Let's rewind back to the fall of 2014. Virginia has just completed its magical run to an ACC title (both regular season and ACCT) and Sweet 16. It was the most successful season UVA had had in decades, certainly the most dominant we'd been in the ACC in a generation. But at the time, it was a one-time breakthrough and the future was still very uncertain. As we geared up for the 2014-15 season, recruiting (a 12-month-cycle) was going on in the background. Virginia had just welcomed to grounds a promising young group of freshmen and transfers in Jack Salt, Isaiah Wilkins, BJ Stith, Marial Shayok, and Darius Thompson. That offseason, Bennett had secured the verbal pledge of 2015 big man Jarred Reuter to replace the soon-to-be-graduating Darion Atkins on the roster. Tony turned his attention to the 2016 class.
That 2016 class. Boy, what the benefit of hindsight offers us. This weekend, we get to pay special honor to two of them.
Two prospects were on Tony's radar very early in that 2016 cycle, as early as 2014; one well known by all the high school basketball scouts, and another quietly working in relative anonymity.
Braxton Blackwell (he would later change his last name to Key) was an early contender for a 5-star rating. He was an early bloomer, physically developed and technically gifted. Obviously, as we all know, he's a cousin to the legendary Ralph Sampson and that gave UVA an early tie-in to the sought-after prospect. Virginia was one of many suitors for the consensus Top 50 prospect, but come the following summer and fall, UVA's scholarship situation had contracted and Tony Bennett had a choice to make. Virginia was still in a solid position recruiting Braxton, but the Hoos had also recently gotten involved with a fast-rising wing named De'Andre Hunter out of Philadelphia. They were similar players, and Virginia had just one scholarship to offer. Hunter pledged first, and Braxton ultimately pledged to Avery Johnson at Alabama.
Meanwhile, Tony Bennett had gotten turned on to a long, athletic wunderkind just down the road at Blue Ridge School. Mamadi Diakite was a recent arrival to the States from his native Guinea, a soccer player in his heart that had switched to basketball late in life when a growth spurt made it silly not too. He was blessed with great athleticism (he broke records high jumping at Blue Ridge) and solid footwork owing to his soccer pedigree, but from a basketball skills perspective he was incredibly green. But word starting getting out about the then-HS-junior during that 2014-15 season. Not just that he was potentially a high-major prospect, but that he'd been spending increasing time hanging around the UVA program. He played pick up basketball with UVA's scholarship players. Throughout a lot of early- and mid-2015, those that followed UVA basketball recruiting started to wonder "what is Mamadi waiting for? Why doesn't he just commit already?" As he entered the summer and started playing AAU ball and doing some elite camps, the secret started to get out and some wondered if the window had passed. But in the end, the delay was simply that the family-centric Diakite just wanted to bring his parents over from Guineau to visit UVA and meet coach Bennett first, to obtain their blessing before he officially joined the program.
The 2015-16 year started and Tony elected to bring Mamadi in a year early in a reclassify-and-redshirt scenario. Braxton went to prep powerhouse Oak Hill to play with fellow elite prospects like Harry Giles, Mario Kegler, Matt Coleman, and Ty-Shon Alexander. It was a productive year for each, being forced to take their games to new levels practicing with and against D-1 quality competition before hitting the floors for their freshman seasons.
Both debuted in November 2016. Hoo fans were already salivating to see what Diakite could do, as his athleticism had become a bit of legend during his redshirt year. He didn't disappoint. He was thrust immediately into the reserve rotation alongside Jarred Reuter in support of starters Isaiah Wilkins and Jack Salt. Mamadi would play double-digit minutes in 13 of his first 14 games, and his potential was obvious from Day 1. In his first five games, which included a pair of neutral site games against quality opponents Iowa and Providence, he blocked 13 shots and made 15 of his 22 field goal attempts (including a couple 3s). Of course, as a freshman, he'd have his ups and downs, many days struggling with foul trouble, and his minutes would become more inconsistent as ACC play began and Tony began to lean more heavily on Jack and Zay. He still showed flashes of his future potential, blocking 9 shots over a 3 game stretch in ACC play that included Duke and a pair of road trips to VT and UNC, and being one of the few bright spots in our season-ending NCAA Tournament loss to Florida where he scored 9 points, blocked a shot, and grabbed six rebounds.
Meanwhile, down in Tuscaloosa, Braxton Key shined on a young Alabama squad under 2nd year coach Avery Johnson. Playing stretch 4 for the Tide, he was a focal point of the offense from Day 1, scoring double-digit points 20 times. He would earn a spot on the SEC's all-Freshman team in Alabama's NIT season. The future looked bright.
Expectations for both players continued as they started their sophomore campaigns. With Reuter's outbound transfer and Jay Huff still very green as a redshirt freshman, Mamadi now became the primary big man reserve behind Jack and Isaiah. This would of course be a momentous season for the Hoos, as Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and De'Andre Hunter would all explode onto the national scene, carrying UVA to its first #1 ranking since the Sampson era and capturing both the regular season and tournament ACC Titles. As a 6th man, Diakite once again saw his minutes and impact vary somewhat game-to-game, especially once Bennett started going "small" more with Hunter at the 4, eating into the overall minutes available to big men. Mamadi's shot block numbers dipped in a bid to dial back his aggression and, by extension, his fouls (which worked, it cut his fouls-per-40 number by about 20%), but his minutes and his scoring both increased. He continued to be a critical reserve asset as his game continued to mature, and with the graduation of his mentor Isaiah Wilkins imminent, Mamadi entered that offseason with his biggest opportunity yet ahead of him.
Braxton's sophomore season, however, went in a very different direction. Injuries held him out of the first month of the season, and though he played 26 games that year, he just never seemed to get into a groove. That season the Tide was led by a pair of ball-dominant freshman guards in Donta Hall and one-and-done Collin Sexton; they settled into a rhythm in November and December and failed to adequately integrate Braxton upon his return before Christmas. Braxton would have a nice run starting in mid-January, scoring in double figures in 8 of 12 games. But his usage down the stretch and in the postseason faded, and his two years at Alabama ended much more quietly than they'd once began. That offseason, he made the difficult decision to leave Alabama and find a fresh start closer to his family. With relatives in the Harrisonburg area, good relationships maintained with the UVA coaching staff from 2015, and a friendship with Kyle Guy that dated back to their days on the high school travel circuit, Braxton found a new home in Charlottesville.
It was a difficult offseason.
Veteran leaders in Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins had graduated. De'Andre Hunter and Jay Huff were both recovering from season-ending surgeries (wrist and labrum, respectively). Oh, and did we mention the giant cloud hanging over JPJ after the Hoos had just lost to UMBC?
Making matters more complicated, while Braxton Key and the Virginia staff had filed a request for a waiver to allow Braxton to be immediately eligible, the NCAA dragged its feet. Virginia was already into its final preseason preparations, the Blue-White Scrimmage completed and closed intrasquad scrimmages with Richmond and Villanova underway when the NCAA finally ruled in late October that Key could play right away. The longest offseason in Virginia basketball history (admit it, it felt that way), finally came to a close in early November and UVA set about chasing its redemption goals. Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key as upperclassmen would be front and center for it.
Virginia's front court rotation would spend the season in a slow flux. Braxton's natural position is the face-up-4, a modern trend where a big, physical wing is a matchup nightmare at a traditional big-man position. Mamadi, owing to athleticism that allows him to "guard down" against smaller 4's and even some 3's, could play some 4 along with his more ideally-suited 5-man role. Of course, Jack Salt was a well established fixture at the 5-spot, and UVA had found a lot of success the season prior playing small with Hunter at the 4, so Tony Bennett had some experimenting to do with how best to rotate those four players through the 3, 4, and 5 spots. (Oh, and RS Sophomore Jay Huff was itching to steal minutes at the 5 as well.) Not everyone could start, not everyone was going to see as many minutes as they or the fans might like. Both Mamadi and Braxton got turns in the starting lineup at the 4, even starting together as the 4-5 during a three game stretch where Salt was resting a back injury in the Bahamas. However, in mid February, Tony Bennett started to lean towards an even smaller starting lineup, starting Kihei against UNC on Feb 11th and bumping Dre to the 4, a move that had both the junior bigs coming off the bench for 9 of the next 11 games late in the regular season and UVA's 2-game stint in the ACC Tournament.
It was an up-and-down season for both of them. With five players capable of playing the 4 and 5 (Dre, Braxton, Mamadi, Jack, and Jay), consistent minutes just weren't going to be there for everyone. Braxton scored in double figures only four times that season, though he was arguably the best rebounder on the team. Of course, he was new to the program, and as we've seen with both transfers and true freshmen before, learning all of Tony's systems isn't easy, so a bumpy learning curve from Braxton wasn't surprising, especially with so many program veterans already in place at the forward spots. Mamadi continued to improve year-over-year, once again improving his minutes and his scoring, cutting down further on his fouls, and recapturing a lot of his shot-blocking prowess. He hit double-digit points 8 times during the regular season that year, had a 4-block game four different times during ACC play, and showed improved commitment on both ends of the floor. Of course, Mamadi also drew headlines for dying his hair Sisqo-blond in late February, which just so happened to precede a big two-way day at Louisville (14 points, 5 boards, 3 blocks in a win), and it's been here to stay ever since.
The schedule shifted to the NCAA Tournament. Braxton and Mamadi's legacies would largely be written in the three weeks that followed.
In the opening game, UVA faced a small, swarming, hornets nest of a team in Gardner-Webb. Traditional center Jack Salt struggled (his back continued to ail him throughout that season and he never looked quite as comfortable or as athletic as he had his sophomore and junior seasons), and was limited to only 5 minutes in the 1-16 matchup. It was arguably one of the most pivotal occurrences in UVA's upcoming run, as it effectively became the passing of the torch from Jack Salt to Mamadi Diakite as UVA's best center. Mamadi would log 27 minutes in that game off the bench, score 17 points on just 10 shots and grab 9 rebounds, and start the rest of the postseason. Braxton found a role there as well, albeit on fewer minutes, making his his field goals and grabbing 3 key rebounds and 2 steals to help propel UVA's program-saving comeback. Both would play big roles in the win over Oklahoma, scoring a combined 23 points on 11-of-13 combined shooting, adding 19 boards and 4 blocks between them. UVA was on to Louisville for the Sweet 16.
