Dec. 17, 2012

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — One masked man gave another some advice recently. Thomas Rogers, a junior guard on the UVa men’s basketball team, is all too familiar with playing in a protective mask, and so he understands freshman center Mike Tobey’s frustration.

“He told me you’ve just gotta get used to it. It takes a while,” Tobey said Saturday afternoon after the Cavaliers’ practice at John Paul Jones Arena.

To shield a nose that’s been broken multiple times, Rogers dons a mask when he takes the court for contact situations. Tobey has been doing so for a little more than a week, and he’s already tired of it. A blow to his nose late in UVa’s Dec. 8 rout of Mississippi Valley State at JPJ caused a break that had to be reset.

Tobey is supposed to wear the mask for six weeks, he said, “but it’s really annoying to play with, so we’ll see.”

The injury ended the 6-foot-11 Tobey’s night early and kept him from adding to the numbers he’d posted in 12 second-half minutes: five points, three rebounds and a career-high three blocked shots. But he’ll be available Wednesday night when UVa (8-2), in its first game after an extended break for final exams, meets Morgan State (3-4) at JPJ.

A graduate of Blair Academy in New Jersey, Tobey may have the most long-term potential of any of the players who enrolled at UVa this year. But he’s young for his class — Tobey didn’t turn 18 until October — and lacks the strength required for some low-post battles. And so his role has been limited thus far on a UVa team that’s getting superb play from its frontcourt starters: 6-8 junior Akil Mitchell (13.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg) and 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins (8.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg).

Tobey, who’s from Monroe, N.Y., is averaging 4.9 points, 1.6 rebounds and 11.2 minutes per game. He’s 10 for 12 from the line but only 19 for 46 from the floor. He’s played as many as 18 minutes in a game and as few as four. None of which UVa coach Tony Bennett considers unusual for a first-year post player.

“I think there’s a strength factor, and some of it’s even been the matchups that we’ve had,” Bennett said Saturday. “We’ve played some unique teams. But he’s on a good journey, and there are some ups and downs for all the first-years, but even more sometimes for big men, where it’s a little more of a physical thing. You can get away with it in some spots, but it’s a challenge, because sometimes there’s not a whole lot you can do when there’s more pounds or more leverage and strength coming against you.

“But I think there’ll be some more natural matchups for him as the season progresses, and we’ll need him.”

In August, Tobey averaged 11.2 points in the Wahoos’ five games in Europe, against teams from the Netherlands, Belgium and France. He has a soft touch around the basket with either hand, as well as excellent range on his jumper, and he impressed again in November in Virginia’s closed scrimmages against VCU and Baylor.

“He came out of the blocks, as we like to say, with his hair on fire,” Bennett said. “He was so good in those scrimmages offensively. He probably hasn’t had quite as many opportunities [this season], but I think what you’re seeing is a natural progression. I think he knows some of this is new to him, and he’s just learning. I look at the natural progression from Darion, even with just one year of college basketball under his belt, and it really is noticeable.”

On the defensive end, in particular, Tobey remains a work in progress, as he readily admits. He did not consider himself a good defensive player coming out of high school, and Bennett’s emphasis on defense “is something I’ve had to get used to,” Tobey said. “It was never something I had to do before really.”

As a 10th-grader at Don Bosco Prep in Jersey and then as an 11th grader at The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, Tobey said, he was on teams that primarily played zone defense. “And then last year we played man, but I didn’t play it particularly well,” he said, smiling.

The biggest challenge for him on defense, Tobey said, is to “be continuous and keep moving. After the ball shifts, we gotta keep switching positions.”

During practices, Bennett doesn’t hesitate to point out Tobey’s defensive shortcomings. “But it’s all good,” Tobey said. “Coaches being on you is definitely a good thing, because it means they recognize your [potential] and want to see you get better.”

Tobey weighed around 225 pounds when he enrolled at the University in June. He’s now closer to 240. Come the offseason, Tobey will work with strength-and-conditioning coach Mike Curtis to get bigger and stronger. For now, Tobey is simply trying not to drop any pounds.

“You have to eat like you’re trying to gain weight, but you’re just eating to maintain weight, basically,” he said.

His thoughts on his first semester at UVa?

“Everything’s just an adjustment,” said Tobey, who hopes to be admitted to the McIntire School of Commerce in 2014. “You gotta get used to the intensity of basketball, and also the intensity of school. The best word would be `intense.’ But it’s definitely been a great experience.”

After starting the season-opener at George Mason, Tobey has come off the bench for the ‘Hoos, who have won seven straight since a Nov. 13 loss to Delaware. With Mitchell and Atkins playing so well, a return to the starting lineup does not appear imminent for Tobey, but he’s content with his role and trusts his coaches.

“I’m definitely not discouraged,” he said. “It’s all a process, and I know my time will come.”

Tobey’s fans include Bennett’s father, Dick, who had a legendary coaching career before retiring in 2006.

“My dad made a comment to me about Mike,” Bennett recalled Saturday. “He said, `You know, in two years I’d pay money to see that kid play.’ And the point is, Mike’s going to mature, he’s going to get physically stronger, and all these things are going to come together. And whether it’s next year or a couple years down the road, he’s going to get it. He’s just got to stay after it and stay patient.”

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