Five years ago, he was new to the United States, spoke only French and was more comfortable dribbling a soccer ball than a basketball around the campus of the Blue Ridge School, an all-boys academy in a remote spot outside Charlottesville.
Tuesday evening, though, Mamadi Diakite became the most important player in the NCAA Tournament nobody was talking about. With the announcement from Virginia that redshirt freshman forward De’Andre Hunter would miss the tourney with a broken wrist, Diakite is suddenly a key figure for the No. 1 overall seed.
Like Hunter, the 6-foot-9, 230-pound Diakite has become a shining example of how a player can develop after a redshirt season under UVA coach Tony Bennett.
Now a redshirt sophomore, Diakite is still a bit less polished than many of his teammates. But with ever-evolving post moves and pure physical ability that rivals Hunter, the native of Conakry, Guinea in West Africa, is a far cry from the incredibly raw basketball player who arrived in Central Virginia before his junior year of high school.
“When Mamadi first arrived to Blue Ridge School, you could probably quantify the number of hours of competitive basketball he had played in the tens of hours,” Diakite’s high school coach and former UVA player, Cade Lemcke said.
“Mamadi understood blocking shots,” Lemcke continued. “But he didn’t know the difference between a goal-tend and a block. He wasn’t comfortable with the ball in his hands, but he had good footwork thanks to all the soccer he played in his life.”
Now, the Cavaliers will need some fancy footwork to get around playing without their super-sub. Assuming Virginia can get past the first weekend even without Hunter, the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year, and UVA’s best NBA prospect, thousands of bracket pools across the country to hinge on Diakite’s ability to step up in his teammate’s absence.
The potential Sweet 16 matchup between Virginia and No. 4 seed Arizona was one many across the country had circled as soon as the tournament field was released. How exactly would the Cavaliers matchup with the Wildcats’ powerful frontcourt led by National Player of the Year candidate DeAndre Ayton?
Many assumed Hunter, who had something of a coming out party at Duke against a similar lineup, would be the key. But with Hunter out, more responsibility will surely fall to Diakite, who has emerged a bit himself in recent weeks.
But the Cavs need more consistency from their first big man off the bench. Diakite has scored at least nine points in five of the past seven games, but scored a total of two in the other two contests, including being held scoreless in the ACC Championship game against North Carolina.
Diakite may have to change his approach. For the most part, Virginia has asked him to supply about 15 minutes of high-energy, aggressive play per game. Diakite, not afraid to wag a finger or get in somebody’s face, plays with emotion and a bit of an edge. But he also frequently gets in foul trouble.
He’ll need to play smart and stay on the floor, particularly if UVA winds up playing Arizona, with Ayton and 7-footer Dusan Ristic.
He won’t be alone in needing to step up, though. Devon Hall will be asked play mega minutes and likely have to guard bigger players at times. Freshman Marco Anthony might be called upon after playing only sporadically all season. Perhaps redshirt freshman 7-footer Jay Huff will get on the court for something other than garbage time.
But it’s Diakite who can most replicate the production Hunter provided the second half of the season and he’s now the key to a Final Four run for the Cavaliers.