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Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite coming into form at the perfect time

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Red-shirt second year has bloomed down back stretch of the season...and it couldn’t be at a better time for the Hoos.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Virginia vs Clemson Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Before the No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers faced off against North Carolina in the ACC tournament title on Saturday night, Mamadi Diakite walked from the team tunnel to the court for pre-game shoot around. He wore his game shorts, a gray compression tank top, and was one of the few without any headphones blasting his song of choice in his ears.

His face was stoic, almost angry. He was in the zone.

Almost four hours later, ACC tournament title achieved, Diakite’s normal ear-to-ear grin returned to his face. He smiled with teammates, jumped in the back of Instagram and Snapchat stories, and answered every question asked of him by the steady flow of reporters coming in and out of the locker room. His newly-attained championship hat sat jauntily on his head, and the ACC tourney champion sweat towel was draped around his neck like a prize fighter in between rounds.

This is the nature of Diakite. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and plays basketball the same way. When he messes up defensively, you’ll see the frustration. When he sends a block into the third row, you’ll get a finger wag with a wry smile. When he slams home a dunk, seemingly having taken off from the three-point arc, you’ll get a soul-shaking scream. And when his teammates do something outstanding, you’ll get this:

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

He plays with an unbridled enthusiasm for the game that is infectious and that will be extraordinarily important for the Hoos going forward, especially on the offensive end.

After redshirting his first season on Grounds, Diakite averaged 3.8 points, 2.6 rebounds, and shot 54% from the field in an average of 14 minutes per game. This year, with only an extra minute of action per game, he’s averaging 5.3 points and three rebounds per game, shooting 57% from the field.

He’s improved his free throw shooting from 55% last season to 79% this season. His effective field goal percentage (eFG%) is second on the team at 57%, behind just Jack Salt at 65%. Fouling is his only real weak spot, committing 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes played.

Over the last five games, Diakite has been outstanding offensively, shooting 17-for-28 (61%) and averaging 7.6 points per game. Those stats include a quiet 0-2 outing in the ACC tournament finals.

Diakite has scored nine or more points in six of the last 11 games of the season, a mark he only hit five times in the other 22 games this year.

So what’s the difference?

“Definitely my confidence is growing, slowly.” Diakite said after Virginia’s ACC tournament semifinal win over Clemson. “The coaches are telling me to free my mind and play and I’m having more experience from just playing.“

In that game against Clemson, he had one of those moments with 15:16 left in the second half and the Hoos leading by four. Devon Hall dished the ball to Diakite low in the post, who was bodied by David Skara. Then, this happened:

After the game, Diakite said he wouldn’t have been able to read that play and go for the reverse dunk last season.

“Those are the changes I’ve been having lately,” he stated. “I’ve been having the feel of the game. Sometimes, like today with the reverse dunk, I knew that I had a feel with how the defender leaned on me. Before I would have tried to body him and go shoot it, whatever to my counter move. But, I took what he gave me.”

Now, that improved skill and ability to contribute offensively is more important that ever as the Hoos won’t have DeAndre Hunter available. Hunter averaged just shy of 10 points per game, a scoring load that will have to be picked up elsewhere, whether that’s with Nigel Johnson and Marco Anthony in the guard role, or with Diakite and fellow big man Jack Salt.

“We’re getting better,” Diakite said of his and Salt’s offense. “We’re getting our post move to another level.”

With Hunter out, there could be lineups that feature Diakite as the lone big, surrounded by guards with Hall playing at the 4. Diakite has shown improvement this season that gives Wahoo fans a sneak peak at how much promise he has going forward. Even he knows his potential is sky high.

“...when it gets where I want it to be, where coach wants it to be...it’s going to be scary.”

Virginia kicks off their run for the Final Four on Friday night at 9:20pm against UMBC.