Looking at Virginia’s big man rotation if Mamadi Diakite is unavailable
Story by Zach Pereles
Diakite took some wobbly steps in the aftermath of Hunter’s head bumping into what looked like Diakite’s cheek and then collapsed to the John Paul Jones floor with his head down. Virginia medical personnel came over, as did Tony Bennett. Eventually Diakite got to his feet and headed toward the end of the Virginia bench, looking no more steady on his feet than he had minutes before. Once on the bench, Diakite underwent a variety of tests and treatments, including receiving some padding for his bloodied mouth. The redshirt junior watched a few more minutes of first half before receding to the locker room. He spent the second half with his head covered by a towel.
On a night when Duke’s red-hot outside shooting got most of the headlines, Diakite’s absence was undoubtedly a big one. After a tough game against Duke in January, Diakite certainly looked like the player he had been of late — the one who had scored in double digits in three of his four games leading up to Saturday night’s contest. Diakite scored seven of Virginia’s first nine points, a flurry which showcased his impressive offensive skillset. He opened the Cavaliers’ scoring with a mid-range jumper and also added a strong layup underneath and a three-pointer from straightaway. Despite playing just 10 minutes, Diakite finished as Virginia’s fourth-leading scorer.
But where Diakite’s injury was felt most was on the defensive end. He drew the primary assignment of guarding Zion Williamson and is by far Virginia’s most versatile big man defensively. Diakite, who also had three rebounds — all defensive — in his limited minutes, could only watch as Virginia allowed six second-half offensive rebounds, which Duke turned into 12 points.
It’s no stretch to say Diakite would have played a major role this game given Duke’s size and athleticism, and the early returns showed he was in for a big game himself.
As it stands on Sunday, there’s been no concrete update on Diakite’s status moving forward.
“We decided not to put him back in,” Bennett said Saturday, according to the Daily Progress. “I don’t know how serious it is.”
Virginia doesn’t have much turnaround time to find out. The Cavaliers have a roughly 48-hour break before they meet North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have won seven straight games and, upon first glance, seem like another team against whom Diakite could play a big role, if healthy.
Roy Williams-coached teams are traditionally very strong on the offensive glass, and this year’s version is no different. The Tar Heels are 26th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (34.9 percent). They’re even better on the defensive end, allowing opponents to have just a 23.9 offensive rebounding percentage, 13th in the nation.
North Carolina can roll a variety of big men at opponents, led by pick-and-pop specialist Luke Maye. But the toughest Tar Heels on the offensive glass are Nassir Little and Garrison Brooks. All of those players will be tough matchups for Jack Salt, as neither Maye nor Little is a true post presence, and Brooks is a superior athlete.
Against Duke, Jay Huff actually received more second-half minutes (nine) than Salt (eight), but Virginia also went without either for a few minutes as well, an interesting lineup — one that Bennett hasn’t typically employed, thanks in part to Diakite’s defensive acumen, but also one that could be a preview of things to come should the Guinean big man be unavailable against North Carolina.
Braxton Key’s ability to rebound the ball is what makes this lineup possible. The Alabama transfer played a sterling game on the boards, nabbing 10 total rebounds. He also took on the responsibility of guarding Zion Williamson at times and had two blocks and two steals. He was one of two players (Kihei Clark was the other) with a positive plus-minus, leading the team with a plus-6 rating.
For as good as North Carolina is rebounding the ball, it is not a particularly tall team, especially without injured sophomore Sterling Manley, who stands 6-foot-11. At 6-foot-9, Brooks and Cameron Johnson (primarily an outside shooter) are the tallest players who log significant minutes for the Tar Heels.
That may allow Bennett to play a “small” lineup with Hunter and Key as the two tallest players. It would certainly put a bigger rebounding responsibility on Hunter’s shoulders, but given Key’s rebounding ability, that’s ok. The issue with this lineup, though, is Virginia loses a valuable perimeter defender in Key if he’s forced to play the de-facto “five.”
Should Diakite be unavailable, Virginia could try to counter any UNC lineup that doesn’t include Brooks with its downsized lineup and play either Salt or Huff whenever Brooks is on the court. Key, in essence, will have to fill Diakite’s role as a versatile defender and hope to provide a similar presence, at least defensively, as Diakite did.
Regardless, it makes Virginia’s already-tough task at Chapel Hill even tougher. Replacing Diakite will require each Cavalier to chip in on taking away one of the high-powered Tar Heels’ greatest strengths.