Diarra, young players critical for UConn this season
HARTFORD – After missing last season due to a knee condition, Mamadou Diarra was understandably anxious in UConn’s first preseason game last week against Providence.
He promptly fouled out in six minutes.
Diarra fared much better in his second go-around in UConn’s 79-63 preseason win over Merrimack Monday night at the XL Center. The redshirt freshman scored 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting, while blocking two shots in 10 foul-less minutes. Such is life as a young, experienced player. There will be highs, but certainly some lows. And for UConn, with eight new players on its roster, it will have to fight through those ebb and flows.
“I feel like my game is about energy, and I feel in the last game, I had trouble doing that because of the foul trouble,” Diarra said. “I feel like I got in a better rhythm. We have a lot to work on as a team still, and we’re going to keep working.”
Diarra was expecting to help the Huskies last season, but after playing only 10 minutes in the preseason opener, he was diagnosed with patellofemoral syndrome. Per WebMD, it’s “caused by wearing down, roughening, or softening of the cartilage under the kneecap.” Just like that, his season was finished. The injury required treatment and rehabilitation, but no surgery.
While it was only one season, Diarra’s time on the sidelines often felt longer.
“Words can’t even describe how excited I am now (to be back),” said Diarra, a Queen, N.Y. native. “Last year felt long and it was all about treatment, rehab, and a lot of leg work. My knees feel very good this year and haven’t caused me any trouble.
“I feel like I get better every time I step on the court.”
The time on the bench last season also gave Diarra an education on how the collegiate game works.
“It changed how I see (the game),” Diarra said. “Being on the sidelines, I was able to see what the coaches were seeing as well. It changed the perspective for me and I learned a lot of stuff.”
Diarra’s frontcourt mates in Terry Larrier (17 points), Isaiah Whaley (10 points, five rebounds in eight minutes), and Kwintin Williams (six points in 10 minutes) all played well against an undersized Division II opponent Monday. The Huskies, though, struggled from three, making only 1-of-14. They’re still working on their chemistry, something they’ll need sooner than later with a tough out-of-conference schedule slated before 2017 closes.
Coming off a difficult season, one which began with two straight home losses to Wagner and Northeastern, it’s imperative for UConn to get off to a strong start.
“We’re a work in progress,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “We’re focusing on doing the small things that will lead to big things for us. We need to execute each and every day, keep challenging each other, and make sure we play together and share the basketball.”
The Huskies open the season in 11 days against Colgate. Ollie will probably start the season with Larrier, Jalen Adams, Alterique Gilbert, and Christian Vital taking up four of the five starting slots. Diarra started the first preseason game, and came off the bench Monday.
Efforts like his against Merrimack will most certainly lead to more starts. The ability to be consistent, though, is a big if, as it is with most young players.
Diarra has already shown that.