CHARLOTTESVILLE—His hair is the familiar dyed-blond shade as last year. But if you expected to see the same Mamadi Diakite as a senior, you’d be disappointed—at least if you’re one of Virginia’s basketball opponents.

Diakite may have made the biggest field goal in school history last season in the Cavaliers’ run to the national title, sending the semifinal against Purdue to overtime. But his prominent responsibilities on that squad centered around Tony Bennett’s favorite aspects: defense and rebounding.

But with the early departures of last season’s top three scorers to the NBA, Diakite now carries a larger offensive role. And through two games, the fifth-year senior is embracing it.

New season, new Mamadi.

The 6-foot-9 Diakite opened Bennett the new-look Cavaliers’ 65–34 demolition of James Madison Sunday by swishing a 3-pointer and finished it with career highs of 19 points and 13 rebounds despite sitting out the final nine minutes.

“He’s improved since he first got here,” Bennett said. “That’s the evolution of any of our guys who work hard.

“He can shoot the outside shot but he can never forget his great strength of being active defensively, being on the glass offensively and defensively and blocking shots. That’s where it starts. If he ever gets amnesia about that, he is making a huge mistake for our team and for himself.”

No one will ever confuse Diakite with Kevin Durant. But even though the Cavaliers’ identity remains their pack line defense (with Diakite in a prominent role), someone has to score. And Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome took the 44.2 points per game they combined to score last season to the pros.

That means more shots are available. And Diakite, who averaged a modest 7.4 points last season, isn’t shy about taking them.

“He’s talented. He’s very, very skilled,” JMU coach Louis Rowe said. “He’s great in space; he moves really well, and he’s comfortable in the paint from 15–17 feet. He rips and drives, and he has a good feel for the game. You want any more?”

Sure, coach, if you have more.

“He has it all. That’s Serge Ibaka-type stuff. He’s on that type of path. … He blossomed around the ‘big three’ last year, and he got some great confidence. He worked his way into being a guy they count on. His shot won a game for them. I was a player and I understand the kind of confidence that can bring. He’s a very, very confident guy out there.”

Virginia fans braced themselves for the early departure of Hunter, Jerome and Guy, but Diakite also declared for the draft before wisely rescinding that bid when it became clear he wouldn’t be picked.

Still, the experience of working out against future draftees convinced him he could be a much-improved all-around player.

“I worked very hard,” said Diakite, who admires one of Ibaka’s teammates in Toronto, rising star Pascal Siakam. “Going through the process, coming back, [working] with coach Bennett and the staff helped me with my shot. I made a lot of adjustments until I found the right one. …

“I take it as a challenge. One thing that makes me do better each time is that I tell myself I’ve got to get out of my comfort zone. It’s not easy, but I can do it.”

Through two games, Diakite is averaging 15.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots while anchoring a defense that has allowed 34 points in each of its two victories.

He’ll leave school with more career blocked shots than anyone not named Ralph Sampson. Defense is still his calling card, but with an improved scoring touch and another year working with Bennett’s staff, he could well join his former teammates in the NBA next season.

Asked which he prefers—a dunk or a blocked shot—Diakite paused, then smiled.

“We’re at U.Va.,” he said. “A blocked shot.”

Another test passed.

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Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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