By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On opening night, Nov. 9 in Fairfax, three freshmen started for the UVa men’s basketball team, and another first-year player came off the bench.
The rookies did not distinguish themselves in Virginia’s 63-59 loss to George Mason. Starters Mike Tobey, Taylor Barnette and Justin Anderson combined for 14 points, four rebounds and four assists. Reserve Evan Nolte was more productive, with six points, three assists and two rebounds in 17 minutes, but he also had two turnovers.
His freshmen “did things” that night, Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett joked Friday at John Paul Jones Arena, “just for the other team.”
Fast forward 11 weeks, to Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, where UVa defeated Virginia Tech 74-58 in an ACC game Thursday night.
Barnette, a 6-3 guard, didn’t play, but the 6-8 Nolte, the only freshman to start for the Wahoos, hit five 3-pointers and finished with 18 points and four steals — all career highs. Off the bench, the 6-6 Anderson contributed 11 points, a career-best six assists and three steals, and the 6-11 Tobey scored 10 points on 5-for-5 shooting. Another freshman, 6-0 guard Teven Jones, made a 3-pointer in the first half.
“They’ve improved,” Bennett said Friday. “They’ve slowly gotten better. It’s a journey, but I’m liking that they’re being more consistent out there with their effort and just the little things you’re seeing in practice. There aren’t quite as many breakdowns. None of us are immune to it, but they seem to at least come together at the right time.”
Virginia (13-5, 3-2) hosts ACC foe Boston College (9-9, 1-4) at 1 p.m. Saturday, and Nolte is expected to make his third straight start at power forward in place of 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins, who’s recovering from a leg injury.
For the season, Nolte leads the Cavaliers’ freshmen in scoring (7.1 ppg), and Anderson is first in rebounds (3.2 per game) and blocked shots (16). Jones, who started nine games while senior point guard Jontel Evans was out with a foot injury, is averaging 3.5 points.
Tobey, perhaps the most offensively gifted member of the class, is averaging 6.3 points and 2.3 rebounds and shooting 52.1 from the floor. He’s even made two 3-pointers (in four attempts).
In Blacksburg, Tobey entered the game with 13:21 left in the first half. The first time he touched the ball, he scored on a baseline jump shot. His second basket, another jumper, pulled the `Hoos to 17-15, and his third, an alert follow of an air ball by Nolte, cut the Hokies’ lead to 19-17.
“He was composed,” Bennett said of Tobey. “He got the ball in the right spots. There was a little more space for him, and he has good touch. Obviously you can see that. And he was even better defensively.”
Bennett smiled. “I’m sure he’s going to say, `Coach, why aren’t I playing more, when I’m 5 for 5 in 15 minutes?’ But he gave us a nice lift. We’ve talked about his skill set, and he’s just got to keep getting stronger and improving.”
Tobey, who didn’t turn 18 until October, hasn’t forgotten his college debut.
“Mason was definitely an adjustment,” he said. “I remember I didn’t play as well as I would have liked to have played. But just getting used to the college environment, stuff like that, it’s been a process, but it’s getting better.
“I think the process is starting to finally kick in. I think I’m starting to get it, and the system is going well. I’m playing better.”
UVa freshmen teamed up on one of the game’s most memorable plays Thursday night. Anderson, covering Tech guard Erick Green, the nation’s leading scorer, knocked the ball loose, picked it up near midcourt and, in one motion, passed ahead to Tobey, who dribbled in for a dunk that pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 49-34 with 11:47 left.
Anderson has been inconsistent this season, but he followed a superb performance in Virginia’s 56-36 win over Florida State — eight points, three rebounds and three blocks — with his gem against Virginia Tech.
“I think I’m just getting back to playing my game,” Anderson said. “I’m getting back to what the coaches recruited me for and wanted me in this program for. I just love the unselfishness of our team. Guys could easily come out and take a lot of shots, but [against the Hokies] we all got good looks, we were very unselfish, we shared the ball, and I think that’s what it’s going to take to be successful in the ACC.”
The Cavaliers’ third straight win in Blacksburg showcased the shooting touch of Nolte, who was 5 for 9 from beyond the 3-point arc. It also spoke to the long-term potential of a program loaded with underclassmen.
“Evan’s great,” Anderson said. “I’ve been telling him and Tobey and Taylor and Teven, I’ve been telling those guys our future is so bright here. We have a bunch of first-years that are willing to come in and learn and accept our roles, and also impose our will in different ways, and that’s what it’s all about. So I keep encouraging those guys every single day. I always want to have positive energy and positive things to say to them, so we can keep each other’s spirits up.”