There aren’t many returning players for the Virginia Men’s Basketball season in 2019-20 thanks to turnover from graduation, transfers, and departures for the NBA. Fifth year senior Mamadi Diakite is one of the few returnees, and arguably one of the most important players on Tony Bennett’s squad. The 6-9 forward from Guinea is one of four players that saw significant minutes in Virginia’s 2019 NCAA Championship run, and he will be counted on immensely to provide points and defensive leadership this season. Diakite was the only Virginia player picked preseason All-ACC by the media, earning a spot on the First Team.
After redshirting his first season on Grounds, Diakite has seen his on-court time and impact grow immensely. Virginia doesn’t win a National Championship back in April without the contributions of Diakite, and they likely don’t make it out of the first weekend. He saw action in all 38 games last season, starting 22 of them. His 7.4 points per game was fourth best on the team (behind just the Big Three of Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome), and shot 57% on two-point shots over the course of the season.
There was a moment of panic that Diakite wouldn’t return to Charlottesville for his final season of eligibility after he waited until the last minute to remove his name from the NBA Draft pool. He learned a lot working out and getting feedback from the NBA, saying, “it brought me a lot of experience.”
As a senior player, Diakite will naturally fall into a leadership role. He’s taken it seriously in the offseason, working on all aspects of his game. “Adding more range to my game, being more versatile, because I’m on a team that will need it now more than ever,” Diakite said of his offseason preparations. “Same thing defensively, and my leadership.”
This season, Diakite, Jay Huff, and Braxton Key—all players that will make up the front court—return for the Cavaliers. The shift of power from the back court, which will be anchored by second year guard Kihei Clark and newcomers Tomas Woldetensae and Casey Morsell, to the front court will be a change from Virginia teams of recent memory. If Diakite continues to improve as he has over the past couple seasons, the Cavaliers will be in good hands.
Here’s a mega-mix of his outstanding plays from the NCAA tournament that show his diverse skills:
Diakite’s ability to protect the rim has developed impressively over his time in Charlottesville. After 39 blocks his first season, Diakite’s block total in 2017-18 dropped to 16. Last season? A whopping 63 blocks, good for third in the ACC. His block %, however, was first in the ACC (12.1% in conference play) and 24th in the nation (10.2% for the season), per KenPom.
Two seasons ago, after Virginia beat Clemson in the ACC tournament semifinals en route to winning the conference tournament title, Diakite told Streaking the Lawn, “The coaches are telling me to free my mind and play and I’m having more experience from just playing.“
That has been a focus of Diakite’s, and something Coach Bennett has wanted to see from the big man: less thinking, more playing.
That’s something that has shown on both sides of the ball as Diakite’s has become a block master defensively. In Virginia’s first matchup with Notre Dame last season, Diakite set a (then) new career-high with four blocks. He matched that four more times in the final 19 games of the season, and swatted another new career-high five balls in the national semifinal against Auburn.
It’s not just on defense, however. Diakite’s offensive touch around the basket has improved dramatically and he has the ability to score in a variety of ways. He has a soft shooting stroke, and works well off-ball to get open.
Another thing to keep an eye on: Diakite’s offensive rebounding percentage of 10.5% in conference play was 10th best in the ACC. Virginia doesn’t often crash the boards, but Diakite’s length and positioning had him in the right place last season.
The next big step for Diakite is adding more range to his game. He went 5-for-17 (29%) from three on the season, including 0-for-5 in the NCAA tournament. His ability to consistently hit from outside (or at least be a threat) would cause a lot of problems for opposing defenses, especially if he’s on the floor the same time as Jay Huff (45% from three last season). In Saturday afternoon’s Blue White Scrimmage, Diakite showed off some of that range by hitting three deep shots.
Diakite is actually pretty solid at not turning it over (only 34 on the season as a whole), but his 12 assists were low. Once the ball went into him in the post, it didn’t often come out. There were times he had a tendency to force a shot or take a difficult shot instead of dishing it back out to a teammate.
Best 2018-19 Game
This was a legitimately tough decision, especially as you hit postseason play. Diakite turned it on in the post season, averaging 10.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game in the NCAA tournament.
After a lot of back and forth, Diakite’s 17 point, nine rebound performance against Gardner-Webb cannot be overlooked. He went 6-for-7 in the second half as the Cavaliers completed the comeback and built a big lead, and he only missed one shot per half as he shot 80% from the field.
Other games considered: Oregon (7 points, 11 rebs, 2 blocks), Oklahoma (14 points, 9 rebs, 3 blocks)
Best 2018-19 Play
This is the easiest choice ever, matched only by the one that will go for the other person involved in this play. With Virginia trailing by two in the Elite Eight against Purdue, things looked dire for the Cavaliers. Ty Jerome was at the free throw line with 5.9 seconds on the clock. He missed, and a perfectly timed tap out by Diakite allowed teammate Kihei Clark to track down the ball and launch a perfect one-handed pass to Diakite who finished with a perfect floater at the buzzer.
The Hoos would go on to win in overtime, getting back to the Final Four for the first time since 1984.
It was pure beauty.
Year: Redshirt Senior
2018-19 PPG: 7.4
2018-19 RPG: 4.4