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Seven-foot center Diop emerges as top target among Cavalier recruits

Last season the Virginia men's basketball team lacked a pure center, putting it at a disadvantage against teams with large front lines. Travis Watson, a 6-foot-7 natural power forward, was forced into the position out of necessity and played admirably. But in their quest for ACC crowns and Final Four appearances, Virginia coach Pete Gillen and his staff are searching for a player to dominate the University Hall paint like Ralph Sampson did two decades ago.

Enter DeSagana Diop (pronounced Sah-GAH-nah Jop) a 7-foot, 300-pound behemoth from Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va. Diop, the crown jewel of Virginia's recruiting focus, is a consensus choice as one of the nation's best centers and is ranked as high as No. 5 overall by Rivals.com.

You may have noticed Diop two weeks ago at the Clemson football game when he came for his official visit. He was the one dwarfing Gillen, assistant coach Tom Herrion and three other recruits on their lap around Scott Stadium.

"I like it there," Diop said in a phone interview. "The players and the people were both nice. I liked when I walked around the stadium and everyone was cheering. It was cool."

Diop, a native of Senegal, lists Virginia, North Carolina, Miami and Michigan among his top four choices, with the Cavs and Tar Heels as front runners. Diop said he will not select a school until April. A jump to the NBA also remains a possibility, but Diop and Smith said college is the most likely scenario.

Diop has tremendous skills for a player of his size. He has a variety of post moves and is a very good shooter from 15 feet and in. Also, Diop can pass out of a double team and is an excellent rebounder and shot blocker.

Not bad for a guy who has been playing basketball for only four years. Two years ago, Amadou Fall, a scout for the Dallas Mavericks who acts as Diop's advisor, noticed the youngster's talent and brought him to America. Diop arrived at Oak Hill for his junior season a year ago and, under the tutelage of Smith, who has a history of developing star players, has improved along a tremendous growth curve.

 
Recruiting Trail
  • Seven-foot center Diop emerges as top target among Cavalier recruits
  • Cavs look to plug frontcourt holes after commitments from guard duo
  • CD Online Men's Basketball Coverage
  • TheSabre.com men's basketball recruiting
  • Oak Hill Academy basketball home page
  • "He might be the best center prospect in the country, and his best days are in front of him," Smith said. "His improvement has been phenomenal. He's like a sponge, because he absorbs everything you tell him. I didn't know he'd be this good when he got here."

    On a team loaded with Division I-A prospects, Diop averaged six points a game off the bench for the first part of last season. But at midseason, Diop forced his way into the starting lineup and put up 17 points and 13 boards while averaging just 22 minutes per game for the rest of the year. Smith called him the best player on the Oak Hill team, a squad that finished second in the nation.

    Diop's late-season surge was followed by a strong performance at the summer camps, making him a hot prospect who has his choice among several of the nation's elite schools.

    "I like playing against the top players because it helps me get better," Diop said. "I've gotten a lot better over the past year because Coach Smith has worked me hard."

    Several past Oak Hill players have gone on to play for the Cavaliers: Watson, Cory Alexander, Junior Burrough and Curtis Staples. Smith noted that each of those four players started as a college freshman and went on to greater success.

    "The two most important things for DeSagana are the opportunity to play early and the team's style of play," Smith said. "He wants to go to a situation where he can step in, but he also wants to go to a good team where he can develop."

    After playing against Diop this summer at Oak Hill, Watson knows what he can do.

    "Travis is probably U.Va.'s best recruiter," Smith said. "DeSagana gave Travis fits because of his height - [Travis] had to alter his shots. Travis came up to me afterwards and said 'Coach, I didn't realize he was that good.'"

    Diop also said Watson was enthusiastic.

    "He told me to come here because nobody would be able to stop us," Diop said.

    Gillen and Herrion have saved four of their five allotted in-person evaluations for later this year, since Diop insists he will not decide until the spring.

    "DeSagana knows they want him and he's their No. 1 guy," Smith said. "They have all their bases covered, and they've recruited him as hard as anyone."

    Said Diop: Gillen and Herrion "are cool and I think they can make me better."

    Diop will be making a return visit to Charlottesville Feb. 3, when Oak Hill comes to University Hall to face off against the Blue Ridge School and 6-3 guard Jermaine Harper, who committed to the Cavaliers last week.

    Virginia fans likely will have to wait longer to find out whether the Cavs will finally land the true center they have coveted for years.

    "He is the missing piece," Smith said. "He would make a huge difference - maybe a lot better. They would be a very, very good basketball team"

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