think that's a media thing. Maybe a fan thing. I know our players don't feel that way about Louisville. I know we respect them tremendously. I respect Coach Pitino tremendously. I'm sure he's not afraid of facing me. I guarantee you I'm no more afraid of facing him. Pound for pound, he's better than I am. Maybe dollar for dollar, I got him. (Laughter.)

Q. You already said that the players are not worried about Louisville, but how do you reinforce that going into the next few days leading up to the game, or is it already there and you don't even have to tell them that, hey, doesn't matter that we're facing Louisville, just go out there and play?

COACH TURNER: We have competitors. If you've been around competitors the way I have, you know that there's not likely to be intimidation unless it's somehow created. They're not going to see that from me. I'm not intimidated. I don't think our staff's intimidated. I don't believe that they're ever even going to think about being intimidated. We know that we faced incredible pressure to win in the Big West Tournament, and we did that. We overcame that hurdle. Last year we weren't able to do it. So I feel like we have grown. That's the story of our team. We have gotten better. We're a team. I think we're well unified. We have good chemistry. We're together. We're ready to compete.

Q. Mamadou, when he was asked about his recruitment, he made it sound pretty simple, just he was nearby, you asked him if he wanted to come there, and he did. I mean, what went into that? Obviously there were a lot of schools interested in somebody with his size. What went into actually getting him?

COACH TURNER: Well, I mean, it's just an incredibly long story and an interesting one, I think. When he came, he came to a prep school called Stoneridge which has recruited a ton of international players which is in Simi Valley. He then found out he needed to have lifesaving surgery, or life-altering surgery, at least, on a tumor that was on his pituitary gland. He had that at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach and then was adopted by a nurse there and lived with their family in Huntington Beach, which is not far from our campus. We had gotten to know him before the surgeries had happened.

Then, so after that happened, he was around our campus a lot. So he was familiar with our gym, with our coaches, and with the community around Irvine. You can imagine, it's not easy to walk around if you're him and feel comfortable everywhere, but he quickly came to feel comfortable at Irvine. I think the recruiting process for him was interesting because so many people were unsure about him as a player and just as many or more were unsure about him as student. The turning moment in his recruitment I think was somewhere in his junior year he came to my house, he and his family did, and I live on campus, so that was part of the reason they were able to come to my house.

We talked about his possible path toward eligibility, which he believed was, he and his family believed was, not something that could happen. They didn't think he could get NCAA eligible because of all of the hurdles they would have to overcome to do that. It struck me then how badly Mamadou wanted not just the opportunity to play Division I basketball, which I think every kid dreams of, but he wanted the education that was going to be required of him to qualify for the NCAA and at UC Irvine.

So we helped lay a path out for that. That required an incredible commitment on his part and on his family's part. We helped see that through. That, I think, was, in the end, the thing that made the biggest difference in recruiting. We became trusted with them over a course of a long period of time. So, when some of the bigger schools -- and they came late -- they couldn't overcome us.

Q. You played an Arizona team, nationally prominent team a couple months ago and played them well for quite a while. Wondering what your takeaway was from that game and if there's anything you can apply now when you're in another big situation.

COACH TURNER: Yeah, I hope there's something we can apply. Arizona maybe a higher ranked defensive team than Louisville is. So we knew that it was going to be a difficult game there. But we found things in that game that we were able to do successfully and gain some confidence from that. That was a game that was on the road and one of the best environments for college basketball that there is. So that was tremendous adversity we faced in that game. We faced it really well for 32 minutes, and then they overwhelmed us at the end.

I think we could have kept from being overwhelmed. I think that score in that game was a little misleading because we tried to foul to stay in the game and they made all their free throws and we weren't able to convert after that, but there was a strong takeaway from that game that we're good. We can be good. We were not able to sustain that every night during the season. We were inconsistent because we had so many guys in and out of the lineup, Mamadou primarily but also Luke Nelson, John Ryan. We had a bunch of guys who missed time for us this season. What that has allowed us to do, however, is develop our depth. I now think we're a deep team and a team that's confident in our ability to make plays.

Q. As Louisville made the change at point guard, how do you evaluate them from a scouting standpoint? Do you look at the games after Quentin Snider came in, or do you look at the whole season when you scout this team?

COACH TURNER: We focused on the games after Jones left the team more than the others, clearly, because it would be foolish not to do that. But we have not ignored the others. I've got a really incredibly hardworking staff that's been at work since about 3:15 on Louisville. I saw something that said that they claim they were scouting us before they got the draw. Good for them if they were. We weren't doing that. (Laughter.)

Q. Regarding Mamadou and his evolution as a basketball player, do you see teams attacking him differently now and how much of that is predicated on trying to get him in foul trouble?

COACH TURNER: That's a good question. Yeah, I think teams know that when he's off the floor, something changes. The biggest issue that we faced with Mamadou is flopping, teams that flop. That's been an effective strategy at times against him this year. But one of the teams that was most effective in flopping against Mamadou was the team we beat in the semi-finals of our tournament, and I believe that the basketball gods in the end don't reward flopping.

Q. As a follow up, a lot of it is difficult for him because I know there's a couple plays where he just turns around and just because of his size he's in somebody's face. Is there anything that you can coach that can change that or to keep the ball higher?

COACH TURNER: That's also an interesting question. What I think gets the officials crossed up from time to time -- I mean, guys, Mamadou's incredibly difficult to officiate. I do that in practice. It's not easy. In fact, I bought MMA headgears for my backup post players that they have worn because he is big and he's powerful, and for that reason he's dangerous when he just makes normal basketball plays. When he pivots legally and his elbows are up, if you're in the wrong spot, you're going to have a problem. Now, I've coached against -- I've coached a bunch of really good, big, powerful big guys, and I had my head in there playing defense in practice. Mamadou's different. I mean, he's a different sized guy. He's got different power.

I worry that the rule that exists in college basketball about elbow contact to heads is one that officials can't get their arms completely around sometimes. I think that that rule is really difficult because it doesn't allow in its words for officials to use discretion with elbow contact to head sometimes. That's unfair to a guy like Mamadou. He ends up -- if that rule is adjudicated according to only the letters and the words, he ends up sometimes being punished unfairly.

I have to have faith that that will get called right. The refs in this tournament are the best ones. They're the best ones and the most experienced ones. I imagine they will be well prepared. I know that Mamadou goes out of his way to play without fouling. He does everything he can to play without fouling. If he really wanted to be aggressive in a way that could hurt somebody, he would and he would hurt people. He doesn't do that. He's good to his teammates. And when he plays in the game, he makes strong moves, but he makes moves that are reasonable and legal.