Tony Bennett on Mamadi, Woldetensae, two months as a champion

UVA Basketball coach Tony Bennett talked with the media Wednesday, and no, it wasn’t what the message boards feared, about him leaving for some supposedly greener pasture or anything.

Just a sort of late-spring update, with the team having held its first practice for the 2019-2020 season this week.

Mamadi Diakite

Bennett was asked toward the end of the teleconference about the return of Mamadi Diakite, who tested the NBA Draft waters this spring before ultimately deciding to head back to school for his final year of eligibility.

The coach said he felt Diakite got “invaluable experience” going through the evaluation process.

Going in, Bennett said his advice to Diakite was, basically, to get after it.

“If this is what you want to do, look, it’s a great experience. If you can knock it out of the park, and it’s something you want, you knock it out of the park, it’s a wonderful opportunity, and you can get drafted in a desirable spot, you’ve got to consider that. If not, then grow from this experience, learn from it, take from what you did, come back and be a part of this, improve your game, be a part of this team, get your degree, and be as prepared as you can next year at the same time.

“I was there for him. I wanted what was best for Mamadi. I really did. I wanted him to get feedback and make a sound decision. That’s all anybody can ever ask for,” Bennett said.

New blood

The return of Diakite, who contributed 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds in 21.8 minutes per game in 2018-2019 at Virginia, and averaged 10.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game during the Cavaliers’ title run, will no doubt bolster the roster for 2019-2020.

Bennett has to account for the losses to the NBA Draft of his Big Three – De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy – and may have to tinker with his approach schematically with a roster that looks, on paper, to be stronger in the frontcourt.

Diakite will be a foundational piece in the frontcourt, alongside 7’1” redshirt junior Jay Huff, 7’0” redshirt freshman Francisco Caffaro, a four-star recruit in the class of 2018 who redshirted this past season, and 6’11” recruit Kadin Shedrick, another four-star incoming freshman.

The backcourt will be a work-in-progress, with Kihei Clark, who started most of the season, and played 33 minutes per game in the NCAA Tournament, four-star recruit Casey Morsell, Braxton Key, a four-star recruit coming out of high school, and somebody from among rising sophomore Kody Stattman, incoming three-star freshman recruit Justin McKoy and JUCO All-American transfer Tomas Woldetensae emerging to get rotation minutes.

“Everyone will have ample opportunity, the newcomers, so to speak,” Bennett said. “To say who, we just don’t know. Obviously, with the departure of Jack (Salt), and now Marco (Anthony) transferring, the three guys – Dre, Ty and Kyle not coming back – there are some opportunities out there. So, it’s the returners, and then we could go down the list of the guys we brought in. I think they’re excited about those opportunities. There’s always a learning curve whenever you go from, whether it’s high school to college, or even junior college to college, or coming from a redshirt to being eligible. It’s just, you’ve got to get used to playing that. There’s no substitute for experience.

“With Mamadi returning, our frontcourt, fours and fives, we feel like that is strong. But on the perimeter, there will be some opportunities out there,” Bennett said.

Update on Woldetensae

Bennett said Woldetensae, who missed the end of his sophomore season at Indian Hills Community College with a left wrist injury that required surgery, and is just now getting cleared to begin basketball activities.

From what Bennett has seen on tape from Woldetensae, who earned National Junior College Athletic Association First-Team All-America honors after averaging 17.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 2018-2019, he thinks the 6’5” guard can be a contributor.

“His personality came out as a young man of character. We always start with that. We see him wanting to challenge himself at a very high level,” Bennett said.

Scholarship situation

Bennett was reminded on the call that he still has one open scholarship, then asked if he had any plans for it.

“All options are always open. That’s the way I look at it. You always look,” Bennett said. “Most things are closed down, but, yeah, certainly you could. In the past, we’ve awarded it when we haven’t used it at the midway point to one of our walk-ons. But, you just don’t know. It’s such a different time. We all know this, with grad transfers, those opportunities. So, you really are looking and seeing what’s available.”

The spoils of victory

The last two months have been “wonderful,” Bennett said.

“I’ve definitely been able to get away, decompress. But, certainly been busy with speaking engagements and recruiting, and talking to agents and NBA teams about our guys that are in the exciting time of going into the draft, all those things,” Bennett said.

The reserved Bennett allowed that he is “grateful for the busy-ness of it, because it means something really good happened. So, no complaints here. I get noticed a little more, but I guess that’s OK.”

You could get a sense, hearing Bennett talk about life after cutting down the nets at the Final Four, that he’s going to spend some time this summer and this fall making sure his players and staff remember what got them to where they are now.

“I told our guys, ‘Enjoy it, but it doesn’t change anything. You just, you get after it, stay humble, and realize that we were part of something amazing, and let’s try to start something again,’” Bennett said.

Story by Chris Graham

uva basketball team of destiny
Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, by Jerry Ratcliffe and Chris Graham, is available for $25.


The book, with additional reporting by Zach Pereles, Scott Ratcliffe and Scott German, will take you from the aftermath of the stunning first-round loss to UMBC in 2018, and how coach Tony Bennett and his team used that loss as the source of strength, through to the ACC regular-season championship, the run to the Final Four, and the thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech to win the 2019 national title, the first in school history.
 
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