Virginia Basketball: Cavaliers hope big games from Huff and Diakite signal more to come

uva basketballTony Bennett is usually very open in his post-game press conferences. Now in his ninth year at Virginia, he answers questions thoughtfully, but he’s also light-hearted and willing to crack a joke or two, with a wry smile to follow.

And so when asked a question about the post dominance of Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff, Bennett resorted to humor.

“We’re such a post scoring team, I don’t know what else to tell you,” Bennett said, a quick smile coming to his face. As always, though, he quickly got back to the premise of the question.

“There are different ways to get it in the paint, and again whether it was drives or tough finishes, Mamadi (Diakite) and Jay (Huff) gave us a lift.”

Virginia is very much not a post scoring team. Heading into Saturday’s contest, just three players — Huff, Braxton Key and Jack Salt — had attempted at least half of their shots at the rim, per Hoop-Math.com. Those three players combine to average just over 15 points per game.

But it was just that — post scoring — that helped Virginia survive what could have been a Louisville slaughter that could have turned into Virginia submission. The Cavaliers’ greatest weapon, the three-pointer, was an abysmal 0 for 11. Instead, the Cavaliers’ advantage, discovered while the game was in session, was inside.

To say Virginia owned the paint is being generous to Louisville. The Cavaliers scored 20 points in the paint in the first half. The Cardinals scored zero. By the end of the game, the damage was 38 point paints for Virginia and just four for Louisville. And this was from a Virginia team that ranks 168th in the nation in percentage of points scored by two-point field goals.

Bennett was spot-on in his answer. The Cavaliers did find a bevy of ways to get their big men involved, and it helped Virginia overcome its uncharacteristic outside woes. Here’s how Virginia flipped the script on Louisville and made inside scoring a strength Saturday.

The on-ball “empty” pick and roll

This is a set Virginia has featured more and more this season thanks to the improved offensive game of Diakite and the terrific passing of Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and, on Saturday, Kihei Clark.

Virginia has had success with this set throughout the year. Even as basketball has changed throughout the years, a well-run pick-and-roll remains a weapon, and Virginia has the personnel to make it just that with Diakite and/or Huff. Here are a few examples with both of those big men.

NOTE: All video from WatchESPN.

This is a near-impossible play for opponents to defend. Virginia empties out an entire side of the floor for what is either a great shooter (Jerome and Guy) or a quick driver (Clark) and one of their two quick, athletic big men (Diakite and Huff). Louisville head coach Chris Mack said after the game that the plan was to limit Jerome and Guy as much as possible.

That mission was achieved. Winning the game wasn’t.

Diakite as a ball-handler

Though De’Andre Hunter is the typical ball-handler in the mid-post due to his ability as both a shooter and a driver, Diakite can be — and was — used there as well. Diakite often draws opponents’ biggest players, who are not nearly as quick or comfortable away from the basket at Diakite is. Here are a couple of finishes off the dribble.

This is really impressive for several reasons. First, he shows the ability to use both hands, driving right on the first score and left on the second. Few big men can do that at a high level like Diakite shows here. Second, it comes against two different players. In the first clip, Diakite knows he has a quickness advantage against 6-foot-11 Louisville big Malik Williams, so he blows by him and scores at the rim. In the second clip, Diakite has a significant size advantage against 6-foot-5 Louisville wing Dwayne Sutton, so he simply shoots over him. Finally, Diakite scores against a man in the first clip and then against a zone in the second. That’s a positive development, too.

Huff as a skilled high flier

Huff is a legitimate 7-foot-1 and can jump about as well as anyone and much better than almost everyone. So Virginia gave him opportunities to go get the ball at the rim and he did just that.

But what was so encouraging about Saturday’s performance was also hit ability to knock down the right-handed hook, a shot that he can get any time he wants to considering his height.

“What I loved today is that he made some interior jump hooks and shots,” Bennett said. “It wasn’t just out at the three-point line or a drive.”

Notice, too, that both of these shots come on second-chance opportunities. Virginia grabbed eight offensive boards and won the rebounding battle 39-28.

The defense was big, too

Saturday showed how valuable Diakite in particular is on defense. With Hunter saddled with two fouls, Diakite took on the task of defending Louisville’s leading scorer, Jordan Nwora, on several possessions. To have a rim protector be that good of a perimeter defender, too, is extremely rare. That afforded Bennett the opportunity to play Diakite and Huff together. When they share the court, there are two long, athletic rim defenders, and you don’t lose much on the perimeter.

Nwora was denied by both players in the first half.

Plus, Louisville’s two bigs — Williams and Steven Enoch — went 2 for 16 from the field combined for six points.

Conversely, Virginia’s two bigs — Diakite and Huff — went 13 for 18 for 26 points.

“They’re really, really physical,” Chris Mack said. “They’re legal, but they’re physical. I think that in order to try to get those guys out of position, you have to be able to move the ball, move yourself. … We’ve got to be able to score one-on-one in the post.”

Diakite’s defense has never been a concern this year, but to see Huff step up in that department was a pleasant surprise. He and Diakite combined for 12 rebounds, five blocks and just three fouls.

“He used his length to block a couple shots,” Bennett said of Huff. “Those things are all there, and they’re coming.”

It’s no stretch to say Virginia’s big men saved the Cavaliers when everything else was going wrong offensively. Just as importantly, the post defense was terrific from both Diakite and Huff. If they can continue to play well on both ends, Virginia has added yet another tool to its arsenal.

Story by Zach Pereles




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