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UCF’s Tacko Fall is 7-foot-6, and his game is still growing

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Tacko Fall can never hide.

The tallest man in college basketball was walking from the University of Central Florida student union to his dormitory one recent morning, waiting for the light to change at an intersection when a driver — perhaps under the illusion that there’s more than one 7-foot-6 kid enrolled there — hit the brakes and yelled a question out the window.

“Yo,” the man yelled. “You Tacko?”

Fall waved, shrugged and smiled as the driver shot him a thumbs-up and drove away.

“I think he knew who I was,” Fall said.

This is an everyday thing for Elhadji Tacko Sereigne Diop Fall, a 21-year-old from Senegal who grew up playing soccer, couldn’t stand basketball when he first started playing five years ago and now has hopes of an NBA future. He bows his head to get through doorways, prefers sandals to shoes because they’re easier on his size 22 feet, and has found that even first-class airplane seats don’t give him enough leg room.

If everyone at UCF — and in college basketball — doesn’t know who he is yet, they might soon.

“He’s learning things now that another player might have learned five years ago, by no fault of his own,” UCF coach Johnny Dawkins said. “He just picked up the game later than everybody else. He’s super-intelligent, speaks multiple languages, he’s just off the charts. He just needs more experience. And how do you gain experience? There’s only one way. You’ve got to get out there and do it.”

Fall is a quick study. He’s the reigning defensive player of the year in the American Athletic Conference, a blocker of 164 shots in his first two college seasons and a changer of countless others. He’s made 73 percent of his field-goal attempts in college, since most come around the rim. Defenses last season started pushing him more and more away from the basket, so Fall added a few pounds of muscle this offseason in hopes of pushing back.

He took a look at the NBA this past spring, visiting with five clubs to get their feedback on his game.

The critiques weren’t often kind. But he listened and learned.

“They showed me things,” said Fall, who is listed at 295 pounds. “I was able to see it, not just hear about it, but see it. Skill-wise, I added a lot to my offensive game. Defense is probably going to be the biggest thing for me because of my size and how I can affect the game, but the game has changed a lot. There’s versatile bigs now and I need to keep up.”

They need to keep up with him, too.

Fall might be an unusual star, but a star nonetheless. Walk with him around campus, and one of two things often happen — either fellow students yell his name and wave, or they try to act cool while sneaking a selfie. Fall doesn’t mind in either case. And yes, he’s heard every joke imaginable about his height and his name.

“He’s very comfortable with who he is,” said Dawkins, who played with 7-7 Manute Bol and 7-6 Shawn Bradley in the NBA and tries to impart wisdom to Fall on what he learned from their experiences.

Fall knows what they went through, but doesn’t want to be considered The Next Bol or The Next Bradley.

“I want to be the first me,” he said.

Fall truly is a center of attention.

Wichita State is new to the American Athletic Conference this season, so at the league’s media day last month, Shockers coach Gregg Marshall was learning plenty of new names and faces. Fall, who didn’t exactly need a “Hello My Name Is” sticker on his black UCF polo shirt, went up to Marshall and introduced himself anyway.

Marshall was impressed, and hadn’t even seen tape yet.

“I saw him in the hallway,” Marshall said. “I’ve never seen a human that big. He’s a great young man.”

Fall’s story is almost as unique as his size. Born in Senegal, his family went through some very difficult times. He often didn’t have enough to eat, to the point where he would have nothing for breakfast and then would try to ration his school lunch and preserve some to serve as dinner. Money was often tight.

When Fall was 16, Ibrahima N’Diaye changed everything. He ran a basketball academy and suggested to Fall that he try to play in the U.S.

There was one small problem. Fall despised the game, but eventually came around thanks to his basketball-loving grandmother.

“There used to be cartoons on every day at 5 o’clock,” Fall said. “And one day, I think our national basketball team was competing, my grandma put that on instead of the cartoons. We had only one TV, and I got mad.”

He got over it.

He came to the U.S., first going to Houston and then bouncing around a bit before settling in Florida. He enrolled at Liberty Christian Prep — a place where the devout Muslim could have plenty of spirited, respectful, thought-provoking conversations with teachers and other students about religion.

It was also a place where he realized basketball could provide a future.

“The tough times really make you appreciate what you have,” Fall said. “It’s destiny. I met a guy who I had never met before, went home to talked to my mom about playing basketball which I never imagined I would play, wound up coming to the States and ended up in Florida, the best place I could have ended up at. Everything worked out just fine.”

It might only get better.

He isn’t sure if he’ll declare for the NBA draft next spring or just again explore his options. He speaks three languages now and is trying to learn Japanese, largely because of his affinity for anime. Food isn’t hard to find now — pasta and chicken before every game is his routine. And he’s hoping that his mom, whom he hasn’t seen in five years, might be able to get to a UCF game this season.

And one day, he wants to go home with NBA money to do some good. Ask him his dream plan, and he’ll say it involves being able to build schools in Senegal.

