By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The University of Virginia rarely cancels classes. It happened Wednesday when a major snowstorm hit Central Virginia, but by then Jontel Evans and his UVa basketball teammates were in this city, about 800 miles from Charlottesville.
The senior point guard didn’t mind missing the historic event back at UVa.
“They don’t have any power there, and I’m down here in the sun,” Evans said Wednesday afternoon in Talllahassee, “so it’s cool.”
Virginia (20-9 overall, 10-6 ACC) faces Florida State (15-14, 7-9) at 7 p.m. Thursday at the 12,100-seat Donald L. Tucker Center. On the Cavaliers’ original itinerary, they were scheduled to arrive in Tallahassee at 7:10 p.m. Wednesday. But with snow imminent in Charlottesville, Ronnie Wideman, UVa’s assistant athletics director for men’s basketball, began exploring ways to get the team out of town early.
“Where Ronnie’s the best is he gives you every option,” said head coach Tony Bennett, who brought Wideman from Washington State with him in the spring of 2009.
Virginia’s options were limited. The team ended up leaving John Paul Jones Arena at 9:45 p.m. Tuesday and busing to Richmond, where the traveling party boarded a plane around midnight. The Cavaliers landed in Tallahassee at 2:05 a.m. Wednesday.
“That was crazy,” Evans said, “but I’m glad we got out of there, so we could get down here early.”
Bennett said: “Had we stayed, we’d be in trouble. We got into Tallahassee late, but the alternative could have been a lot worse, so it was very seamless.”
The Wahoos can only hope the game goes as well for them in an arena where they haven’t won since Feb. 17, 2001. For a team that’s bidding to advance to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year, the importance of its second regular-season clash with FSU can’t be overstated.
When these teams met Jan. 19 at JPJ, UVa romped 56-36. A second straight win over the Seminoles would move the `Hoos into a tie for fourth in the ACC with NC State (22-8, 11-6). More important, a victory would enhance a postseason résumé that took a hit Sunday in Chestnut Hill, Mass., where Virginia faded late and lost 53-52 to Boston College.
The Jan. 19 clash with FSU was the first game that Darion Atkins missed with a stress reaction in his lower right leg. Atkins, a 6-8 sophomore who started 12 of UVa’s first 16 games, has played only 34 minutes since then, but he’s moving as easily this week as he has since late December.
Once 6-11 freshman Mike Tobey returned after missing five games with mononucleosis, Bennett was able to rest Atkins, who hasn’t played since an 11-minute stint against the Miami Hurricanes on Feb. 19.
Those appearances, however brief, caused Atkins’ injury to flare up, Bennett said, “and so we slowed him down, so he could just incrementally build up. [Tobey’s return] allowed Darion to slowly build up his tolerance to running and jumping and let his leg heal a little more.”
Atkins, who’s averaging 5.6 points and 3.7 points, no longer wears an air cast to protect his shin area and, Bennett hopes, may be able to bolster Virginia’s frontcourt against FSU, one of the ACC’s tallest teams.
“The last two practices that he’s gone, he hasn’t had a setback,” Bennett said, “and the X-rays have shown that the bone has healed up more.”
Tobey returned Feb. 24 and, in 15 minutes, totaled seven points and four rebounds in Virginia’s 82-54 rout of Georgia Tech at JPJ. But he hasn’t scored since then — Tobey was 0 for 1 from the floor in five minutes against Duke last Thursday night and 0 for 1 in four minutes versus BC — and has often looked out of sync on the court.
“It’s just a matter of still getting used to play against better competition,” Tobey said after practice Wednesday. “The first game, mostly I was running on adrenaline, just really excited. Now I just gotta get used to play with tired legs again.”
The more he practices, Tobey said, the more comfortable he feels, and his conditioning is good again. His challenge now is to regain his early-season form on the court.
Against Duke and BC, Bennett said, matchups limited Tobey’s playing time. But the Cavaliers’ fourth-year coach expects Tobey’s role to increase over the rest of the season.
“In practice he’s slowly getting better,” Bennett said. “I think he’s feeling good enough, so hopefully he can give it to us in the game.”
Tobey is one of four freshmen averaging at least 12.8 minutes per game for UVa, along with 6-8 Evan Nolte, 6-7 Justin Anderson and 6-0 Teven Jones. Bennett knows that in most games he can count on significant production from Evans and juniors Joe Harris (17.2 ppg) and Akil Mitchell (12.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg). The rookies have been much less consistent, and that makes it difficult to predict how the Cavaliers will play, especially on the road.
“We’ve played our best basketball when we’ve had contributions from more than just our upperclassmen,” Bennett said. “It seems like we’ve played our best ball when some of those freshmen have either had double digits or been involved more than just playing hard. I think you’re at that point [of the season] where the good teams have different contributors, and for us I think that’s so important because of the attention guys like Joe are getting.”
Nolte hit five 3-pointers (and scored a career-high 18 points) in Virginia’s Jan. 24 win at Virginia Tech. Tobey scored 13 points in a Jan. 29 win over NC State at JPJ. Jones scored six points in a Jan. 6 win over North Carolina in Charlottesville, and Anderson’s career-best 17 points came in a Feb. 10 victory at Maryland.
“We just need everyone on the team to contribute,” Tobey said. “We’re talented, but like Coach always says, we’re not all McDonald’s All-Americans, and the reason why we succeed is because we play so well as a team.”
Of Virginia’s starters, only the 5-11 Evans is a senior. It’s occurred to him that he’s in the twilight of his college career. The Cavaliers have two regular-season games remaining, then at least one in the ACC tournament.
“It’s crazy,” Evans said. “It’s about to come to an end. I’m just trying to enjoy it, especially these three games that are guaranteed, and whatever happens in postseason play happens. Hopefully we get to the [NCAA] tournament, and if not, the NIT. I’m just trying to wear this Virginia jersey as long as I can.”