Mamadi Diakite had a decision to make. Virginia men’s basketball had won its first national championship in school history. Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome had all declared for and were committed to stay in the 2019 NBA Draft. Diakite, who was finishing up his fourth year at UVA, had to choose between returning to Charlottesville for his final year of eligibility or join the “Big 3” and stay in the draft.
The 6’9” forward ultimately decided to return to Virginia. The chance to lead the Cavaliers to a second national title was taken away by the coronavirus, but Diakite expresses no regrets about returning for his fifth year.
“I thought it was a great decision,” Diakite reflected. “I mean it was made back then because we knew where would that place me in terms of the draft board, making my dreams of playing in the NBA, but also of being able to help my team and the staff and being a part of something that was special again this year. I know we didn’t get a chance to finish the year, but that was valuable to do that. It was a good decision.”
“Safety first,” Diakite said, discussing the canceling of the NCAA Tournament. “I understand that people are dying around the world, so I understand that we had to stop it, but again I was trying to be a part of something that was very special. We were trying to make something happen again this year. We were not able to. It hurts. It hurts a lot of people including me too, but it is what it is. We’ll have to deal with it.”
In his final year with the Cavaliers, Diakite established career-highs in points per game (13.7), rebounds per game (6.8), 3-point field goals made (20 on 36.4% shooting) and free throws made (92 of 122 for a 75.4% average), all while starting all 30 games and averaging 32.9 minutes per contest (his previous best was 21.8 minutes per game in 2018-19). His 38 blocks pushed his career total to 156, good for second all-time in school history behind the legendary Ralph Sampson.
Diakite finished the season with 12 consecutive double-digit point outings, recording two double-doubles in the process. UVA went 11-1 in those games and recorded eight straight wins to finish the season with a 23-7 record and the no. 2 seed in the 2020 ACC Tournament.
As a redshirt senior and one of the team’s go-to-guys, Diakite played consistent basketball, earning All-ACC Second-Team and All-ACC Defensive Team honors for his performance. He led with energy and positivity, helping the Cavaliers rebound from losing four of five games in January to close the season strong.
“To me, in the hard moments, being able to smile, being able to also enjoy, seeing the positive out of anything whether it’s negative or positive, is my strength,” Diakite said. “I think that helps a lot … people around you, your teammates, just everyone really. Especially this year, when everything was hard, people would look up to me and would see that I still have that smile and I’m able to get through all the up and downs, so they followed the lead. The reason why we were down in some of the games, we were down and towards the end we were able to figure everything out.”
Heading into postseason play, “We were very confident,” Diakite said. “We were ready to surprise the world. We were ready to do something special, but again we have to respect what’s first. Safety first.”
The NCAA is nearing a decision on adding eligibility for winter and spring sports athletes – presumably seniors only – who missed out on either championship tournaments or full seasons due to coronavirus cancellations. If by some chance winter sports athletes are allowed to return for another year, might we see Diakite back in the orange and blue?
“Hey, I would like to come back, but I don’t think a lot of teams or a lot of people would like to have me back on the UVA team,” Diakite said with a smile. “I remember when I talked to [UNC head coach Roy Williams], he told me, ‘Nice to see you but not nice to see you. I don’t want to play against you.’ So, I think that would make people not allow me to have another year of eligibility here (smiles).”
“I want to make it professional,” Diakite continued in a serious tone. He acknowledged that he has signed with an agent. “That was my dream since I was very young. I think this chapter is pretty much over, so I’ll have to focus on [moving on to a professional career].”
Returning to finish out his final year of eligibility at UVA was a good move, Diakite says. He is also confident he has more to show the NBA world.
“Coach Bennett did a great job preparing me for games,” Diakite said. “I did what I had to do and I did what I was supposed to do. I did what I had to do to help the team last year, this year. Maybe the NBA will want to use me different and I’ll have to prepare myself accordingly.”
His immediate future known, Diakite looks forward to cheering on the Hoos next season. Count him as a believer that UVA could make national noise in 2020-21.
“I believe in them. It’s going to be a team that has some potential offensively, and defensively too,” Diakite said. “We’ve been doing that for many years now. It’s going to be a lot of up and downs like this year, because it’s going to be a lot of new faces coming and they’ll have to buy into the defense. The only big thing about it is if they are committed to play, to listen to the coaches and to take all the stuff that the coaches are saying, then they’re going to be good. They have many weapons – Jay Huff, Kihei, and even Sam. Sam’s going to surprise a lot of people. Wisconsin boy. I believe in him. I think he can do it, too. I think next year’s team is going to be one of those interesting teams. We’ll see what they are going to do. I believe in them. I think they are going to go far.”
More with Mamadi
Mamadi watched the 2019 National Championship game, which was televised a few times recently. Thoughts?
“I felt like I was back in the moment,” Diakite said. “It hadn’t hit me yet this whole year until now, in the postseason, when I’m not doing anything. Being able to watch that, being able to realize I was a part of something very special, is big for me. I’m coming from a country that’s very poor, a third world country. Me being able to be on that stage, where everyone doesn’t get the experience of, was very big for me.”
What will he miss most about UVA?
“The answer to that question is my teammates, really, and the staff,” Diakite said. “I learned a lot of things throughout my five years here on campus. But also the fans. It’s crazy how much love they show you around campus and even in the arena. They were supporting us every day throughout those up and downs.”
Diakite has started working out again, doing what he can to prepare for the 2020 NBA Draft. He answered whether he is hearing anything positive in terms of his draft status.
“I’m hearing some good stuff about myself,” Diakite said. “All I can say is I’m a player. Whatever you want to play me for. I’m just here to do the job. As far as what is happening on the draft boards, I don’t really care about that.”
Diakite mentioned during the season that he watched Toronto Raptors all-star Pascal Siakam. Has he heard if he compares favorably to him?
“I just know that he is someone who plays like me,” Diakite said. “He has the same passion. He likes playing both ways, defense/offense. That’s what I like doing. I want to be valuable no matter what. It’s not about who starts, but who’s in the game when the moments are critical. I want to be that guy who is on the floor when the time is critical. I want to have the trust of my team, my coaching staff, everyone, so someone like him is very valuable to their team. That’s the reason why I was looking up to him.”
How are Mamadi’s parents? They live in Guinea and his father is a doctor.
“My family is doing great,” Diakite said. “According to what I’ve heard, a week ago my dad it was not in Guinea yet. There was one case. A woman who came from Belgium who had it, so they were able to control the epidemic really quick.”
Finally, Diakite reflected on one of the first major decisions he made when arriving in the United States … deciding to attend UVA.
“The decision, I was finally able to make it because of who [Coach Bennett] was, really, and what he meant to me,” Diakite said. “I think he paid off now. I’m a different man from when I first got here.”