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GU’s Keita getting comfortable, making impact

Gonzaga's Mathis Keita pushes the ball up against Oklahoma State in game on New Year's eve. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga's Mathis Keita pushes the ball up against Oklahoma State in game on New Year's eve. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Every freshman student on every college campus faces an adjustment period.

Now add in a sport, and that sport, basketball, is played a bit differently than what you’re used to. Throw in moving roughly 5,000 air miles away from home. Consider that the instructions from coaches and professors are in a language you’re struggling to grasp.

Welcome to Gonzaga guard Mathis Keita’s new world. After four months, he’s starting to feel more comfortable in his home away from home.

“The first week of practice I didn’t really understand anything,” said Keita, a 6-foot-5 freshman from Thionville, France. “I was just looking at everybody to know what we had to do. When I didn’t understand, I used to say, ‘Yeah.’ And just try to do like everybody else.”

Fast forward to present day and Keita is able to communicate effectively and his impact on the Bulldogs is growing by the game. He’s made strides on both fronts by putting his work ethic into overdrive.

In addition to his regular class load during first semester, Keita took English as a Second Language. The four-hour sessions included “grammar, listening and speaking,” said Keita, adding that his English has gone from “terrible” to “getting better.”

On the court, his playing time has gone from virtually non-existent to starting the last three games. He broke into the rotation with five points, three rebounds and two steals in 22 turnover-free minutes against Xavier. He had 12 points and two steals in a road win over Wake Forest.

In GU’s first 11 games, Keita played a team-low 42 minutes (walk-on Mike Hart was next at 50) in seven appearances. Half of Keita’s minutes came in blowout wins over Southern and Lewis-Clark State.

“Like the coaches told me, ‘You’re going to have a chance, get ready and work hard every day,’ ” Keita said. “So I just tried to keep practicing because it’s not easy every day when you’re not playing. When I got a chance, I just played, just tried to bring a lot of effort.”

Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd’s introduction to Keita came in an e-mail with an accompanying video, sent by one of Lloyd’s recruiting contacts in Europe.

Keita attended the same high school as ex-Zag Ronny Turiaf, whom Lloyd helped recruit, and played for the French junior national team. Lloyd relied on several of the same sources from Turiaf’s recruitment to learn more about Keita.

“I really liked him,” Lloyd said. “I knew his game, I don’t want to say it was quirky, but maybe looked a little bit off, but the reason we brought him here is he was highly competitive, very tough and he had a good understanding of the game.”

Growing up, Keita knew of Turiaf, but didn’t know him personally.

“He’s pretty popular (in France),” said Keita, who received a complimentary text message from Turiaf after the Wake Forest game. “I thought about him when I wanted to go to America. He did that, why not me? He just told me Gonzaga was a great place to be. I listened to him because I saw his career over here and he went to the NBA.”

Keita’s attitude impressed Lloyd.

“One of the first questions I asked him was, ‘What happens if you get to the States and you don’t play as much as you’d like?’ His response was, ‘If I’m not playing as much as I want, I’m going to work harder to play more,’ ” Lloyd recalled. “So I asked him, ‘What if you’re not playing at all?’ He said, ‘I’m going to work hard to play.’ ”

It has taken time for Keita to learn Gonzaga’s system and adjust to the American game. There is a 35-second shot clock in NCAA games, compared to 24 in France, and the U.S. style of play is more aggressive.

“The first couple of weeks I was always getting hit,” he said. “I remember the San Diego State game, every rebound was a war. I was like, ‘Wow, I just have to get used to that.’ Now it’s all right.”

Keita is a capable defender with his 6-5 frame and long arms. He has shown a knack for scoring on drives and finishing in transition.

“He’s competing,” head coach Mark Few said. “You peel a couple of layers away of just adapting to our style of basketball and he has a pretty good feel for the game. Like (assistant coach) Donny Daniels says, ‘For a guy not to play and not to play and then go 22 minutes with no turnovers, that’s impressive.’ ”

Coaches are working with Keita to improve his shooting motion. His biggest issue early on was his footwork.

“If you go back to the exhibition games he had a couple of those ‘European steps’ where they take like three long steps, it’s like they’re triple-jumping,” Lloyd said. “To his credit, he worked at it, didn’t get frustrated and I think he’s really going to help us the second half of the year.”