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Postseason awards: Cal State Northridge’s Lamine Diane put up numbers of mythical proportions in 2018-19

Cal State Northridge’s double-double machine was the first freshman to win Big West Player of the Year in 25 years.

NCAA Basketball: Big West Conference Championship Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to awards week at Mid-Major Madness! This week, we’re honoring the best players, coach, and game from the 2018-19 season, continuing today with our Freshman of the Year

All-Mid-Major Madness First Team
All-Mid-Major Madness Second Team
All-Mid-Major Madness Third Team
Game of the Year

Scroll through the list of players who averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, and one will find a who’s-who of modern college basketball legends. There’s Tim Duncan’s senior season, Tyler Hansbrough’s junior year and Blake Griffin’s final season at Oklahoma. Mid-major heroes like Mike Daum, Jock Landale and Dylan Windler are there too. One-and-dones like Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley have also accomplished this rare feat.

One freshman in all of college basketball put up these numbers while also shooting better than 48 percent from the floor this year.

Since this is a mid-major basketball site, the answer isn’t Zion Williamson.

The answer? Cal State Northridge freshman Lamine Diane.

The 6’7 Senegal native was the first freshman to win Big West Player of the Year honors since UNLV’s Kebu Stewart did so in 1994. Players like Diane don’t come around often in the Big West (or in the country, for that matter). Diane’s freshman year provides an interesting case study. If a 6’7 freshman was putting up 24 and 11 a game for, say, Duke, North Carolina, or even a middling Power 5, he’d be in discussions for the No. 1 pick. Most casual fans haven’t sat through a Cal State Northridge game — much less Diane’s highlight reel.

Diane’s freshman campaign was near-mythical for those who casually follow the sport, yet simultaneously even more mythical for those who watched the Big West every week. For those who still need to see Diane to believe, allow us to disprove some myths about our Freshman of the Year.

Myth 1: Diane is just a decent player in a bad conference

Although the Big West has waned since the glory days that saw UNLV, San Diego State, Nevada, Boise State and New Mexico State play for the conference, the nine-member amalgam of Cal States, UCs and Hawaii (for geographic reasons) has seen plenty of teams rise and fall over the years. Before UC Irvine won the Big West Tournament this year, the conference’s lone bid went to eight different schools in eight years. Winning in this parity-laden league requires veterans, transfers and a little luck.

Now, this isn’t meant to be a case for the Big West — if anything, it shows how difficult standing out in a crowded, experience-driven conference actually is. Diane stole the show from a deep crop of returning talent. Defending Big West Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year TJ Shorts returned for his senior season. Cal State Fullerton’s tandem of Khalil Ahmad and Kyle Allman were poised to take the Titans back to the NCAA Tournament. Alabama grad transfer Armond Davis averaged 13.1 PPG, stepping in for returning first-teamer Max Heidegger down in Santa Barbara. On top of all that, Long Beach State boasted one of the best free-throw shooters in the nation in JUCO transfer Deishuan Booker. In order for any freshman — much less Diane — to stand out in the Big West, they would need to do something damn-near historic.

So, 24.8 PPG and 11.2 RPG later, Diane did exactly that.

Myth 2: The only reason Diane put up those numbers was because CSUN was a one-man show

Give the Matadors more credit. They were a two-man show in 2019.

Diane had the privilege of running with sophomore point guard Terrell Gomez, who followed up his Freshman of the Year campaign by averaging 19.2 PPG, 2.8 APG and shooting 41.9 percent from three. The Matadors’ playbook wasn’t exactly “get the ball to Diane and let him bail us out” — especially since Diane and Gomez’s skill-sets complimented each other. Although Diane’s stats benefitted the most from Gomez’s misses, Gomez’s outside shooting often opened up the inside for Diane and vice-versa.

Not only that, Diane also played with double-digit scorer Rodney “Rocket” Henderson (10.6 PPG) and skilled distributor Darius Brown (8.6 PPG, a team-high 5.6 APG). Diane played on a fairly balanced, yet ultimately subpar 13-21 team that finished seventh in the Big West and (somehow) the first round of the CBI. He just so happened to be Cal State Northridge’s best interior scorer, rebounder, defender and the best freshman the conference has seen in decades.

Myth 3: All Diane does is score and rebound

Even if all Diane did was score and rebound, he was clearly one of the best in the nation at both things. But thankfully, he was so much more than that.

With a soft touch around the rim, a dexterous spin move and an arsenal of step-backs, Diane flummoxed smaller defenders and slower bigs all year. His scoring was effortless, his rebounding was instinctual and his decision-making in transition was second-to-none. On defense, he led the conference in blocks (72) and was third in steals (1.5 per game). Pick a game, and Diane made his mark upon it.

More often than not, he’d make at least one absolutely bewildering play per game, like this insane, between-the-legs assist against Cal Poly...

...or this coast-to-coast block and layup against Washington State:

...or his ability seemingly slow down in mid-air to tie the game late against New Mexico:

Diane put up 14 more double-doubles in a single season than anyone has in Big West history, and not a single one was boring. He controlled every game he played. In fact, his season lows in a single game were 14 points (against LBSU) and five rebounds (against UCSB). Defenses couldn’t stop Diane; they could only try to contain him.

Myth 4: Diane will be heading to the NBA next year, so why pay attention to him now?

The best — or scariest, if you root for the other Big West teams — part about Diane’s freshman campaign is that he’s probably going to put up these numbers next year.

Although averaging a 1950s-esque double-double and earning AP All-American honors usually engenders becoming a lottery draft pick, pull up any mock draft, and Diane’s name is missing.

The most glaring issue in Diane’s professional prospects, aside from playing for a sub-.500 Cal State Northridge team, is his jumper. His shooting form is angular and quixotic — and that’s not just because of his massive wingspan. Diane is incredibly effective around the rim, but at 6’7, he’d be matching up with wings in the NBA, which would require a semblance of an outside shot. Seeing as this desperation, fadeaway heave to send CSUN’s game against Yale into overtime was one of seven three pointers Diane made all year, it’s safe to say he’ll need at least another year of college basketball to expand his range.

Yet this would be picking nits. Diane’s freshman campaign was a serendipitous, yet thrilling storyline for a Cal State Northridge program that looked dead in the water this time last year. And even if Diane does leave for a professional career, he has already left an undeniable mark on the Big West record books. Whether or not Diane will be an interesting anecdote or an unforgettable career in the annals of the sport remains to be seen. But he’s off to a tremendous start.

Tomorrow: Coach of the Year and Player of the Year