The minutes wax and wane: But Virginia role players stay as ready as ever at the Final Four
Ahead of the biggest game of his career, Virginia center Jack Salt was clueless as to what his role would be. After all, Virginia’s fifth-year center had played just 10 minutes through the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament combined — just three minutes in his team’s Sweet 16 triumph against Oregon. He had seen his playing time slip to its least in three seasons thanks to the emergence of Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff.
“I remember talking to him, and he said, ‘Coach, I just want to advance,’ Tony Bennett said Friday. “‘Whatever you think is best. Yeah, it’s hard to not play, but whatever is best for the team.’”
And as that night would have it, Salt was exactly what was best for the team. The New Zealand native played 34 minutes — one shy of his career high — and battling for five points, eight rebounds and two steals against the Boilermakers’ frontcourt of 7-foot-3 center Matt Haarms and burly 280-pound forward Trevon Williams.
“I have the same mindset [every game],” Salt said. “I try to lock in to scout before practice, know who I’m guarding, know what the other team’s doing and just be as ready as I can.”
Salt’s not the only player who has seen his role change throughout the season — big minutes one night and hardly any the next — but his ability, along with the abilities of Virginia’s other role players, to adapt and thrive has been crucial in the Cavaliers making their first Final Four in 35 years.
“That’s why this program has been good,” Bennett said. “That embodies our pillar of servanthood.
“Know your role, make others better.”
The Cavaliers have used six different starting lineups this season, a major departure from last year, when Bennett deployed the same five to open 33 of 34 games.
The Cavaliers started their core trio of Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy De’Andre Hunter every game this season, save for one (Jerome missed an early-February game with a back injury). Outside of those three, Salt, Diakite, Kihei Clark and Braxton Key have started 29, 20, 18 and six games, respectively.
“We’ve got a variety of guys who can do different things and bring different things at different times,” Salt said. “It’s awesome to have that as a team. You’ve got guys like [De’Andre] and Braxton (who) can play the big. You’ve got guys like Kihei pressuring full-court. You’ve got Jay, me, Mamadi, other guys that bring different stuff to the table, so that versatility is huge.”
Of course, who starts a game doesn’t always correlate with who plays a big role. Seven times this season, a player who started the game played 10 minutes or fewer. That speaks to the team’s versatility and ability to adapt to the various opponents seen throughout not only a four-month season but also a single-elimination setting such as the NCAA Tournament.
“Sometimes [we know our role] before the game,” Key said. “But when the game happens, a lot of things can happen. Guys could get in foul trouble or someone might not be playing well. You just have to keep accountable for that and stay ready.”
Key, an Alabama transfer, has provided length, athleticism and size at the power forward spot. One of the team’s top rebounders, he played crucial roles in several wins throughout the regular season but has also seen his role fluctuate at times.
“He stepped up at major times to give us a difference in games,” Bennett said. “His understanding of his role — and as challenging as that is sometimes when it’s limited and then there’s more [minutes]. That’s hard as a player. But he’s been a great addition.”
The third key rotational piece has been Huff, the lanky 7-foot-1 center who had hardly seen the floor before a 11-point, seven-rebound breakout in Clemson in mid-January. Though Huff’s minutes still rise and fall, he’s learned the importance of preparing with the same dedication for every game. He may arrive at a game unsure of his minutes, but he knows if he’s prepared correctly, he’ll make the most of them.
“It’s just a feel of the game type of thing,” Huff said. “You just always have to prepare the same way whether you’re going to get a lot of minutes or not.”
Of course, it’s helped that he’s been able to learn from Salt, the consummate teammate and supporter, for the past three years.
“He’s the best teammate anyone could ask for,” Huff said. “He’ll go out there and run through a brick wall for this team or he’ll sit there and cheer like he’s been doing some of the games, which is just great to be around. And it’s contagious for guys who may not play as much all the time.”
Having versatile, quality depth is a key part of any team with hopes of a national championship. There are only so many teams that possess it. Having those players be willing to accept their oscillating roles is even rarer.
It requires buy-in from both sides. Bennett and his staff have built a deep, well-rounded roster, and Bennett has shown faith in his players, putting them in a position to succeed in situations he sees fit. The players have rewarded his faith to the tune of a 33-3 record by staying ready, even when minutes may be hard to come by. Bennett, a former bench player in the NBA, is grateful for that.
“I know how hard that is,” Bennett said. “So when you’re fortunate enough to coach young men who have that kind of resolve and character, they make the team go.”
The Cavaliers will need their depth to show up in a big way again on Saturday night against a talented and deep Auburn team. Virginia’s role players don’t know quite how much they will play or perhaps if they will play at all.
What they do know, though, is that they’ll prepare as meticulously as ever and be ready to play at their highest level on college basketball’s grandest stage if their number is called.
“As much as all of this stuff is cool, being a part of this, we’ve got a game to play tomorrow, and we’re gonna be locked in and ready,” Salt said.
Story by Zach Pereles