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Frontcourt Options Abound for 'Hoos

Austin Nichols (1) and Mamadi Diakite

Nov. 16, 2016

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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- They sat on the bench for home games last season, so Mamadi Diakite and Austin Nichols knew how loud it could get inside John Paul Jones Arena.

Until Tuesday night, however, neither had played for the University of Virginia men's basketball team in a game at JPJ.

"It felt like I had people behind me, cheering for me and pushing me through the game," Diakite said of the experience. "Because it's not easy to play defense, the Pack-Line. It's tiring. But the fans help a lot. "

At the power forward and center positions, UVA head coach Tony Bennett has 80 minutes to divide among his post players each game. On opening night, when Virginia defeated UNC Greensboro 76-51, that was no challenge for Bennett. Neither Nichols, a 6-9 redshirt junior, nor Diakite, a 6-9 redshirt freshman, was available Friday night at the Greensboro Coliseum.

Against St. Francis Brooklyn, however, Bennett had five frontcourt options: Nichols, Diakite, 6-7 junior Isaiah Wilkins, 6-11 redshirt sophomore Jack Salt and 6-7 sophomore Jarred Reuter.

 

 

"Each of those players brings something different," Bennett said after the eighth-ranked Cavaliers improved to 2-0 with a 72-32 win over the outmatched Terriers.

"I feel like that's one of our biggest strengths," Wilkins of Virginia's frontcourt depth.

None of the Wahoos' big men logged more than 18 minutes Tuesday night. Bennett started Salt and Wilkins against St. Francis Brooklyn (0-2), and they combined for 10 points and five rebounds.

Off the bench, Reuter made a solid contribution, totaling nine points and four rebounds. But the near-capacity crowd's biggest cheers were for Nichols, a transfer from the University of Memphis, and Diakite, a native of Guinea who graduated in 2015 from nearby Blue Ridge School.

Nichols checked in first, receiving a warm ovation when he replaced Wilkins at the 13:18 mark of the first half. Less than a minute later, Reuter, at the high post, made a textbook entry pass that Nichols turned into a layup.

"At first I was a little nervous, because after taking a year off, I figured I'd be a little rusty, but after scoring a couple buckets it was all right," Nichols said.

In his UVA debut, he finished with a team-high 11 points (4 for 7 from the floor, 3 for 3 from the line) and three boards in 16 minutes.

"Austin has really good hands, and he can certainly score in the post," Bennett said.

Diakite entered at the 7:36 mark of the first half. Any first-game jitters?

"No," he said, smiling. "I don't get nervous easy."

His first points came as a Cavalier came 78 seconds later, when he hit two free throws. By game's end, Diakite had played 14 minutes, scored eight points, pulled down four rebounds and blocked one shot, an emphatic rejection with 2:14 left that grew a roar of appreciation from the fans.

Diakite was 3 for 3 from the floor and 2 for 3 from the line. His field goals included a second-half dunk set up by his impeccable footwork along the baseline.

"He's improved," Bennett said. "He's gotten stronger. I still think the game's new to him, and he's still thinking a little bit. I think in time he's just going to get better and better, because he's been blessed with those quick-twitch [muscles], the jumping and the athleticism."

The more experience Diakite gains, the better, Bennett said. "He definitely has made steps, and I think we're just scratching the surface with him."

Wilkins started 21 games last season on a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight. In Nichols' two seasons at Memphis, he started 60 games, so he's a Division I veteran. For Diakite, though, Wilkins had some advice before UVA's home opener.

"I just told him, `Be confident in what you do. You've done it in practice and in the scrimmages, so go out there and have fun,' " Wilkins said, "and he definitely did."

For the first time since Nov. 21, 2011, the Cavaliers failed to make at least one 3-pointer. That didn't keep them from stretching their winning streak at JPJ to 21 games. After Rasheem Dunn hit two free throws to cut UVA's lead to 15-11 at the 10:11 mark of the first half, more than 10 minutes elapsed before the Terriers scored again.

The `Hoos led 35-13 at the break and were never challenged in the final 20 minutes. UVA's Pack-Line defense held St. Francis to 22.9-percent accuracy from the floor. UNC Greensboro shot 37 percent against Virginia in the opener.

"I think this team understands that we are going to have to be so good defensively, and that's gonna be our ticket," Bennett said.

"I just think we want every possession to be a battle for the other team, and so far they've embraced that, where we give [opponents] nothing easy."

Bennett plans to redshirt two of his freshmen -- 6-11 Jay Huff and 6-7 De'Andre Hunter -- but 11 other scholarship players are competing for minutes, five of them in the frontcourt.

"Which is challenging," Bennett acknowledged. "But I want them to be able to play real hard continuously. There's no reason for a group with that kind of depth to not play real hard and be real active. So that will be important. The same on the perimeter."

The competition makes "me get more focused, because I'm just coming in," Diakite said. "[Virginia's other post players] have more experience than me. I'm new to the game, so I need to learn from them and make sure I don't take it easy on them, because I'm looking for a spot to play."

Matchups will help determine who plays in the frontcourt.

"I think me and Mamadi are more of like the finesse players," Nichols said, "and the Bruise Brothers, Jarred and Jack, they're more of the bangers inside. I think we've got a little bit of both."

Nichols, who averaged 13.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game as a Memphis sophomore in 2014-15, had to sit out Virginia's opener for an undisclosed violation of team rules. (Diakite missed the game because of an NCAA ruling related to his eligibility.)

"I just made a mistake, and I learned from it," Nichols said.

Bennett said he was pleased with Nichols' response to the one-game suspension.

"I think he worked hard, and this was a good step," Bennett said. "I was excited for him, and of course Mamadi too, to get out there. And, again, the experiences are invaluable. There's great competition on this team for opportunities to play, and so I think that's a strength of ours this year, and a challenge with the rotation."

Virginia's next game is against Yale (1-0), which opened with a resounding win over Washington. The Cavaliers host the Bulldogs at 1 p.m. Sunday at JPJ. For ticket information, click here.

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Jeff White

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jwhite@virginia.edu

A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.

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