Following back-to-back conference losses against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett decided to shuffle things up and insert redshirt freshman center Jack Salt into the Cavalier starting line up. The 19-year-old out of New Zealand has since started consecutive games against Miami, Florida State and Clemson.
While a somewhat unexpected move, this isn’t the first time Salt has found his way into the starting five. He made his first career start against George Mason in the Charleston Classic finale, and followed with nods against Lehigh, Ohio State and West Virginia.
The move, however, has me scratching my head. On paper, Salt is averaging 1.6 rebounds and 2.4 points in games he’s played, with five blocks, zero assists and eight turnovers on the year. On the floor, I’ve yet to see anything dazzling. He has great size and seems to get into position well on defense, though I’ve seen many players out-maneuver him in the paint. On offense, he seems to have difficulty creating space and finishing.
I have faith that Salt will develop into something special over the next couple years, but at the moment I don’t see his play warranting a starting spot. Here’s how Bennett justified the decision after Tuesday’s game against Clemson:
“I started Jack Salt because I thought his tenacity and his physicality would get us off right. Jack didn’t really have a good start. He was exhausted and looked exhausted. He got ducked in a few times and had trouble finishing, so I thought that we should go with Mike Tobey to start [the second half] and use Jarred Reuter in small minutes. Again, that is part of being a freshman with Jack and Jarred. There is a bit of inconsistency to say the least. I thought with Mike that the size was important. With Jack, usually to start games and brings physicality and perhaps maybe will draw a foul or two.”
This, however, sounds a lot like Jack Salt in all the games he’s played. He brings a lot of energy and “physicality,” but at this point in his career — halfway through his first collegiate season, mind you — he’s still frequently gets beat on both ends of the floor.
I’m not sure what “the best” Virginia line up would be — it would depend somewhat on matchups — but I’m certain it wouldn’t include the unpolished talent of Jack Salt. Even if you wanted a true center in your top lineup, I really can’t see why you’d go with Salt over Mike Tobey. And I’m pretty sure Bennett would agree with that sentiment, considering in each of the last three games Salt has “started,” either eight or nine Virginia players have received more minutes than Salt — and Tobey has been playing more than twice as much.
For this reason, we may need to rethink what it means to be a starter. The conventional wisdom is that you put your best combination of five guys out on the floor to begin a game. That’s not what’s happening with the Cavaliers as of late. So what is?
Before I try to answer that, I want to counter Bennett’s rationale that Salt “would get us off right” and “perhaps maybe will draw a foul or two,” both mentioned in the above quote. Through the first five minutes of the last three games — Salt’s only three starts since early December — Virginia has found itself down 8-7 (Clemson), tied 4-4 (Florida State) and up 5-2 (Miami). That’s not bad, but it’s not great. Then, according to Ken Pomeroy’s website, Salt is committing 7.2 fouls per 40 minutes while drawing only 2.0 per 40, the worst ratio among the 11 regularly contributing Virginia players.
I have three theories for why Salt has gotten these starts — none of which I’m completely convinced of.
First, and most simply, Bennett may value getting the freshman minutes against top players. The opening minutes of the game provide a low-risk opportunity to get Salt action against some of the ACC’s more seasoned centers, which could prove invaluable down the road. If Salt makes mistakes, he can learn from them while not putting the team in any dangerous position long-term.
Second, the move might be Bennett trying to send signals to his team. Several stories have noted Salt’s work ethic in practice, so Bennett could be rewarding Salt for his efforts while showing other players how hard work can pay off in terms of minutes. On the flip side, Bennett could be sending a message to other starting lineup contenders like Tobey, Isaiah Wilkins and Darius Thompson, who have certainly had their ups and downs this season. Rather than read this as a Jack Salt start, we could read it as a Wilkins or Tobey benching.
My last theory is that Bennett could be attempting to smooth out the various lineups he sends to the floor — instead of going from a great starting lineup to an average lineup after the first batch of substitutions, Bennett can consistently put out really good lineups. It can be really tough on opponents when ten minutes into the first half their facing some combination like Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes, Tobey, Wilkins and Thompson.
We’ll never know everything factoring into Bennett’s decision here, and I’m curious to see how long this will last. Bennett was clearly less than impressed with Salt after the Clemson game, so the end of Salt as the starting center may have already arrived. But the strategy hasn’t cost Virginia any games, so I would be equally as unsurprised if Salt remains out there at opening tip off against Syracuse this Saturday.
Matt Comey is a weekly Sports Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewcomey.