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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.”

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.