Nov. 29, 2016
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — During a post-practice discussion of on-court decorum Monday afternoon, Mamadi Diakite and his University of Virginia basketball teammates were reminded that officials will not tolerate cursing. Diakite was delighted to learn, though, that he’s allowed to let out a triumphant scream after swatting away an opponent’s shot.
“You can’t block somebody and not celebrate it,” he said later, smiling.
A 6-9 redshirt freshman, Diakite (pronounced Dee-ah-key-tay) has quickly become a fan favorite at John Paul Jones Arena, and he’s had much to celebrate this month. He’s averaging 7.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and a team-high 2.6 blocks for sixth-ranked Virginia (6-0), which hosts Ohio State (6-0) at 9:15 p.m. Wednesday at JPJ in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
If Diakite, 19, looks like he’s enjoying himself on the court, that’s no illusion.
“Basketball is hard,” Diakite said, “so you can’t be playing without having fun. If you’re not having fun, it’s not necessary to play.”
The Wahoos entered the season with six post players, including 6-11 freshman Jay Huff, whom head coach Tony Bennett plans to redshirt. But the recent departure of 6-9 Austin Nichols, who was dismissed for failing to meet program standards, left four players to split time at power forward and center: Diakite, 6-7 junior Isaiah Wilkins, 6-11 redshirt sophomore Jack Salt and 6-7 sophomore Jarred Reuter.
“For those four, that’s more minutes,” Bennett said. “So they have to step up and they’re going to get more opportunities.”
Wilkins and Salt have started every game this season, but Reuter and Diakite play extensively too. Diakite is coming off his best performance as a Cavalier. In the championship game of the Emerald Coast Classic, Saturday night in Niceville, Florida, he contributed 10 points and three blocks in 17 minutes to help UVA defeat Providence 63-52.
Friday night, in a 74-41 victory over Iowa, Diakite totaled five points, four rebounds and two blocks in 16 minutes.
With Nichols no longer on the roster, Diakite said, “I’m getting more opportunities to play and more minutes, of course. I try to bring whatever I can bring to the team, whether it’s scoring, whether it’s blocking [shots] or whatever. I’m willing to help the team in any way.”
Assistant coach Jason Williford believes Nichols’ absence will accelerate the development of the Cavaliers’ other big men, especially the younger ones. (Wilkins is the veteran of the group; he started 21 games last season on a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight. Neither Salt nor Reuter averaged more than 6.3 minutes per game in 2015-16).
“They all get to play through some mistakes, and that quite honestly is the best way to develop,” said Williford, a former UVA forward. “They’re not looking over their shoulder. If there is a silver lining in [the loss of Nichols], it’s that for all of them.”
Diakite is still prone to lapses, and during one shy stretch in Niceville, Williford said, the coaching staff considered taking him out of the game. “And I said, `No, Tony, you’ve got to keep him in,’ because we’d lost a little energy in the second half,” Williford said. “Mamadi was playing with so much energy, it became infectious.”
A native of Guinea, Diakite moved to the United States in January 2014 and enrolled at Blue Ridge School, whose campus is about 20 miles from UVA. As a senior in 2014-15, Diakite led the Barons to a 22-4 record and the Virginia Independent School Athletic Association’s Division II state title.
He spoke four languages fluently — French, Malinke, Soussou and Peul — before coming to the U.S. He began learning English in earnest when he enrolled at Blue Ridge and has made impressive strides since then.
“It’s a lot better than before, but I still need some improvement at this level,” said Diakite, who hopes to major in economics at UVA.
He was exceedingly thin and weighed only 190 pounds when he enrolled at UVA late in the summer of 2015. He’s still far from bulky, but Diakite reached 222 pounds this fall before dropping back to his current weight of “215, 216,” he said.
His enormous potential is impossible to miss. His above-the-rim highlights remind some of former UVA star Justin Anderson’s aerial feats, but senior point guard London Perrantes dismissed those comparisons after Diakite rejected four shots Nov. 20 in a 62-38 win over Yale.
“I don’t think Justin’s athletic ability compares to Mamadi’s,” Perrantes told reporters at JPJ. “Mamadi’s is through the roof.”
Diakite is more than a prodigious leaper. On the practice floor, he regularly displays a soft and accurate outside shot, and against Providence he hit 2 of 3 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc.
“He’s earned the right to shoot a few of them,” Williford said.
His treys might have surprised some fans, Diakite acknowledged, but “they’ve got to get used to it, because I’ve been practicing them for over a year now. I’m getting there. I’m not going to take most of the [3-point] shots on the team, but when I’m open, yes, I will let it go.”
As welcome as Diakite’s marksmanship is at Virginia, the quickest way for a player to earn minutes in Bennett’s program is by distinguishing himself on defense. Diakite’s long arms and quick feet make him especially versatile at that end of the court, and he often works against wings in practice.
Under Bennett, the `Hoos have become known for their rugged Pack-Line defense, and they’ve been in good form this season. Opponents are averaging 41.3 points per game and shooting 30.5 percent from the floor against Virginia.
“I think our guys understand clearly that they have to be right defensively,” Bennett said. “I think they understand that we’re trying to really work at that and be as sound and tough as possible and make people earn, and that will have to be what we hold our hat on.”
UVA and Ohio State met in last year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge too. In Columbus, the Cavaliers played without Perrantes but still prevailed 64-58.
ESPN2 is televising the rematch, and Diakite is eager to play on this stage, though he admits he knows little about the Buckeyes.
“I know they have a great team,” he said. “I don’t know really anybody from there. I’m new to this college basketball thing. But what I know is that I’m going to give my effort and I’m going to contribute to the team so we can win.”
In 2015-16, Diakite was allowed to practice with the team. He emerged from his redshirt year confident he was ready for Division I basketball, Diakite said, but “once we hit the season, I understood that it’s not that easy. Coach is always talking about being continuous and having a warrior’s heart and not ever giving up on defense or on offense. Until I played the first game, I had a feeling, but I didn’t really know that it was going to be that hard.”
Diakite has had to earn Bennett’s trust, and that can be a slow process.
“You have to show him at practice first — not always in the game, but at practice — that you’re capable of doing a lot of things,” Diakite said. “I just keep working and try to get better every day. Take a step every day.”
He smiled. “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”