“Kids look up to us,” Fall said. “You don’t always get opportunities to get out and do something with your life. Being able to help other people, when you can do that you’ve got to take advantage of it. Life is short. You’ve got to leave your mark. You’ve got to do something that matters. I want to do something that matters.”

VIDEOS: Villanova team bus stuck on icy roads trying to leave campus

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Villanova’s road to the Sweet 16 hit its roughest patch yet on Wednesday as the team attempted to leave campus for the team’s flight to Boston.

Since the Philadelphia area has been slammed with a snowstorm, the Wildcat team bus had issues leaving to get to the team’s chartered flight.

A struggle between team bus and ice ensued. The bus was delayed by 30 minutes before finally being able to leave.

Villanova continues its NCAA tournament journey on Friday when the No. 1 seed Wildcats play No. 5 seed West Virginia in Boston.

Wake Forest guard Keyshawn Woods to transfer or go pro after graduation

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Wake Forest will be down a key player next season as the school announced that guard Keyshawn Woods will either transfer or go pro after graduation.

The 6-foot-3 Woods was the team’s second-leading scorer this season as he put up 11.9 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. Woods shot 43 percent from the floor and 37 percent from three-point range for the 2017-18 campaign.

Also a key member of last season’s NCAA tournament team for the Demon Deacons, Woods transferred to Wake Forest after spending his first season at Charlotte.

“I appreciate the opportunity that Coach Manning gave me to be a part of this program and to graduate from this great university,” said Woods in the release. “I am proud that I was able to help the coaches change the culture of the program and build a foundation for the future.”

The loss of Woods won’t be easy for Wake Forest, but the team is scheduled to return some talented guards like Bryant Crawford and Brandon Childress next season. Incoming freshmen like Jaime Lewis and Sharone Wright Jr. are also signed to add to the perimeter depth.

David Padgett not retained as Louisville coach

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Louisville announced on Wednesday afternoon that interim head coach David Padgett would not be retained.

Padgett, who is 32 years old, stepped in and took the program over in the wake of a scandal that cost Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino his job.

“We all owe a great debt of gratitude to David for his leadership and poise this season,” said U of L Interim Director of Athletics Vince Tyra. “He took over during incredible circumstances, has handled himself respectfully throughout the season and I believe he has a bright future in coaching. We expect to determine a new head coach in a short period to build upon the great basketball tradition of this university.”

Pitino was fired because an FBI complaint contained an allegation that he and his staff had arranged for a $100,000 payment to be funneled to Brian Bowen from Adidas.

In his one season with the Cardinals, Padgett went 22-14 and reached the quarterfinals of the NIT.

Louisville will now conduct a search for their next head coach, and current Xavier coach Chris Mack has long been considered the favorite to take that job.

Kansas State’s injured star hoping to play Thursday

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One of the most surprising parts about Kansas State’s run to the Sweet 16 is that they have done it without the services of their leading scorer, Dean Wade.

Wade injured his foot prior to the Big 12 tournament loss to Kansas. He did not play in that game or in either of Kansas State’s first two tournament games, but it is looking more and more like he’ll be on the floor on Thursday night when they play Kentucky.

“I don’t play percentages very well, but I’m feeling good,” Wade said, via SEC Country. “I’m very positive about it. It’s getting better every day and today I felt great out there, doing a little more than usual. It felt good.”

Wade averaged 16.5 points per game, but the big question is going to be whether or not he is actually healthy when he takes the court. Just because he’s on the floor doesn’t mean he’s at 100 percent.

“Really just trying to get it out of my mind that it’s not hurt,” Wade said. “Just more of a mental thing, just getting out there and running around. I think I got moved past that and it’s feeling better.”

Arizona’s Sean Miller: ‘I am not a candidate’ at Pitt

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With speculation mounting about who Pitt will hire to replace Kevin Stallings as their new head coach, current Arizona head coach Sean Miller released a statement saying that he is not in the running to fill the opening.

“I am not a candidate for the University of Pittsburgh men’s basketball head coaching vacancy. I wish them well in their search for a new coach,” the statement read.

Miller is a native of Pittsburgh and an alumni of the school — he’s the guy that had the assist on Jerome Lane’s famous dunk — and with the issues that are currently swirling around him and the Arizona program, there was speculation that he was looking for an escape plan.

Maybe he wasn’t.

Maybe he was and the Pitt administration decided they couldn’t risk hiring someone who had an assistant coach arrested in the FBI’s sweep of college basketball and who himself may be on wiretaps talking about who knows what. Releasing this statement would then be a way for him to save face and say he was never interested.

And then maybe there’s option No. 3: Pitt has won the Dan Hurley sweepstakes.

As it stands, both the Panthers and UConn are in the process of chasing after the Rhode Island head coach, and it’s not uncommon in coaching searches for a coach to announce that he is not a candidate for the job after the job decides they want someone else. Call it a professional courtesy.

But that’s neither here nor there.

What we do know now is that Sean Miller will not be the next head coach at Pitt.