LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In so many ways, the Louisville Cardinals appear to be your typical, really good, Final Four-capable team.
There's the 24-7 record, the No. 10 AP ranking, the fourth seed in the ACC tournament and a projected No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. There's the defense that is among the nation's best. There's the stud go-to scorer, Donovan Mitchell, and the steady-handed point guard, Quentin Snider.
And there are the potential X-factors: sophomore wing Deng Adel, the team's third-leading scorer (11.6 points per game), and 6'10" senior big man Mangok Mathiang, its leading rebounder (6.2 per), players of whom Nick Coffey—a Louisville radio host who talks Cardinals hoops on the airwaves 12 months a year—says, "There's not a situation where Louisville makes a Final Four without Deng Adel being the good Deng Adel and Mangok Mathiang being the good Mangok Mathiang."
When you're filling out your tourney bracket next week, that's the type of information you'll see in the various scouting-report blurbs about Louisville.
Impressive, but again, pretty typical of a team of this caliber.
What those blurbs won't reveal is how atypical this Louisville team's X-factors truly are.
They won't have the story of two players who have the shared experience of a life journey that spans three continents. They won't tell about the journey that led each to the same family in Florida—or of the way that family helped them reach this one university in the middle of America, where these days they can frequently be heard reminiscing about life in Australia and speaking to each other in Dinka, the tongue of their native Sudan, in the middle of games. (If you hear the word "lee-ip" on the court, that means either Mathiang or Adel is "open.")
The blurbs won't reveal it, but Louisville's potential road to the Final Four could be as unique and unlikely as any team's, and it began before these two had ever heard of the University of Louisville.
Each player's family wanted to escape war-torn Sudan, and each took its own path to Australia: Mathiang's family spent two years as refugees in Egypt, while Adel's family spent a year as refugees in Uganda. Neither has memories of their young lives in Sudan, both have fathers who stayed behind, and both journeyed half a world away to Melbourne, Australia, a coastal city of 5 million, where they made a new home.
They traveled in the same circles in Melbourne's potent Sudanese refugee community, but Mathiang was three years older.
It wasn't until the two were teenagers, playing in a Sudanese basketball league, that they struck up a relationship. At first, it was far from cordial.
"It was a couple months before I came to the United States for high school, and DA came down to the basketball court," explains Mathiang, who also played the rough-and-tumble Australian rules football. "He was trying to guard me. I grabbed the ball and just blatantly elbowed him on purpose. And he was like, 'Yo, what the hell?' And I was like, 'Welcome to grown-man basketball.'
"He didn't come back for three weeks. But then he just got used to it."
Not long after that first meeting, each went on a trip that would change the path of his life.
Mathiang went to Chicago, where a basketball coach who'd long worked with Australia's Sudanese community, Loren Jackson, invited him to live in his basement and take a flier on a basketball career. Mathiang followed Jackson to IMG Academy in Florida, where Jackson would eventually found his own basketball school.
Adel took his first trip back to Sudan since his family fled. He saw his father for the first time in a decade, reconnected with cousins he didn't remember and was reminded of his heritage. And he was humbled by what life in a third-world country was like compared to life in Australia: poor housing, not enough food, constant conflict.
When he returned to Australia after the trip, he doubled down on basketball, a sport he'd become a prodigy in.
"It just made me more hardworking," Adel says. "I want to help people from my home country out. It made me want to take basketball more seriously."
Wanting to do that, for Adel, meant one thing: going to America. His family was uncertain. You come all the way to Australia in order to send your child across the globe to live with an unknown family?
Luckily, Adel knew a guy. He called Mathiang, who was redshirting at Louisville for the 2012-13 season, a year that ended in a national title. Mathiang told him about Jackson, the guy who let Sudanese basketball players live in his basement and taught them the game. Then he called Jackson and vouched for his friend. Adel is legit, Mathiang told the coach, who by then had started Victory Rock Prep, a basketball-focused prep school in Bradenton, Florida.
"They became my second family right away," Adel says. "The great thing about it is with Coach, nothing's handed to you easy. He told me that from the jump. Coming there, I have to work my way up. I didn't want anything handed to me.
"Mangok and me, we have an immigrant mentality. We've had to work our whole life for a better life. Why stop now?"
Mathiang had lived in Jackson's basement, in the same house as the Jacksons' two children—the girl, Ai-Ja, and the boy, Christian, who now plays for Long Beach State—but by the time Adel landed in the U.S., the Jacksons had procured an apartment in Florida for players. Still, Adel and Mathiang shared the same family experience: Do your dishes. Do your homework. And never, ever cross Mama Jackson.
"They're just my family, and I'm going to treat them the way I treat my kids—and yes, they get punished just like they're my own children," says Paula "Mama" Jackson. "Maybe you can't watch TV. Maybe you can't go out. It's our life's work, but it doesn't feel like that. I always have in mind when I meet a new kid that this is like my own child."
"I'm a father figure, and those are my sons," Jackson says of Mathiang and Adel. "Deng's little brother is with me now as a junior. It's kind of the beat that goes on."
It wasn't long before they became like family. Ai-Ja would take bites of food off Mathiang's plate, just like Mathiang's sister back home. The Jackson family got to know Mathiang's and Adel's families via frequent FaceTime calls.
As Mathiang and Adel became adopted members of the Jackson family, Ai-Ja and Christian came to consider themselves honorary Australians. Ai-Ja started referring to all her friends at school as her "mates." She laughed when they would say "bloody hell" or "love you heaps."
When Christian was in seventh grade, five African kids were living in his basement. Every morning, they'd all get up at 6 a.m., work out and then chow down on peanut butter and jelly. The family had to buy eight loaves of bread at a time. Christian learned Dinka, including a certain curse word that he'll use on the basketball court when he's mad. He found out what Mathiang and Adel already knew: You never get called for a technical when you speak in Dinka.
In December, Mathiang graduated from Louisville with a major in communications. His family visited the United States for the first time. At a celebration dinner, they finally got to meet the family that had helped raise their son in person. It was like meeting up with old friends.
"Sport is an amazing way to connect with people across the world," Jackson says. "Playing basketball, it's helped me. It gave me a free college education. You travel all across the country playing basketball. You meet people from all over the world. You feel connected. Why not give back to the sport I love?"
What he's helped give Louisville is a story—and two players who have combined to become the team's single X-factor, a huge part of determining whether this team will make a run deep into March and, perhaps, to its fourth national title.
"What bodes well for this team is when both those guys play well and do what they do: Mangok Mathiang taking care of the boards and doing the junk work, and Deng Adel scoring in transition," Coffey says. "When that happens, everything else seems to fall into place for the team."
The blurbs will offer similar assessments, alongside praise of the hounding Rick Pitino defense, the big jump that Mitchell made in his sophomore year and how Snider makes the team one of the ACC's best at taking care of the ball.
It'll look impressive, but not nearly as interesting as it really is.