Tony Bennett regularly has credited a skilled and deep stable of guards for spearheading the Virginia men’s basketball team’s 14-game winning streak as well as the program’s best start in the ACC since 1980-81.
In the second-ranked Cavaliers’ most recent game, the head coach instead was most effusive in his praise for the frontcourt, which not only stood out defensively but also underscored the diversified and balanced scoring that has shaped Virginia into a national championship contender.
That group is coming off its most productive offensive performance in an ACC game this season heading into Wednesday’s showdown with Florida State in Tallahassee.
“It’s nice when you have guys in there making the right plays,” Bennett said, referring to starting forward Isaiah Wilkins and center Jack Salt along with reserve forwards De’Andre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite.
That foursome combined for 39 points, 16 more than their collective season average and two-thirds of the scoring, in Saturday’s 59-44 win at Syracuse. Hunter led the way with 15 points, and Diakite matched a career high with 12.
Half of Hunter’s career-high six assists were to Diakite, who got behind the Orange’s vaunted zone defense for several two-handed dunks. The 6-foot-9 redshirt sophomore scored the final two baskets of the game off dunks for his fourth double-digit point total this season and first since Dec. 19.
Diakite made 5 of 7 field goal attempts and is second on the team in field goal percentage (54.5) among players in the regular rotation. Only Salt owns a higher shooting percentage (63.6), but the redshirt junior has attempted 33 fewer field goals this season.
Not all of Diakite’s field goals against Syracuse came in the paint. His most acrobatic basket unfolded in the first half when, with the shot clock set to expire, Diakite released a shot from just inside the three-point arc while falling backward along the baseline. The desperation heave swished through for a five-point lead.
“He’s a quick jumper,” Bennett said of Diakite. “We said, ‘Just dunk it quick,’ and then he was up real quick, and our guys did a great job of finding him to finish. Thought Jack did a real good job of finishing on the baseline. I think those were keys because you need just a few of those when they start pressing us.”
Salt contributed six points, making all three of his field goal attempts in a highly efficient showing overall for the frontcourt. Diakite, Salt, Hunter and Wilkins shot a combined 16 for 20 (80 percent) to go along with 18 rebounds while limiting Syracuse’s starting frontcourt to 18 points on 7-for-17 shooting.
Virginia (22-1, 11-0) finished plus-nine in rebounds against the No. 3 team in the ACC in rebounding margin. Its next opponent is fourth in that category.
“What you have in their guys who play the fours and fives, those guys are pretty good midrange jump shooters,” Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton said after reviewing tape of the Cavaliers. “They are a little bit more involved in not allowing you to clog the lane up because those guys can step away and make 15-footers, which creates challenges for any type of defense.”
The surging Seminoles (17-6, 6-5), meanwhile, are among seven teams realistically vying for the No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament. Florida State is tied with North Carolina and Louisville for sixth place, two games behind second-place Clemson.
Florida State has won four of its past five overall and beaten the Cavaliers twice in a row, including a 69-62 win in the most recent meeting in Tallahassee on Jan. 17, 2016. The Seminoles are 10-1 at home this season, with their lone loss coming against Louisville, 73-69, on Jan. 10.
Virginia has not won at Tucker Center since Jan. 4, 2014, although it defeated the Seminoles six consecutive times before the current skid.
Among the Cavaliers’ final four road games, three are against schools in the top 40 in the KenPom.com ratings, including Florida State, which is No. 22 .
Virginia’s signature win this season came on the road Jan. 27, when it beat then-No. 4 Duke, 65-63, at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time since 1995.
“I really respect what they have done,” Hamilton said of the Cavaliers. “Tony’s done a great job, and that’s why they play at such a high level. They have just destroyed everybody who they’ve played. They’re very good and efficient, and they ought to be congratulated for it.”