Diakite Leads UVA’s ‘X-Factors’ Into Postseason

Mamadi Diakite

By Jerry Ratcliffe

The difference in this Virginia basketball team and previous Tony Bennett squads has been the storehouse of offensive firepower.

UVA’s “big three,” Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De’Andre Hunter, give the Cavaliers a punch that has been lacking during previous NCAA Tournament runs or in some cases, shortcomings.  It’s always important to have a third scorer, and that’s something the Wahoos have boasted most of the season.

The old coaches will tell you that the NCAA Tournament is a made for good guard play, and if that’s the case, Guy and Jerome certainly fill the bill. Hunter, a small forward, can also play at a guard spot.

However, what happens when one of those scorers either goes cold, such as Jerome did in the ACC Tournament (5 for 24 vs. NC State and Florida State), or an opposing team focuses much of its defensive effort in shutting down one guy — pun intended — such as FSU coach Leonard Hamilton did in taking away UVA’s Guy in the second half of the ACC semis?

Guy was 3 for 8 vs. the Seminoles and had 11 points in the loss, after having blown up NC State in the quarterfinals when he was 7 for 9 on 3-pointers and had 29 points, one point shy of his career high.

Hunter is the immediate answer. He is a game-changer, a player capable of taking over and sealing the deal if he gets enough touches. Sometimes it seems that Hunter doesn’t get the ball enough, particularly when the Cavaliers need a go-to guy at a critical moment.

Hey, if I have an NBA lottery pick standing there at the high post, I’m gonna let the big dog eat.

Still, could it be that considering all this, that Virginia’s life in the NCAA Tournament will last longer if it is getting support from its X-Factors? Bennett has talked about X-Factors since October.

First, it was junior Mamadi Diakite. Bennett described Diakite as the X-Factor prior to the season, and accurately so. With off-the-chart athleticism, everyone in the program was waiting for Diakite’s basketball IQ to catch up with his athleticism.

It has, and most of the time the 6-foot-9 forward has been a strong contributor and has helped win games, and has helped UVA dominate in others.

Over the season, more X-Factors have kicked in. Alabama transfer Braxton Key has kind of been one, although more was expected of him after he had posted two seasons in the SEC. He has been a strong rebounder, which has been important for a team not highly regarded as overpowering on the boards.

The perhaps XX-Factor was 7-1 Jay Huff. We all knew that “Huff the Magic Dragon,” or the “Huffington Post,” as many Wahoos have tagged him, had the offensive ability, something the redshirt sophomore has showcased in the past.

Inability to grasp the defensive concept to Bennett’s liking, and questionable strength kept him off the floor. However, he has made strides in those areas and has been a strong contributor down the stretch of the ACC season.

Virginia needs to get something out of both Diakite and Huff in the postseason. Both can make a difference.

Yes, the Cavaliers need Key’s rebounding and occasional buckets, Yes, they need senior center Jack Salt to give them what he gave in the ACC Tournament. He’s not going to score 18 points as he did in UVA’s quarterfinals win over the Wolfpack, but if he can contribute a few baskets and remain a threat, it won’t hurt.

It is absolutely imperative that Bennett gets more out of Diakite and Huff than he did in the ACC Tournament.

UVA’s bench was practically non-existent in those two games.

NC State outscored Virginia 20-9 in bench points; while Florida State did even better, 28-8.

In those two games, Diakite played a total of 20 minutes out of a possible 80 (only seven vs. FSU) and was highly ineffective. He was 2 for 7 shooting, had one free throw, no rebounds, five total points, one block.

Huff played 15 minutes total, was 1 for 4 shooting (1 for 3 on 3’s), had one free throw, no rebounds, four points, and one block.

Both Huff and Diakite were so ineffective defensively against the Seminoles, that Bennett pulled them from the floor.

Diakite, though, is the guy who can truly become the X-Factor come to life in postseason. He can score from anywhere around the basket with his leaping ability. He can outlet pass, he can defend the rim and swat shots into the stands.

“Mamadi’s ability to block shots and defend has been tremendous,” said UVA associate head coach Jason Williford, who works with the Cavaliers’ big men. “Whatever scoring punch he gives us is a plus. I think he’s playing with a tremendous amount of confidence.”

As Williford aptly pointed out, it has been different guys on different nights that have stepped up all season long and need to continue to do so.

If Diakite can stay out of foul trouble, something he has improved upon this season, contribute a few baskets, and can defend at an elite level, that’s a huge factor for Virginia.

Williford believes that light has finally kicked in for Diakite. And no, we’re not talking about his new tinted hairstyle, a yellowish dome that sticks out like a sore thumb on the court.

“It has clicked for him,” Williford said. “He has to focus, he has to stay there, but the game has slowed down for him. That’s what happens when you become a veteran.”

Bennett agreed.

“I think Mamadi has improved and there’s still room for improvement, which is exciting for the evolution of his game and for this program,” Bennett said. “The physical part, the skill, the maturity, the emotional part, are things he’s gotten better and better.

“At times he’s been a terrific X-Factor,” Bennett continued. “We’ve had a few X-Factors this year, but he’s going in the right direction.”

Diakite said that while it was difficult for him the first couple of years in the program due to his lack of basketball knowledge (he began playing the sport only a few years ago), his understanding is much improved.

“It has definitely caught up slowly,” Diakite said. “Defensively, I’m more comfortable. Offensively, sometimes I don’t get the looks I want, so I throw the ball back out.”

Still, he has noticed that opponents, even sometimes his own teammates, are surprised when he makes a new move. He has watched video of Kobe Bryant and Hakeem Olajuwon to develop his game.

“That’s why I like facing up every time I get the ball in the post,” Diakite said. “I just keep working on it. One day I’ll have my chances and I think it will surprise people. Some people think I can’t really do it.”

For now, he’s content on passing the ball back outside to Guy or Jerome or Hunter for a 3-pointer, and if they connect on enough of those, “if Kyle is going to knock down shots, people will forget about me and I can go into action.”

Diakite credits his work with Williford for helping develop his all-around game, particularly his offense.

“I’ve kept it simple,” Diakite said. “When I face up, from there I can shoot the ball or attack left or right, different counters. It seems hard for me to back people down, so I like facing up and attacking.”

The hair though?

“I like it,” Diakite said. “As long as coaches and my family are good with it.”

He reported his mom is tolerating it, even though the tint has gone from almost orange to platinum, to blonde.

“My mom is tolerating it, but I don’t think she likes it that much.” he said.

Williford, though, is a different X-Factor of his own when it comes to Diakite’s hair.

“I told him to get rid of that stuff,” Williford said gruffly.

As long as Diakite produces in UVA’s postseason run, he can go the Dennis Rodman route as far as Wahoo fans are concerned.

Should he produce big time, just take the X out of Diakite. He’ll be the factor.



Comments

  1. Sam Smith says:

    Demolition Man!

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