IOWA CITY — There are very few players that can make a person say “holy s**t” as much as Moussa Diabate.
The freshman forward has undoubtedly caused the phrase to slip from many a spectator’s lips, sometimes in awe of a dazzling show of athleticism, others cursing one of his all-too frequent boneheaded mistakes.
In Thursday’s 84-79 win over Iowa, Diabate gave Michigan fans a reason to say it over and over again. And this time, for all the right reasons.
It was a fiery performance that’s been building inside him, waiting to be unleashed ever since the Michigan men’s basketball team lost to No. 16 Ohio State on Saturday.
“I was angry, man,” Diabate said about the loss to the Buckeyes. “Maybe my teammates ain’t gonna say it, but I felt like I cost us the game.”
Against Ohio State, Diabate matched up against the Buckeyes’ star forward, E.J. Liddell. Liddell — who finished the game with 28 points — essentially had his way with Diabate, making the Wolverine big man look inexperienced on defense and outmatched on the offensive side of the ball.
But Diabate took the opportunity to learn.
And he applied it to his next test: Hawkeye forward Keegan Murray.
“Just like coaches, we steal from each other,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “… Moussa had an opportunity to compete against Liddell, Keegan Murray, and the list goes on. The Big Ten is a very tough, talented conference. And he’s smart enough, and also selfless (enough), to learn from those guys as far as what he can add to his game.”
Murray brings the same level of threat as Liddell, averaging 23.3 points for Iowa as their leading scorer and clear best player on the court. Just like Liddell, he’s a prime candidate to capture Big Ten Player of the Year honors.
This time, though, Diabate handled the opposing star.
Despite scoring 23 points, Murray fell far short of his efficiency standard, shooting just 39.1% from the field — well below his typical 55.9% clip. Diabate’s adjustments after facing Liddell just five days prior proved effective.
“What I did to change is definitely be more aggressive,” Diabate said. “Because they’re gonna attack me, so why not do the same?”
But the learning didn’t stop. After all, each high caliber player Diabate has been asked to face has two sides to their game. And he does, too.
Diabate was an offensive menace for Michigan. When the Wolverines needed a bucket, he served as the go-to guy. Finesse post moves shook Hawkeye defenders off his back before he rose above them with jump hooks to score. Diabate was rewarded with a career-high 28 points on an extremely efficient 12-for-15 shooting.
The difference in his game? Patience.
“(Liddell and Murray) are patient,” Diabate said. “They’re really patient when they get into their bag, into the game, and I believe there’s something that I can get from them.”
All night, Diabate played with a poise and patience exhibited by the opposing stars. He collected himself, not once rushing into his post move. Howard emphasized how important it was that Diabate “took his time” with the ball, referencing the monster results he produced when doing so on Thursday.
It all starts with learning. As Diabate is assigned premier matchup after premier matchup — facing the likes of Liddell, Murray and Illinois’s Kofi Cockburn — he takes something away each time. Pieces of All-American caliber players begin to cobble their way into Diabate’s game.
“Once he got (to Michigan), he was really eager to learn from me and coach Howard,” sophomore center Hunter Dickinson said. “He was really eager just to pick things up quickly and try to get as much information as possible. He’s really eager to learn so that really helps him in his development and makes him better each and every day — and you can see it out there.”
Diabate has the opportunity to reach the full potential that his five-star ranking billed him — he just has to keep learning.