Dec. 15, 2017
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He thought college basketball would be easier. Mamadi Diakite admits that now, as he nears the midpoint of his third year at the University of Virginia.
He arrived at UVA in the summer of 2015, and after a redshirt year during which he gained weight and strength and started to learn head coach Tony Bennett‘s system, the 6-9 Diakite expected to be significant contributor in 2016-17.
That didn’t happen.
“Before I started playing [at UVA], I thought I would come and dominate everyone, because I knew I was athletic enough to do some amazing things,” Diakite said after a recent practice at John Paul Jones Arena. “But the [ACC] slapped me in the face. I was a little surprised how fast it was going at first, and how physical it was.”
On a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round last season, Diakite averaged 3.8 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.2 blocked shots and 14 minutes per game. He had some memorable moments — Diakite totaled nine points, six rebounds and block in a career-high 29 minutes in UVA’s season-ending loss to Florida — but often looked lost on the court.
“Last year, I had a lot of ups and downs,” said Diakite, a native of Guinea. “Some games it would be really hard for me. I didn’t know what’s going on. It was too much, and then school and the language barrier [made it more difficult]. But I’ve locked in and learned a lot throughout the summer, and that has helped me a lot.
“Coming into this year, I knew what I was kind of going to face, and so I got ready for it. I’m still not completely where I want to be yet, but I’m getting there slowly.”
Diakite, who turns 21 next month, came to the United States in January 2014 and enrolled at Blue Ridge School, about 20 miles north of Charlottesville. He has yet to start a game this season, but he’s averaging 6.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 19.6 minutes per game for No. 16 Virginia (8-1), which hosts Davidson (4-3) at 2 p.m. Saturday at JPJ. He’s shooting 62.5 percent from the floor and 75 percent from the line.
In the Wahoos’ most recent game, a 68-61 loss at then-No. 18 West Virginia on Dec. 5, Diakite had nine points, five rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 29 minutes. He also kept the Mountaineers from blowing the game open early, scoring five straight points after UVA fell behind 7-0.
“Mamadi’s coming,” associate head coach Ron Sanchez said. “It’s all coming through experience. He’s made some mistakes and he’s learning from those mistakes.
“To his credit, he is a student of it. He watches his films, he watches his mistakes, and he tries to make improvements on that. The positive plays definitely outnumber the negative plays.”
When Diakite (pronounced Dee-ah-key-tay) enrolled at UVA, he weighed only 190 pounds. (He’s now closer to 230.) Moreover, he had not played nearly as much basketball growing up as his new teammates had.
“Besides the few games at Blue Ridge and the few AAU games that he played, that’s really all the only organized basketball he knows,” Sanchez said.
Bennett said: “If you look at his `basketball age,’ it’s real young.”
UVA’s coaches have been able to help Diakite “understand the game and teach him the fundamentals of the game,” Sanchez said. “Because you can run and jump with any team, but at the end of the day it’s about him developing and maximizing his talents as a player, and I think as much as we needed him and we wanted him to be here, he needed us and wanted us to help him become a better player as well.”
Since the graduation of big men Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey, who were seniors in 2015-16, most of the Cavaliers’ scoring has come from the perimeter. There’s been a void inside that Diakite is trying to help fill this season.
“Last year I was more of a pick-and-pop jump-shooter,” he said. “I know I still can do that, but this year I’m more preoccupied with how to make the team better, and that’s me looking [to score around the basket] and of course get offensive rebounds.”
Sanchez said: “It’s not just the post moves. It’s taking care of the ball better and making good decisions at the end of a move, when you don’t have a shot, and I think Mamadi’s getting the feel for playing in traffic, around [defenders’] hands. The really good players can play around traffic, and that’s a big thing for him.”
Diakite said: “I’m someone who’s willing to do anything Coach wants. Since the beginning, I’ve told him that I’m willing to do anything for the team to win.”
Off the court, Diakite is majoring in French, with a Global Culture and Commerce minor that’s offered through the anthropology department.
When he came to the U.S., Diakite spoke four languages fluently, including French, and began learning English in earnest when he enrolled at Blue Ridge.
In his major, he’s taken classes on the French-speaking culture in Africa.
“It’s not an easy language,” Diakite said of French, “but I keep learning.”
He’s living this school year with five teammates: Devon Hall, Justice Bartley, Ty Jerome, Jay Huff and De’Andre Hunter. Like Hall in 2013-14 and Diakite in 2015-16, Huff and Hunter redshirted last season.
Huff, a highly skilled 7-1 forward, has played in only five games this season, but he’s already a fan favorite at JPJ. Bennett said this week that he gets asked more about Huff than anyone else on the team.
Diakite has preached patience to Huff, who on Nov. 13 made 7 of 8 shots and scored 16 points in his UVA debut.
“Last year was similar for me,” Diakite said. “I was sometimes on the bench. It wasn’t something easy for me to handle, and I would always ask myself, `Why am I on the bench? What can I do so I can’t be on the bench, because I love playing?’
“I’ve been telling him that his day will come. He just has to be patient and keep learning. I know it’s not easy, but before the light comes, you’ve got to go through a lot of darkness. He’s getting there. He’s a wonderful kid, has great skill for his height, 7-foot-1 and can shoot the ball, can put the ball on the floor and finish around the rim. It’s just [a matter of] him fitting in the program.”
Diakite has benefited from the counsel of former UVA basketball player Mamadi Diane, a 2009 graduate who’s back on Grounds as a first-year student in the Darden School of Business. Diane’s father, Mori, is from Guinea and is close with Diakite’s father.
“We have that brotherhood going on,” Diakite said of his relationship with Mamadi Diane. “We text. We chat. We talk to each other.”
In a VirginiaSports.com article published last month, Diane said he’s trying to instill in Diakite the importance of “resilience and hard work, having him understand that all he has is this moment.
“It may seem long while he’s here day to day. He’s got class, he’s got study hall, he’s got practice. But it’s just the snap of a finger, and he’ll be 30 like I am, so [Diakite needs] to really cherish the moment, work as hard as he can, and have no regrets during his time here.”
Diane, who played for Bennett’s predecessor, Dave Leitao, at UVA, has “been leading me as a brother throughout this whole college [experience], day after day,” Diakite said.
“He tells me what I should do in order to [earn] the coaches’ trust. You’ve got to be a hard worker. You’ve got to be someone who takes care of stuff off the court. We sometimes spend time together. We go out and grab dinner, breakfast or lunch.
“He talked to me about his past and said how thankful he is, first, for UVA giving him a scholarship and playing here and earning a degree. And he’s kind of jealous, because I’m playing with Coach Bennett, and he thinks Coach Bennett is a great coach, and he thought if he played with Coach Bennett he would have gone farther than he did.
“So he told me to take advantage of this opportunity. It’s a big opportunity for me.”
Diakite remains a work in progress, but his lapses are becoming less frequent, his playing time is increasing, and he has two-plus seasons of eligibility remaining at UVA.
“It’s exciting,” Sanchez said. “He’s fun to work with, because he’s physically gifted, and he’s a willing learner. He’s a joy to be around, and he wants to get it right.”