By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After a 30-hour journey that began in New Zealand, Jack Salt arrived in Charlottesville on May 19, 2014, and started summer school at the University of Virginia. That same week he commenced workouts with Mike Curtis, UVA’s strength and conditioning coach for basketball.
Less than a month later, Darius Thompson arrived in Charlottesville after a much shorter trip — his originated in Tennessee — and, as Salt had before him, began training with Curtis and taking summer-school classes.
During a 2014-15 season in which the Cavaliers won 30 games, repeated as ACC regular-season champions and returned to the NCAA tournament, Salt and Thompson stayed mostly in the shadows.
They played key roles on the scout team in practice, but neither took the court in a game last season. Salt redshirted, and Thompson, under NCAA rules, had to sit out a year after transferring to Virginia from Tennessee.
At long last, though, the wait is nearly over for Salt and Thompson, whose official UVA debuts will come Friday night against Morgan State at John Paul Jones Arena. Their unofficial debuts came Oct. 31 in a closed scrimmage against VCU.
“I think they both showed promise,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. “They both showed things that they do well. Their strengths really showed in certain areas.
“I think it was a good step in the right direction for both of them, with still some room to improve. I think that was probably the case for everybody.”
UVA’s second closed scrimmage was Sunday against Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn.
Salt, a 6-11 center, has all four seasons of eligibility remaining, and Thompson, a 6-4 guard, has three. Salt is expected to play a supporting role in an experienced frontcourt that includes such veterans as 7-0 Mike Tobey, 6-8 Anthony Gill, 6-8 Evan Nolte and 6-7 Isaiah Wilkins. Thompson figures to crack the Cavaliers’ rotation immediately on the wing.
“They both bring two things a little different than maybe we even had last year,” Bennett said. “I don’t think we had anybody as physical as Jack, as far as getting people open [with screens]. He really gets people open and he really runs the floor hard and keeps plays alive and just tries to do what’s right.
“And then Darius, he has a unique ability. He can do some things in the open court, and he’s got some ability to anticipate and tip balls [on defense]. They both showed some positives [against VCU]. They really did. I was pleased, and I think they’ve done a nice job working in our practices up to this point.”
Against Vanderbilt, Thompson played well, Bennett said. Salt struggled at times against the Commodores, who have a tall frontcourt.
“The game was a little fast for him,” Bennett said. “He’s physical. He’s just to got to continue to learn the game and adjust to the pace of the game.”
Asked last week about the VCU scrimmage, Salt said it “was good to get out there and play with the guys. I was just happy to be out there.”
Salt weighed about 230 pounds when he arrived at UVA, “but I had a bit of baby fat on me,” he said, “so I slimmed down to 220.” He’s now around 250, and it’s solid weight, as his teammates will attest. He’s made significant gains as a player, too.
“I think I’ve come a long way, just with the help of the coaches, and extra workouts with Coach Curtis,” Salt said, “and I’m feeling pretty confident out there with the defense, and more and more with the offense as well.”
Tobey, Gill and Nolte are seniors, and Salt knows he’s likely to have a bigger role in the frontcourt in 2016-17.
“This year I’m just doing whatever I can to help the team,” he said. “I’m trying to get better, get out on the court whenever I can, and when I’m on the court be productive.”
Unlike Salt, Thompson has college experience. As a Tennessee freshman in 2013-14, he started 10 games for a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen. An explosive athlete, Thompson led the Volunteers in steals and was second on the team in assists.
“Darius brings more ballhandling and an element, whether it’s in the open court or with his ability to slash, that’s a nice addition,” Bennett said.
As the season opener nears, Thompson’s excitement continues to grow.
“I’m tired of playing against my own teammates, for one,” he said. “I finally get to go out there and compete with my team, going against other people.”
And so the scrimmage with VCU was a joy for him, Thompson said. “At first I was a little nervous, because I haven’t played [against another college team] in a year and half, but it was a great experience getting to go out there and play with my teammates.”
Thompson believes he’s elevated his game since arriving at UVA, and at 200 pounds, he’s about 10 heavier than when he left Tennessee.
“It was a year well spent,” Thompson said. “Very well spent. Really the biggest thing that helped me was being in the weight room, getting a lot stronger. I feel like I can do a lot more stuff now because of the strength I added.”
The closed scrimmages benefitted both Virginia’s players and coaches, Bennett said.
“The ability to see everyone play in competitive settings and different situations is invaluable,” he said, “because it allows you then to go to work on things that really need working on.”
Moreover, Bennett said, scrimmaging with quality officials allowed teams to “get a feel for some of the rule changes, how the game’s being called, understanding all those things that take place in live games, and then addressing the things you have to address.
“That’s why playing teams with different styles is good, and that’s what we tried to do with these scrimmages.”
TICKET INFORMATION: A limited number of seats are available for UVA’s games against Morgan State (Friday), Lehigh (Nov. 25) and Oakland (Dec. 30) at John Paul Jones Arena.
For information, please visit VirginiaSports.com/Tickets, call (800) 542-8821, or stop by the athletics ticket office in Bryant Hall at Scott Stadium (Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
Season tickets are sold out for 2015-16.