Mamadi’s Game, Confidence Growing By Leaps And Bounds

By Jerry Ratcliffe

UVA senior forward Mamadi Diakite goes up for a shot against JMU Sunday (Photo by Jon Golden).

When Mamadi Diakite announced his decision to return to Virginia for his final year of eligibility last spring, Wahoo Nation let out such a collective sigh of relief that it could have huffed and puffed the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria across the Atlantic.

After two games, Diakite has perhaps been even more impressive than Cavalier fans expected in leading No. 9 UVA to two easy wins over Syracuse and JMU. The fifth-year senior leads the team in scoring (15.5 ppg) and blocked shots (2.0 per game), and is second in rebounding (9.5).

In his last outing, Diakite posted career highs in points (19) and rebounds (13). The performance was so impressive that JMU coach Louis Rowe couldn’t stop talking about it in the postgame interview.

“He’s talented, he’s skilled … I think he’s great in space, moves really well, comfortable at his position, at 15-17 feet,” Rowe said. “He opened the game with a 3.

“He rips and drives, great finisher, smooth, has good feel. What, do you want any more? He is very, very good, he has it all. I hear Serge Ibaka-type stuff, you know? And it’s the truth. He has that type of package. He’s coming into his own. I mean he stepped out and hit a 3 to start the game.”

If you’re a Virginia fan, then you’ve known for quite some time that Diakite’s athleticism was off the scale. The program’s strength and conditioning coach told us all about that a year-and-a-half ago when he said that Diakite had more athletic ability than most of the NBA players that Mike Curtis worked with before he left the league to return to Virginia.

It was just a matter of his basketball IQ catching up with his athletic skills. We saw flashes throughout the regular season last year and then came the postseason when Diakite took his game to another level, particularly in the NCAA tournament.

Was he finally unlocking, unleashing all that talent?

It didn’t hurt that sports psychologist Dr. Tom Perrin worked with both Diakite and Jay Huff in helping build their confidence as first-time serious contributors to the program. Fans could see these guys develop as the season progressed.

Diakite will be starting Saturday when Columbia comes to JPJ for a noon game. Fans will see a much more confident Diakite than ever before.

JMU’s Rowe saw it a few nights ago.

“I think he blossomed last year around the big three (De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy),” Rowe said. “He got confidence, he worked his way into being a guy that they count on, hit the shot to win the game for them. I was a player once, too, so I understand the energy that is behind that. You gain more and more confidence.”

Rowe was referring to Diakite’s last-second shot that actually tied the game and sent it into overtime against Purdue in the NCAA Elite Eight game. Still, it was a shot that etched Diakite’s name into Virginia basketball lore for eternity.

Mamadi Diakite does a dance late in Sunday’s big win over JMU (Photo by Jon Golden).

Maybe his confidence was shaky in the past, but no longer. Diakite is beaming with confidence, which will be a help in his leadership of a relatively young team. He talks a good game and backs it up on the floor. He has no fear, and that’s important when there are a lot of new faces dotting the roster.

When asked a few weeks ago about opening the season against an ACC opponent, at Syracuse, Diakite said what any coach would hope a leader would say.

“I look forward to playing at Syracuse,” Diakite said without hesitating. “I don’t care if we’re opening up against another ACC team, SEC, UCLA, or even an NBA team.”

He walked the talk at the Carrier Dome with 12 points (6 for 10), six rebounds and two blocks. He chuckled, as did Huff, that he would have had more rebounds had not Kihei Clark, the smallest guy on the floor at 5-foot-9, gobbled up all the rebounds with 11.

No one is happier about Diakite’s jump than Tony Bennett, who has to be fired up about his leaper’s leap ahead.

“That’s the evolution of any of our guys that work hard,” the UVA coach said. “He can shoot the outside shot but he can never forget his great strength of being active defensively, being on the glass offensively and defensively, and blocking shots. That’s where it starts.

“If he ever has any amnesia about that, he is making a huge mistake for our team and for himself, and he understands that. We need his offense and his ability to one dribble and pull up or post moves or shoot the rhythm shots. I encourage that and want that and he did a great job against Syracuse. Now he has an opportunity in his fifth year to give us a threat on the inside and outside as well.”

Diakite has always been a 3-point threat, and his ability to leap and dunk on the alley-oop play, or stick back a rebound, even score with his back to the basket, has been amazing at times.

“I worked really hard,” Diakite talks about his offseason, which included an invitation to the G-League Elite Camp and workouts for a few NBA teams before he decided to return to school. “Going through the process and working with Coach Bennett and staff, they have helped me a lot with my shot.”

Huff, the seven-foot teammate of Diakite, has taken notice.

“His one-on-one game has improved tremendously,” Huff said of Diakite. “He is also very quick, so that combo makes him hard to guard because if you step back he’ll shoot it and if you get too close, he’ll go right past you and dunk it.”

Talk about a nightmare of a matchup.

If Diakite can make the jump from his fourth to fifth year with as much progress as he did between his third and fourth year, we’re looking at an All-ACC player by the end of the season. In fact, ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg even went as far to say that Diakite could be a strong candidate for ACC Player of the Year.

As Louis Rowe said, “What, do you want any more?”

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