Whether it was due to matchups or something else, Key saw his usage plummet in Louisville, playing only 7 minutes against Oregon and 2 against Purdue, failing to score a point in the weekend. Tony rode his starters hard against Oregon, giving only 11 combined minutes to his bench. At Purdue, Tony elected to give Salt a lot of run to body up the 7'3" Matt Haarms (which he did at an outstanding level). But Mamadi had a memorable two games at the Yum! Center, first scoring an efficient 7 points, grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds, and adding 2 steals and 2 blocks in a hard fought win over Oregon, and then wracking up 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 blocks in UVA's legendary OT win over Purdue. Of course Mamadi hit the shot of the tournament, a buzzer beating floater to tie the game and force overtime off of Kihei's laser pass. Braxton and Mamadi were going to Minneapolis.
Virginia doesn't win that title without either of their contributions. Against Auburn neither made a big impact in the scoring column but defensively they were each integral. That's true again in the title game as Tony spent much of the game with a front line of Hunter-Key-Diakite at the 3-4-5 to provide an unrivaled mix of length and athleticism on the defensive end (and paired with Ty and Kyle, we basically saw an all-star lineup of the 2016 recruiting class), blocking/altering shots while controlling the glass. Braxton finished the title game with a game-high 10 rebounds, and had four points in OT to seal the win, two on critical FTs and two more on a breakaway dunk. He even managed some minutes at the 5 in an ultra-small lineup. Mamadi added 9 points, 7 boards, and a couple of blocks as well.
That season ended with Mamadi and Braxton as national champions.
Mamadi toyed with the NBA before electing to return for his final season that summer, while Braxton bid farewell to his best friend Kyle Guy. The two elected to come back to UVA for their title defense, for their college degrees, and to be senior leaders for a young new group of Hoos. And that they've been.
UVA's 2019-20 campaign has been a wild one. The vacuum created by the departures of Ty, Kyle, Dre, and Jack has at times seemed almost too big to fill. Almost. The offense struggled to get into gear. The team lost badly at Purdue and dropped a December head scratcher against South Carolina. After routing Virginia Tech to at least start ACC play 3-0, Virginia would drop 4 of their next 5 games to go to 12-6 (4-4) with the NIT looking more and more like a reality for this transitional year, and the rest of the ACC feeling like this was finally going to be the year to pay Virginia back for the last six years of domination. But Mamadi and Braxton decided otherwise.
Virginia has won 10 of its last 11 games and roared from NIT team to NCAAT lock and ACC contender in the blink of an eye. They beat two ranked teams in Duke and FSU and almost upset a third at Louisville. In that 11 game stretch saving UVA's season, Braxton is averaging 35.2 mpg, 9.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg, and nearly a block a game. Diakite is playing 35.2 mpg, scoring 14.5 ppg, hitting 37% of his 3's, and blocking over a shot a game. On the season the two seniors are second and third in minutes played (which is just absurd for big men), first and third on the team in scoring, second and third in blocks, first and second in rebounding, and Braxton is second on the team in assists. To say they're the leaders of the team is an understatement. Along with Kihei, they're carrying this team night in and night out. This season could easily have been written off, no one would have blamed UVA for ending up in the NIT the way Kentucky did in 2013 following its own post-title NBA exodus. But when given the team to lead and the responsibility to carry it, Mamadi and Braxton have responded by ensuring UVA is not just suriving this season but (style points be damned) right back in the mix atop the ACC for yet another year.
These two seniors will inevitably have their legacies tied up in the national championship. And to be sure, that's a major capstone to their college careers. But each should be celebrated on their own individual merits as well. Mamadi came to UVA as an otherworldly athlete with almost no real basketball experience; yet over the course of five years of dedicated hard work, he transformed himself into an all-around offensive and defensive multi-tooled threat, climbing the ladder of a deep post group from young reserve to veteran starter. Braxton Key came to UVA in the summer of 2018 when the Hoos were a national pariah, looking past the UMBC loss and realizing Virginia offered an opportunity not only to develop as an athlete and a student, but also be a part of a one-of-a-kind redemption story on college basketball's biggest stage.
Mamadi Diakite was a young immigrant athlete thousands of miles of ocean from his home and family at age 17 who decided to take a chance on finding a new family at UVA.
Braxton Key was a former all-conference SEC star who saw past UVA's April 2018 upset loss and took a chance on Tony Bennett getting UVA right back to the promised land.
And we, as UVA fans, have had the ultimate honor in cheering for these two young men as they have worked hard towards their hardwood accomplishments and their Virginia diplomas. They have represented the University with success, with honor, with class, and forever their names will be etched in the annals of Virginia basketball greatness.
And for that, Mr. Diakite and Mr. Key, Wahoo nation thanks you. Whatever your futures hold, know you'll always have a home back in Charlottesville.