Wahoos Look to Mamadi Diakite to Shoulder More of the Load

Mamadi Diakite skies to the rim against freshman forward Justin McKoy.

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Wahoo Nation held its collective breath last spring after three of its stars all jumped into the NBA draft, only to be followed by teammate Mamadi Diakite.

While most believed Diakite needed to marinate in college basketball for one more year, the multi-talented forward made an 11th-hour decision to return to Virginia for his final year. He hadn’t played to his potential in the G-League camp and thusly didn’t get an invitation to the NBA Combine. Still, Diakite worked out for some NBA teams before he made his final decision.

With another training camp under his belt and four of his former teammates scattered around professional basketball, a lot of focus turns toward Diakite.

“Mamadi has really improved,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said last week. “He’s worked very hard and improved all areas of his game.

“His shot is better, he’s scoring better, he’s a bit more continuous, he’s always been athletic and can protect the rim. I think he understands that there will be some more opportunities and is trying to lead better.”

Diakite, 6-foot-9, 224 pounds, emerged as a force over the course of the season last year. He really came on strong in the postseason, pushing his game to a higher level, which should carry over to this season.

ESPN analyst and former ACC coach Seth Greenberg said that not only will Diakite be the most improved player in the conference this season, but could also become the most dominant.

After averaging 7.4 points, grabbing 4.4 rebounds per game, and 1.66 blocked shots, Diakite is likely to make another statisical jump again this season, and frankly Virginia needs for him to do just that. He shot 55 percent from the field and 29 percent from the 3-point line, 70 percent at the free throw line. He also recorded at least one blocked shot in 20 straight games, the longest streak by a Cavalier since Ralph Sampson.

All those numbers will likely leap forward, but where Diakite will have to make an even bigger jump is in leadership.

“He’ll face things this year as a player that he hasn’t faced in the past,” Bennett said. “Being more of a marked man, having more opportunities to score in the system. I’m excited for him. He’s worked hard. He’s always full of life and energy and wants to lead this team with the best of his abilities.”

One of the qualities that Diakite said he learned during his pre-draft experience during the G-League camp and working out for pro teams, might surprise you.

“I learned how to be a better leader in addition to learning how to get better at my weaknesses,” Diakite said.

He has already embraced Virginia’s freshmen and junior college transfer Tomas Woldentensae and helped them get acclimated to ACC basketball.

“I’ve been talking to them, walking around with them, taking them to lunch, hanging out with them. I think that helped them a lot. I’ve told them that if they have any questions, ask me. I’ve got you.”

Freshman guard Casey Morsell has definitely taken advantage of Diakite’s experience, having asked him to teach him Bennett’s “Pack-Line” defense, and the senior kindly obliged.

“Once you learn about it, you know how simple it is,” Diakite said. “All you have to do is one movement, not two. Don’t let your man in the paint and [Morsell] has been doing really good at that.”

With Virginia opening the season at Syracuse on Wednesday night, Diakite said he and his teammates are ready to play.

“I’m ready right now. I love challenges. Without challenge, a man is not a man. You need that to become a real man, to overcome those challenges, to take another step,” the mobile big man said.

Playing an ACC opponent right out of the gate doesn’t bother him one iota.

“That just tells us we’ve got to get ready. I think that’s good for us,” Diakite said. “We know what’s coming so that’s pushed all of us in practice to get ready.”

He’s also not intimidated by the venue, Syracuse’s vaunted Carrier Dome.

“I feel at home when I play there, it doesn’t matter how many people are there,” the Cavalier forward said. “The only place that bothered me at the beginning was the crowd at Duke. I had never played in that setting my first year. There were so many people in a little environment. It was so loud that I couldn’t hear anything. I know what to expect now, so it doesn’t bother me.”

While many UVA fans aren’t pleased that the Cavaliers are the first defending national champion to open on the road in 50 years (UCLA, 1969), even that doesn’t bother Diakite.

“It’s a good challenge and we’ll take it,” he said. “On the road, not on the road. We don’t see any fans coming out onto the court to beat us, so everything will be on the court. They can say anything they want. It doesn’t matter that it’s an ACC team. It could be ACC, SEC, UCLA, or it could be an NBA team. I wouldn’t care. I’m just ready to start my senior season.”

Toward the end of the season last year, Diakite surprised fans and his teammates, not to mention the coaching staff, when he showed up for practice one day after dying his hair blonde, influenced by his girlfriend.

It was certainly a distinctive look that grew in recognition and popularity as he continued to impress throughout the postseason, all the way to the national championship. He drew much acclaim for his last-second shot that sent the Elite Eight game with Purdue into overtime, and allowed Virginia to advance to its first FInal Four since 1984.

He still wears his blonde mop proudly.

“I don’t know, maybe after the season I’ll take it off. Maybe I won’t. As of now, my plan is to keep it the whole season.”

Diakite said that because of his popularity gained from that shot and having his picture splashed on sports pages, magazines and television from last season that his popularity has exploded.

“I get recognized all the time,” he beamed. “People want to stop and pose for pictures or an autograph. I’m famous, especially in my home country (Guinea, Africa).”

Diakite has become quite a story. His athleticism has been off the charts ever since he arrived at UVA from nearby Blue Ridge School. He hadn’t played basketball long, so his knowledge, understanding of the game didn’t truly kick in until last season. Now, he’s ready to explode on the national scene.

“Seeing this is his last year and all the experiences he’s had in having to be patient, having to be a big part of certain games, conference games, NCAA tournament games, and then the experience in the spring/summer of the draft process, has really improved him,” Bennett said.

With his hair and his game, Diakite might just become the most recognizable player in ACC basketball. That’s just fine with him.

Comments

  1. Tim G says:

    Mamadi is really easy to root for.

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