Sophomore makes most of limited playing time
The Rutgers men's basketball team was faced with its most rugged inside presence to date when it lost to Seton Hall in the Garden State Hardwood Classic.
Engineered by Angel Delgado and Ismael Sanogo, the Pirates asserted their dominance early and often as they were not only out-rebounding the Scarlet Knights — who entered the game as one of the nation's best on the boards— but also aided in drawing quick fouls on all four of Rutgers' rotational big players — juniors Candido Sa and Deshawn Freeman, senior C.J. Gettys and sophomore Shaquille Doorson.
Just under four minutes into the game, head coach Steve Pikiell decided to go deeper into his bench than usual, calling upon sophomore forward Ibrahima Diallo, who had logged a total of 26 minutes across four game appearances to that point in the season.
Pikiell said postgame that he had planned on playing Diallo and he proved to be more than just a body to eat minutes in the front court, as he scored two points, pulled down four rebounds and blocked three shots in his first extended run of the season. Diallo's 18 minutes of action in the loss to Seton Hall were the third most among the Knights.
And after holding his own in his first extended stint of season, Diallo has edged himself in Rutgers' regular rotation as the team has maneuvered through Big Ten action.
"I’m really excited about getting more playing time, getting a better role in the team and I’m just looking forward to do whatever it takes to contribute to the team’s improvement and it’s been a process that the coach has been trying to establish and I believed in it," Diallo said. "I’m working hard and I’m just listening to what he’s saying and getting better and trying to make the team better."
In six conference games since, Diallo has averaged 2.3 rebounds and one block in over 12 minutes of action. While his scoring has yet to come around — he's logged no more than 2 points across his 10 stints this season — Pikiell has been pleased with the other areas of Diallo's game, such as his physical presence and passing.
"Diallo’s been a nice bonus for us too," Pikiell said. "He’s starting to play. Gives us good toughness ... physically, he’s a Big Ten physical presence. We need some points out of our 4 and 5 spots. I think he could give us a few. That’s not his strength but he gives us some other things. He’s become a better passer and that’s helped us too, get other guys points."
Now in his third year on the Banks, the Dakar, Senegal native has come a long way to become a consistent rotational player. After just practicing with the team during the 2014-15 season due to an academic reason, Diallo broke his foot during practice 12 games into his first year of eligibility the subsequent season, which caused him to miss two months of action.
By the time Pikiell took the reins of the program, Diallo had just 14 collegiate games under his belt. While he wasn't apart of the rotation in the beginning of the season, Diallo continued to put his head down in practice to earn his opportunity.
"He’s proved it in practice," Pikiell said. "He’s been coming early, he’s been shooting afterwards, he’s watching more film. I think sometimes when you don’t play as much, you get a little hungrier and appreciate those minutes and I think he has and I think he’s given us some really good minutes here."
While he's made enough strides in his game for Pikiell to call his number on a nightly basis, there are still areas in Diallo's game that need improvement — most glaring of which is his foul trouble. In the seven games since cracking the rotation against Seton Hall, Diallo has recorded at least four fouls three times.
On two of those occasions he played no more than 12 minutes, recording four fouls in 12 minutes of action against Michigan State and fouling out in nine minutes against Iowa.
"Got to keep him out of foul trouble," Pikiell said. "Obviously that’s been an issue since he’s checked into games so we gotta do a great job with that and we’re breaking down all his fouls … he gives us a little stability and I like where he’s headed … I think he’s been a big bonus for us down the stretch here and I’m thankful for another body. He’s bouncy and he’s Big Ten ready."
While Diallo's foul trouble woes aren't necessarily negatives, it does indicate the amount of activity and effort that the he plays with, regardless of the amount of playing time he's given on any night.
So while he admits that he needs to work on playing a cleaner game, Diallo's not going to change how hard he plays.
"You have to play hard either way," Diallo said. "Either you have a minute or five minutes, you gotta be productive. You gotta go in there and do what they want you to do and make the team better … it’s always what you could bring to the team, not so much what the team is doing for you."