By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — They arrived at the University of Virginia on June 10, 2012, first-year students from Milton, Ga., Monroe, N.Y., Lexington, Ky., and Montross, Va., respectively.
Two days later, Evan Nolte, Mike Tobey, Taylor Barnette and Justin Anderson practiced for the first time with the UVa men’s basketball team. Nearly 10 months later, they’re still immersed in their seemingly endless first year of college hoops.
“It’s a really long process,” said Tobey, a 6-11 center from New York. “We’ve been playing basketball hard, intense, since June. It’s definitely been tough.”
Even for UVa’s veterans, who were more accustomed to the rigors of college basketball, this has been a grind. For fourth-year coach Tony Bennett’s scholarship freshmen — a group that also includes 6-0 guard Teven Jones, who enrolled at UVa in January 2012 and practiced with the team throughout the second semester — it’s been like nothing else they’ve experienced.
In August, when most college players are able to slip home for a break from organized basketball, the Cavaliers traveled to Europe, where they played five games against teams from the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
Under NCAA rules, a Division I team is allowed to practice 10 times before a foreign trip, for four hours a day, and those sessions supplemented the players’ regular summer workouts with the coaching staff. By the time the Wahoos left for Amsterdam on Aug. 6, then, the players had already logged many supervised hours in the gym.
Bennett gave his players time off after they got back to the United States. Not long after the fall semester started, though, the Cavaliers returned to the gym to resume preparations for the 2012-13 season.
Two closed scrimmages (against VCU and Baylor) and 33 games later, the `Hoos are still at it, and they want to keep playing through April 4, the night of the National Invitation Tournament’s championship game at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
In the NIT’s second round, UVa (22-11) takes on St. John’s (17-15) at 11 a.m. Sunday at John Paul Jones Arena, where Bennett’s team has won 18 straight games. Virginia was one of four No. 1 seeds in the 32-team tournament, and the Red Storm was a No. 5 seed.
The winner will face Iowa (23-12), a No. 3 seed, in the quarterfinals Wednesday night. If UVa defeats St. John’s, the quarterfinal would be played at JPJ.
“Like Coach will say, everyone’s tired at this point of the year,” said Nolte, a 6-8 forward from Georgia. “Everybody’s kind of worn down. Nobody’s 100 percent. Relative to all the other teams, I think we’re doing pretty well. I think we’re ready to go, and we’re excited to play.”
Mike Curtis, UVa’s strength-and-conditioning coach for basketball, has monitored the freshmen closely since their arrival on Grounds. He knows that for the Cavaliers to be successful, they need significant contributions from the first-year class. And so he hasn’t hesitated to modify the freshmen’s workout programs.
“Much of it is individualized,” Curtis said. “You have a guy like Justin Anderson, who athletically and physically is probably a little bit ahead of some of the other guys that we have.”
Anderson, a 6-6, 226-pound swingman from Montross, a town in the state’s Northern Neck, could easily pass for a college senior. He leads UVa’s freshmen in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocked shots.
“For him, sometimes when it came to making modifications or alterations to our lifts, with regards to the volume or the intensity, I didn’t have to make as many concessions for him, because his adaptability is a little bit higher than those other guys’,” Curtis said.
Jones, who’s classified as a redshirt freshman, has “kind of gone through it [in the second half of last season],” Curtis noted, “but he’s also not anywhere close to being the athlete a Justin Anderson is. For guys like Evan and Teven, you have make concessions and alterations and modifications based on how much weight they’re lifting and total volume in a workout.”
Curtis regularly requests and receives feedback from the freshmen, which “gives me a little bit of insight into how they’re feeling,” he said. “In addition to that, just through observation, just watching practice, I see if they’re sluggish, look at their body language, and then I just kind of make modifications to their training based on what my coach’s intuition tells me.”
Of the freshmen, Anderson has played the most minutes (774) and started the most games (15). Nolte has played 665 minutes and made eight starts. Jones started nine games early in the season while senior point guard Jontel Evans was recovering from a foot injury and has played 383 minutes in all.
Tobey, who has made two starts, has played 379 minutes. That total would be much greater had he not missed five games last month with mononucleosis. Barnette, a 6-3 guard from the Bluegrass State, has started two games and played 228 minutes.
“Because of Taylor’s minutes, we train through everything,” Curtis said. “I wasn’t concerned with him going out and having to play 25 or 30 minutes, so we didn’t change our lifting schedule [during the regular season]. He still lifted three days a week. There were even days that he lifted before the game, and he enjoyed that.
“So we haven’t really altered or modified anything for him. But, obviously, Mike Tobey had his own little self-limiting episode, and then Justin Anderson, in terms of his genetic pre-disposition, I haven’t had to do much with him, because he’s going to persevere no matter what.”
Nolte had several brilliant performances during the regular season. He played a leading role in a Nov 28 win at Wisconsin, hit three 3-pointers in a Jan. 6 victory over North Carolina at JPJ and sank a career-high five treys in a Jan. 24 win over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. In his final five regular-season games, however, Nolte went 1 for 8 from beyond the arc.
“Evan’s probably the one kid who seems to have hit that wall,” Curtis said, “but I’ve changed and modified and done as much as I could to try to keep him fresh. Sometimes it just gets to a place where there’s not much you can do, because the grind of basketball is still going to take it out of him.”
Nolte, however, scored five points in a loss to NC State in the ACC tournament and then had seven Tuesday night in a win over Norfolk State in the NIT’s first round. He went 1 for 2 from 3-point range in each game.
“I’ve been playing better,” he said.
Nolte acknowledged that he’s battled fatigue late in the season. “For me it didn’t happen at a certain time,” he said. “But when the season started to pick up and we started to play a lot more games, you started to feel more tired. It’s kind of normal, because you’re kind of always tired [during the season], especially being a first-year.”
Mono kept Tobey off the court, but “it probably helped my legs a little bit, too, giving them a two-week rest,” he said. “It probably helped in a way.”
Tobey lost a few pounds while he was ill, but Curtis and Randy Bird, the nutritionist for UVa athletics, stayed on him about eating properly. “The other day he came in and weighed in at 241,” Curtis said Thursday, “so I was happy that we were able to actually not have to start completely over.”
As a 12th-grader, Tobey attended Blair Academy in New Jersey. His senior season there ended Feb. 22. “This is definitely the longest season I’ve ever had,” he said. “But it’s good.”
Nolte said: “We’ve had lots of fun. It’s been really long, but at the same time it’s gone by so fast. It feels like we just got here a couple months ago.”