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Cheick Diallo’s freshman year at Kansas: Patience and potential

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 01: Cheick Diallo #13

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 01: Cheick Diallo #13 of the Kansas Jayhawks competes with Jarred Jones #21 and Tyler Hubbard #23 of the Loyola (Md) Greyhounds for a rebound during the game at Allen Fieldhouse on December 1, 2015 in Lawrence, Kansas. Credit: Getty Images / Jamie Squire

DES MOINES, Iowa — One thing about Cheick Diallo is just as true now as it was when he was one of the top high school players in the country last season. The young man from Our Savior New American in Centereach still is 6 feet, 9 inches of pure potential. “He’s going to be great,” said Bill Self, his coach at Kansas.

The surprise to everyone, including Diallo and Self, is that the freshman is mostly on the bench rather than in the conversation about the top frontcourt players in college basketball. Only once in the past 10 games has Diallo played more than seven minutes and only once since Jan. 19 has he scored more than two points in a game.

“Coach always says, ‘Be patient, be patient.’ I listen to him, do whatever he says. When my number gets called, I’m going to play. I’m a team player,” Diallo said before practice Wednesday, adding that he is extremely excited to be in the NCAA Tournament with a team that has a chance to win it all. The Jayhawks enter their game against Austin Peay Thursday afternoon as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.

“To go to the Final Four and win a national championship, that is my goal,” said the forward who came to Long Island from Mali when he was 15.

The odd part is that the presence of Diallo was expected to be a major reason why Kansas was considered, in preseason, a national title contender. He was Newsday’s Long Island Player of the Year, then the Most Valuable Player in the prestigious McDonald’s High School All-Star Game and East team MVP at the Jordan Brand Classic.

“It’s true, but college is different too. In high school, you can do whatever you want. In college, you have to exactly follow the system,” he said.

His college debut was delayed until Dec. 1 because the NCAA was looking into his eligibility. He came along slowly, as freshmen often do, only to find that the team had become hot, leaving little room for him to do anything but be patient.

“We’re roommates so we talk a lot about it with each other, just staying positive about it,” said Carlton Bragg Jr., his fellow McDonald’s All-America, who also plays sparingly. “He’s handled it pretty good. He has his moments, it will come along, though.”

Self said, “Cheick is as good a kid as we’ve ever had in our program. He works hard and he tries hard and he has been a 10 as far as adjusting to a role that he obviously did not anticipate. And to be candid with you we didn’t anticipate it either.”

The coach said Diallo is still “raw,” but realizes that once Diallo comes home to Long Island after school is out, he might yet decide to enter the NBA draft. “But I think he’s going to be great. Who knows if that will be with us or if he’ll take the jump,” Self said, “but his future is very bright.”

But if he had it to do over again, might Diallo take one of his other offers, such as joining high school teammate Kassoum Yakwe at St. John’s? As of Wednesday, he just smiled and said, “I’d choose Kansas, no matter what.”

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