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​COMEY: What to make of Darius Thompson

<p>Sophomore guard Darius Thompson, quiet in Virginia's past few games, banked in the game winning three Tuesday against Wake Forest.</p>

Sophomore guard Darius Thompson, quiet in Virginia's past few games, banked in the game winning three Tuesday against Wake Forest.

When redshirt sophomore guard Darius Thompson debuted for Virginia basketball as starting shooting guard in the season opener against Morgan State, I was thrilled. I’d heard great things about the transfer out of Tennessee, and my excitement seemed verified by Coach Tony Bennett’s faith in Thompson over the familiar and capable Evan Nolte and Marial Shayok.

Thompson seemed to live up to the hype in that first game, shooting 4-of-6 for 12 points with six rebounds and four assists. Then, as the fall progressed, Thompson became adored by fans for his offense explosiveness and highlight-tailored dunks.

However, around the start of the new year, Thompson all but disappeared.

Last week, my colleague Matt Wurzburger wrote on the welcomed rise of sophomore guard Devon Hall, who has started since Virginia’s loss to Florida State Jan. 17. But just as interesting as the rapid elevation of Hall is the concurrent fall of Thompson, whose spot Hall has essentially taken in Bennett’s rotation.

While Thompson is known best for his electric dunks, he actually started the year as an all-around great player. Through the California game in late December, Thompson was averaging 8.4 points and shooting 45 percent from behind the arc. In one stretch last fall that included matchups against now-No. 9 West Virginia and No. 6 Villanova, he scored in double figures and shot over .500 in five consecutive games. He also had 11 steals and 21 rebounds through the first eight games of the season.

It’s hard to say exactly where the production plateaued, but it didn’t take long for a drop in minutes to follow. Thompson is averaging only 2.7 points in ACC play — largely bolstered by seven points in the league opener against Notre Dame.

His last start was at Virginia Tech, where he played 23 minutes and scored zero points on three shots, tallying just one assist against two turnovers. Against Syracuse on Sunday and Wake Forest on Monday, he played season-lows of seven and eight minutes, respectfully. That’s quite the fall from back-to-back 36 minute games against Ohio State and William & Mary early in the season.

Then there’s the eye test. One of my most recent vivid Thompson memories was when he mishandled a pass from senior center Mike Tobey on a breakaway against Clemson and turned the ball over. He was clearly attempting to set up a flashy dunk when it happened.

Thompson hadn’t made a single three-point shot since the Dec. 22 game against Cal. That is, until last night, when he banked home a ridiculous three to complete one of the greatest comebacks basketball has ever seen.

I apologize for burying the lead a bit there, but the emotional ups and downs I’ve had with Thompson necessitate it. Thompson’s play against Wake Forest up until the shot — including a turnover after missing what looked like a clean pass and failing to take a shot all game — was reflective of the entire team. His final stat line was 1-for-1 shooting with one assist and zero rebounds.

Buzzer beater aside, it’s certainly not time to lose faith in Thompson. His early season play — especially against some very high-quality non-conference opponents — was consistently good enough to prove his starter-quality talent. So, why can’t he produce in ACC play?

One could argue that Thompson’s skill set doesn’t lend itself well to the type of play Bennett has been looking for since poor defensive outings against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Florida State. But a greater defensive emphasis and slower pace doesn’t necessarily mean Thompson is no longer a good fit.

Over the last couple of weeks, the vast majority of Virginia’s offensive production has been jump shooting and post-play, with relatively few hard drives to the basket. Thompson’s athleticism seems to make him a good candidate to help build a more complete offense, and Thompson at his best isn’t a particularly worse defensive option than Devon Hall.

The thing is, Thompson has not been at his best in 2016. The only explanation for this I can come up with is that it’s all mental, and maybe it’s a confidence-boosting shot like the one Tuesday night that will turn him around. The disappointing part — depending on your perspective — is that Hall’s elevated play means Thompson might not get many chances to prove himself again any time soon. However, the good news is he is only a sophomore and has more time to mature.

The Virginia offense will face its most daunting challenge yet this weekend at No. 16 Louisville, matching up with a defense that ranks third nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings. It sure would be nice to see some more Thompson magic Saturday.

Matt Comey is a weekly Sports columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at m.comey@cavalierdaily.com. Follow him on Twitter at @matthewcomey.

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