March 18, 2017

By Jeff White (

ORLANDO, Fla. — Coming into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, four of his University of Virginia teammates were averaging more minutes per game than Darius Thompson, who hadn’t started since Dec. 31.

So what happened Thursday in UVA’s first-round game against UNC Wilmington?

Thompson started, played a team-high 34 minutes, and totaled 10 points, four rebounds, one assist, one steal, no turnovers and a career-high four blocked shots in the Cavaliers’ 76-71 victory.

“Four blocks?” Virginia big man Isaiah Wilkins practically shouted Friday when apprised of Thompson’s line. “Whoa!”

The Wahoos, seeded No. 5 in the East Region, could use another strong showing from Thompson in the second round. At approximately 8:40 p.m. Saturday, Virginia (23-10) faces fourth-seeded Florida (25-8) at the Amway Center, with the winner advancing to meet defending NCAA champion Villanova or Wisconsin in the Sweet Sixteen next weekend in New York City.

“We’re going to need him,” Wilkins said of Thompson. “Obviously we needed him [against UNCW], or we wouldn’t be here today.”

A 6-4 redshirt junior who began his college career at Tennessee, Thompson transferred to UVA after the 2013-14 academic year. He sat out his first season in Charlottesville and then started 10 games in 2015-16 for a Virginia team that advanced to the Elite Eight.

Thompson, who’s from Murfreesboro, Tenn., has started 14 games this season, and he’s averaging 6.3 points and 2.2 assists and shooting a solid 36.1 percent from 3-point range. Still, he remains something of an enigma.

With the possible exception of redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite, Thompson is the most gifted athlete in the Cavaliers’ program. Throughout his UVA career, though, consistency has eluded him.

The coaching staff, Wilkins said, is constantly “trying to tap into something that will make D.T. click. We haven’t really found it yet. He has games where he goes crazy and then games where he’s kind of going through the motions. I think it’s just his personality.”

Thompson, associate head coach Ron Sanchez said, is “an unbelievably interesting player. But he’s the same way on the floor that he is off the court, and that is just his personality. It’s taken us a while to get to know him that way.”

An extrovert like former UVA star Justin Anderson, the soft-spoken Thompson is not.

“He’s just really, really quiet,” said Virginia guard Devon Hall, another redshirt junior. “And it doesn’t matter what situation we’re in, he’s always the same. And it’s crazy, because when he first got here, he never really spoke to [the other players], never really talked to us that much, and we were kind of put off by it. But we just had to realize that’s who he is, on and off the court.”

If coaches and teammates initially hoped he would be louder and show more emotion, they soon “realized it’s not going to be work,” Thompson said, smiling. “That’s just who I am. I’m just a laid-back, relaxed type of guy.”

He’s majoring in African-American and African Studies at UVA, and his other interests include photography, as shown in this feature. Thompson brought his camera with him on the Cavaliers’ trip to Spain last summer.

“Just learning a little bit at a time,” he said of his photography.

Likewise, as a basketball player Thompson has yet to fully reach his potential.

“As coaches, I think it’s our responsibility to make these guys aware of their talents,” Sanchez said, “and then on top of that, once you make them aware of it, you have to push them beyond their comfort zone.

“The question is: How do you do that? How do you manage that? And then the fine line is, you’ve got to be able to do that without ever disrespecting the young man, without ever making him feel in the way you’re speaking to him that he’s not appreciated.

“I think Darius is one of those guys that you can completely misunderstand if you just watch his body language and demeanor. So for him, it’s more, `These are the things that you do really, really well. Let me encourage you to do those things as often as you can,’ and those are the things that he tries to do.”

Thompson said he knows that when coaches admonish players, it’s “because they believe in you. If they didn’t believe in you, you wouldn’t hear anything from them.”

Against Notre Dame last week in the ACC quarterfinals, Thompson came off the bench to score 12 points, his first game in double figures since Feb. 6. That he’s capable of such performances has long since been established.

“I hope to be more consistent, but it’s just how it goes,” Thompson said. “It’s basketball. There’s ups and downs, and hopefully I can stay up for this part of the year, the ending of the year.”

Sanchez said: “At times he might lose his way and be like, `I want to do this instead of that,’ and you’ve got to just say, `Hey, hey, stay in this lane. This gives you tremendous success. Keep doing this, keeping do that, so you don’t get discouraged.’ ”

Last season, Thompson’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave Virginia a dramatic victory over Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C., and he’s supplied many highlight-reel dunks in transition as a Cavalier. But Thompson’s value to the team, Sanchez said, extend far beyond his scoring.

“Sometimes somebody may not see what he did really, really well,” Sanchez said. “Everybody can talk about the Wilmington game and say, `He scored, he did this, he did that.’

“What I think that he did really, really well is defend. He had deflections because of his length, and he had blocked shots without even leaving the floor. He did a lot of great things that way. But our eyes are always focused on the offensive side, so we don’t tend to see those things.”

Thompson “just has to be assertive,” Hall said, “and he was [against UNCW]. He played great for us.”

NEW ROLE: The 6-7 Wilkins, Virginia’s best defensive player and leading rebounder, is expected to miss Saturday night’s game. He’s been dealing with an illness that limited him to five minutes — all in the first half — against UNC Wilmington and has cost his strength and stamina.

At practice Friday afternoon, Wilkins served as another coach as the Cavaliers prepared to meet the Gators for the first time since the 2012 NCAA tournament. In Wilkins’ absence, Virginia’s other post players — 6-11 redshirt sophomore Jack Salt, 6-7 sophomore Jarred Reuter and 6-9 redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite — are likely to have bigger roles Saturday night.

“Zay, if you see something, you talk to those guys,” head coach Tony Bennett told Wilkins. “You get `em right.”

BIG CHALLENGE: Florida, in its second season under head coach Mike White, has three starters who are 6-8 or taller. That means UVA, which used five guards together extensively against UNCW, will go with a more traditional lineup Saturday night.

Reuter didn’t play against the Seahawks, and Salt and Diakite logged only 16 and five minutes, respectively.

Against the taller, more athletic Gators, Salt said, his role is clear.

“I need to keep them off the glass,” he said. “They crash hard. I need to do a good job on that, and just getting back in transition, so they don’t get anything easy, because they’re long and they push the ball fast.”

UVA assistant coach Jason Williford handled the scouting report on the Gators, who defeated No. 13 seed East Tennessee State 80-65 on Thursday.

“It’s challenging in that they’re really good,” Williford said. “It’s not so much that they’re complicated on offense or anything. They’re actually pretty simple. They run a lot of ball-screen stuff.

“They present challenges in transition defense and keeping them off the glass, because of their speed and quickness at the guard spot, and then their length on the interior. They’re really good. And their defensive numbers speak for themselves. They’re one of the best in the country defensively.”

Virginia and Florida have three common opponents this season: Miami (Fla.), Duke and Florida State.

UVA went 0-3 against those teams during the regular season. The Gators defeated Miami and lost to Duke and Florida State.

The keys for the Cavaliers on Saturday night?

“Gotta get back,” Williford said. “Can’t turn the ball over. We gotta be good with the ball. We gotta keep `em off the glass, and then we’ve gotta execute our offense. We’ve got to get good shots, and our offense has got to wear them down a little bit.”

Bennett said: “We’ll have to do what we always do. We’re going to have to get it to our kind of game in terms of making them play against a set defense, make them shoot the majority of the shots contested. Take care of the ball. We’re going to have to screen them, move them, knock down some outside shots. Hopefully there’s some opportunistic baskets for us in transition, but it’s just going to kind of be a war of attrition.”

The Amway Center, home of the NBA’s Orlando Magic, won’t be confused with John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday night.

There “will be probably a few more Florida fans than Virginia fans, is my guess,” Bennett said. “[But UVA supporters will] be there in spirit.”

The Gators’ fans helped the team against ETSU, Florida players said Friday.

“The crowd was definitely helpful,” senior guard Kasey Hill said. “I’m glad that we didn’t get comfortable with it and expect for them to help us win the game. We went out there, and we got it done, but they definitely helped us.”

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