Jay Huff, Mamadi Diakite to anchor new-look UVA rotation

Mamadi Diakite had a whirlwind spring. They almost had to wrestle the NCAA championship trophy from him after Minneapolis, and then he toyed with the idea of going to the NBA, before deciding to return to UVA for his senior season.

You’d think the sting of UMBC would be well behind him.

“For me, just going back and looking at the video again, it puts me in the same spot. It drives me. It makes me want to get better,” said Diakite, a preseason first-team All-ACC selection, and the unquestioned heart and soul of the 2019-2020 ‘Hoos.

It was Diakite’s emergence in the 2019 NCAA Tournament – in which he averaged 10.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, and shot 60 percent from the field – that was a key for the Cavaliers in their six-game run.

As reporters asked questions of UVA players and coach Tony Bennett at the team’s media day last week to gauge how they will conjure up a new goal now that the program has climbed to the top of the mountain, Diakite was the only one bringing up the pain of the historic 2018 NCAA Tournament upset.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get people to understand what you’ve been through, so that they can know what to prepare for. That’s common. Every time I look at UMBC, it’s tough. I don’t want that to happen, so I keep fighting. I feel like there’s underneath our skin, and it will never go away,” Diakite said.

Diakite and fellow big Jay Huff are the veteran leaders of this team, which loses its top three scorers from the national-title team – guards Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome.

The ‘Hoos played their way to the national title a year ago with top-level perimeter play. This year’s team will have a different look and feel, with the emphasis in the paint.

“Our size can be effective. We’re relying on that. Last year, we relied on the perimeter. This year, at times we’re giving the Jays and Mamadis opportunities that weren’t as prevalent last year, but we’re going to need more production from them as the season goes,” Bennett said at the media day event.

Diakite was asked repeatedly at media day about how the NBA Draft process impacted his development, and admitted that he still didn’t have a good answer.

“My shooting got better. I’m able to stretch the floor more. I still have what I had before. I just put more on top of it. My defense has gotten better. It’s at a different level. I’ve also worked on my weaknesses. I’m just trying to elevate myself,” he finally said.

Bennett said he has seen improvement from all areas of Diakite’s game since the spring.

“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 for him,” Bennett said.

“He’ll face some things this year as a UVA player that he hasn’t had to face, being more of a marked man, at times getting more opportunities to score within the system and within what his strengths are. I’m excited for him. I think he’s worked hard. He’s always full of life and energy, and he wants to lead this team to the best of his ability,” Diakite said.

jay huffHuff is also going to be a marked man entering his redshirt junior season. Several national basketball writers have pegged Huff as a breakout star in 2019-2020, assuming his unique skillset for a 7’1” center – Huff shot 45.2 percent from three-point range in 2018-2019, and he showed ability to break down opponents off the dribble from the perimeter to get into the lane – will be showcased more with more playing time.

That was the issue for Huff in 2018-2019. With Bennett going four-guard for 77.1 percent of UVA’s minutes in 2018-2019, utilizing the unique abilities of Hunter and Braxton Key to get them minutes at stretch four, Huff only averaged 9.3 minutes per game last season, including just 18 total in the six-game NCAA Tournament run.

One advantage for Huff heading into 2019-2020 is that he was healthy in the offseason. Huff spent a good bit of his 2018 offseason recovering from shoulder surgery, but his spring and summer of 2019 were spent playing basketball and getting bigger and stronger, adding 10 pounds to his frame, which should help with his ability to bang in the post.

“Jay worked hard. He lifted hard. He committed in the offseason to improving. He had a full year,” Bennett said.

“With his size, his length, his ability to stretch the floor, score inside, Jay’s a skilled offensive player. He’s continuing to improve defensively. We’re going to need his offensive abilities this year,” Bennett said.

Huff said he was “very motivated” in the offseason. He looks forward to seeing how he and Diakite mesh in the frontcourt in 2019-2020.

“We’re certainly looking to score and find ways to help the team more, more so than in previous years, when we might have been more in a looking to screen and help the guards get open role,” Huff said.

“I think we play really well together. High to low, low to high. We’ve been trying to look a lot for each other in some of our offenses. I think it’s going to be really exciting,” Huff said.

Story by Chris Graham

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augusta free press news

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