Before the No. 2 Virginia Cavaliers take on the Louisville Cardinals in the final game of the regular season, the Hoos will recognize one player. Redshirt fifth year Jack Salt is the lone “senior” for the Cavaliers, and his long journey in college basketball is finally nearing a close.
Salt, from Auckland, New Zealand, arrived in Charlottesville with the class of 2014. He was one of four commits, joined by BJ Stith, Isaiah Wilkins, and Marial Shayok. Stith (Old Dominion) and Shayok (Iowa State) have since transferred out of the program, and Wilkins graduated last season. Now, Salt — who redshirted his first year — is ready to leave the program in a better state than he found it.
Even though he didn’t play his first year, Salt will become just the second Virginia player to go to five NCAA tournaments (Devon Hall). The four years he played, Virginia has amassed a 110-24 record, including a 56-15 mark in the ACC. He’s started in 102 of 118 games he saw action in, including starting every single game in 2016-17 and 2017-18. He started 72 straight games, spanning across three seasons, until back issues sidelined him against Coppin State this fall.
That was never supposed to be the case, however. Salt arrived in Charlottesville as a depth role player, learning from guys like Darion Atkins, Anthony Gill, and Mike Tobey during his redshirt season. As a redshirt freshman Salt saw action in 22 of the 37 games Virginia played. In 2016-17, Austin Nichols — a transfer from Memphis — became eligible. He played in one (1) game before being dismissed from the program.
Now, instead of a potential All-American caliber forward to take over the mantle from Gill and Tobey, Virginia had Jack Salt. His stats have always been modest — he’s averaging 3.8 points and 4.0 rebounds per game this season — but his impact is undeniable. No one on the court works as tirelessly as Jack, and not one single person in the NCAA can set a more bone-shattering screen. Just ask NC State’s Lavar Batts.
Virginia’s quiet giant loves Chipotle and collects various baseball hats because he, “likes the colors”. He also perfectly embodies what it means to be a member of Virginia Basketball, even if the guys rib him for being the old dude on the team. “I think we’ve made the joke he’s been here 17 years at least 100 times this year,” Kyle Guy said with a smile. “He’s the perfect role model for anybody that wants to come here.”
This season, Salt’s seen his minutes decrease (17.9 minutes per game, down from 19.8 last season), especially down the stretch. Part of that is due to ongoing back issues, and part of it is due to the welcomed development of Jay Huff (especially defensively), the outstanding play from Mamadi Diakite, and the integration of Braxton Key. Regardless of playing time, Salt is the same old Salt.
“His attitude never changes,” Ty Jerome said after Virginia’s win over Pittsburgh. “He will give 110 percent for us every single possession, and that’s something you don’t see in almost any other guy in the country. If you ask him to play 30 minutes one game and five minutes the next, I don’t know if any other guy in the country will give it their all, and he does. He continues to lead every day and fight through back pain.
“He’s a warrior, and I would go to battle with him any day.”
Bennett was so moved by that quote, he shared Ty’s words with the team, saying the “captured” what it is about Salt that makes him so special. Said Bennett: “I just love that guy because they are few and far between in today’s culture and today’s game that are willing to do whatever and be so happy for their teammates.”
In practices in his early days, Jack would bang hard underneath with big guys like Mike Tobey, often annoying them. As soon as the whistle would blow, the 6-10 big man would run to the water and Gatorade and bring some to the teammates who had just come so close to hitting him. “That’s Jack,” Bennett said. “He’s all heart, he’s all about the team, and he’s meant so much to me and the program.”
Now, guys like Diakite and Huff are flourishing, something that Salt had a hand in, even if he won’t take any credit. “I’ve learned a lot,” Huff said. “One, when I redshirted, I was kind of his practice dummy so I learned to be physical, but obviously I’m nowhere near his level of physicality. The way he rotates, the way he doesn’t stop playing...I’ve learned a lot from him.”
He’s not the audacious scorer or a stat-heavy defender. And yet Salt — back injuries and all — will sell out to keep a play alive.
“I think anybody who has played with Jack, from DA [Darion Atkins] to the first years on this year’s team, will tell you that Jack is going is play his heart out every time he steps on the court,” Wilkins told Streaking the Lawn. “He played most of my third year (2016-17) with a slipped disc in his back and didn’t complain at all. He’s one of the most unselfish players I had the pleasure of playing with in my four years. He comes and works hard everyday. He’s one of those guys whose work doesn’t show up in the box score, but there’s no doubt he has a huge impact on the team.”
Complimenting Salt’s workmanlike attitude on the court is easy, but his off-court persona gets far less attention. When he’s not playing basketball, he’s committed to the community of Charlottesville. Salt frequently visits local schools to read to the students and hospitals to sit with sick kids. He was a volunteer coach (along with teammates Kyle Guy, Austin Katstra, and Grant Kersey) as Albemarle High School students with special needs get their shot on the court back in November.
Bennett frequently hears from locals praising his burly big man. “I get so many emails from people...about what he does for young people and just kind of behind the scenes that no one knows.”
“As far as a person, Jack’s amazing,” said Wilkins, who opened up about his struggles with depression and anxiety to ESPN last February. “He’s one of my best friends, my brother for life. He has a super kind soul.”
Wilkins also credits Salt’s support with getting him through some of the tougher times. “I wouldn’t have made it through college without him,” Wilkins stated. “He helped me out of some really dark places.”
“I’m going to miss him,” Bennett said on the Coach’s Corner show. “I miss Devon [Hall] and Isaiah [Wilkins], and I was texting with Malcolm [Brogdon]...I miss those guys so much, but I’m so thankful for the time I had with them.”
After a short pause, Coach Bennett summed Jack Salt up simply: “He’s a special one.”
Virginia and Louisville tip off at 4pm at John Paul Jones Arena. The game will be televised on ESPN.