By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ATLANTA — His sister may be torn at times, given that she’s a senior at Georgia Tech. But Evan Nolte won’t have to worry about the support of his parents or brother or friends Sunday afternoon. They’re all hoping to see Nolte and his teammates pick up another ACC victory.
Nolte, a 6-8, 215-pound freshman, is from Milton, Ga., about 35 miles north of Atlanta. He’ll make his fifth straight start at power forward Sunday for Virginia (15-5, 5-2), which meets Georgia Tech (11-8, 1-6) at 3 p.m. at McCamish Pavilion.
This is as close to home as Nolte will play during his college career, and, not surprisingly, he’s excited.
“I’ve had this game kind of marked down,” he said Friday at UVa’s John Paul Jones Arena, “because people back home that I still keep in touch with, they were asking, `When do you guys play at Georgia Tech?’ So I’ve been waiting to play there.”
These homecoming games can be tricky for players. A season ago, back in his home state of Washington, swingman Joe Harris struggled early before finishing with 14 points in UVa’s 83-77 victory over Seattle at KeyArena, where the crowd included about 300 of his friends and relatives.
Early this season, swingman Paul Jesperson, who’s from Merrill, Wis., went 0 for 3 from the floor and didn’t score in Virginia’s 60-54 road win over Wisconsin in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game.
“We’ve been through this so many times that sometimes as a coach you don’t think much about it, you think it’s just another game,” UVa’s Tony Bennett said.
“But when you’re 18 or 19 and you’re young, and you’re getting to go back and play in front of your family, and everybody’s there. I’m sure you feel more excitement, and some guys handle that excitement differently. It can maybe make them nervous, and some guys get more engaged. I think how they respond to it depends on the personality of the player.”
The Wahoos, of course, wish Malcolm Brogdon were sharing the spotlight with Nolte on this trip to the Peach State. Brogdon, a 6-5 guard, is from another Atlanta suburb, Norcross, and as a freshman last season he helped the `Hoos humble the Yellow Jackets 70-38 at Philips Arena, home of the NBA’s Hawks.
Brogdon had major foot surgery last March, however, and missed Virginia’s game in the ACC tournament at Atlanta. He’s redshirting this season, though his role in practice has steadily increased in recent weeks, and he figures prominently in Bennett’s plans at Virginia.
“He’s still not full tilt,” Bennett said, “but when you see him out there, it gives you good memories of what he can do.”
Nolte has shown remarkable poise in his first season as a Cavalier, turning in some of his best performances in his team’s biggest victories. He hit two 3-pointers against Wisconsin, three against North Carolina and a season-high five against Virginia Tech.
For the season, he’s averaging 7.0 points and 2.4 rebounds and shooting 43.1 percent from beyond the arc. The stress reaction that sidelined starter Darion Atkins after UVa’s Jan. 12 loss at Clemson — the 6-8 sophomore has played only six minutes since that game — created an opportunity for Nolte, who’s made the most of it.
Nolte started three of Virginia’s first five games, then moved into a reserve role. The Cavaliers have not lost since he returned to the starting lineup.
“It’s been a lot better than I expected,” Nolte said of his first college season. “Coming out [of Milton High School], I didn’t really know how much I was going to play. Then some guys’ injuries led to more playing time, and I’m just trying to take on more responsibilities. I’m trying to go out there and play my role the best I can.”
He doesn’t have Atkins’ low-post presence, but Nolte’s ability to stretch defenses with his outside shooting makes him difficult to defend. He played some small forward early in the season, but he’s played the 4 with Atkins out.
“It’s been fun,” Nolte said.
He smiled. “It wasn’t as fun when I was playing against [NC State star] CJ Leslie, but it’s been fun for me, because on the offensive side I’ve been able to get some open shots that I think have been pretty beneficial, especially with some of the screens that we run and some of the plays we run. But the defensive side is definitely the most challenging part for me, because of the physicality and having to to box out. It’s a challenge, but I’m really enjoying it.”
Nolte weighed 210 pounds when he enrolled at UVa last June. He hopes to play at 225 or 230 in 2013-14. Preparations for the team’s trip to Europe last summer limited the time that Nolte and his classmates spent with Mike Curtis, Virginia’s strength-and-conditioning coach for basketball.
“I’m really looking forward to getting in the weight room in the offseason,” Nolte said. “That’ll definitely help me.”
He also wants to expand his offensive game to include more post moves. His role model, Nolte said, is Creighton star Doug McDermott, a 6-8, 225-pound forward.
“I really want to look at McDermott’s game a lot,” he said. “I’ve looked at him a little bit, but I really want to shape my game off of that. In the beginning of the year, in practice I shot a fadeaway a lot, and I’ve moved away from the post a little bit. And it’s been working well, so I haven’t really tried to go back. But that’s definitely one of the parts of my game that I really want to work on.”
As many freshmen do, Nolte has struggled at times with consistency. After making 6 of 12 shots from the floor against Virginia Tech and 4 of 5 against Boston College, he hit only 1 of 5 against NC State on Tuesday night and played only 13 minutes because of foul trouble.
“I didn’t think my defense was what it needed to be at all in the NC State game,” Nolte said.
Milton’s promixity to Atlanta notwithstanding, Nolte did not cheer for the Jackets when he was growing up, and he had no interest in attending Georgia Tech.
“It’s too close,” he said.
Charlottesville is about an eight-hour drive from Milton, but that hasn’t kept Nolte’s family members from attending many of his games at JPJ, as well as some of UVa’s road games. The family has deep roots in Wisconsin, and Nolte had a large cheering section at the Nov. 28 game in Madison.
The travel arrangements aren’t as complicated this weekend for his parents, Kurt and Julie, and his brother, Connor, who played hoops at Georgia. They drove to Atlanta to see Nolte on Saturday night, and they’ll be back for the game Sunday.
“It’ll be cool for them to be able to just drive 30 minutes and see us,” Nolte said.