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Oct. 10, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett has 200 minutes to divide among his players each time the UVa men’s basketball team takes the court for a game.

On a roster loaded with experienced, talented players, his task won’t be easy this season.

“There’s going to be a war for the playing time,” Bennett said Wednesday afternoon during the question-and-answer session that opened the Cavaliers’ media day at John Paul Jones Arena.

Nowhere is Virginia deeper than in the frontcourt, where Bennett has 80 minutes per game to split at center and power forward. In 6-11 sophomore Mike Tobey, 6-8 senior Akil Mitchell, 6-8 junior Darion Atkins and 6-8 redshirt sophomore Anthony Gill, UVa has four traditional post players. And then there’s 6-6 sophomore Justin Anderson, who’s likely to start at small forward but also was effective at power forward at times last season.

So what becomes of Evan Nolte?

“We’ve been playing him some on the wing,” Bennett said. “He’s a threat, certainly from outside, which is important for us.”

A 6-8 sophomore from the Atlanta suburb of Milton, Ga., Nolte appeared in all 35 games for the Cavaliers, starting five. Of Virginia’s big men, he’s the most dangerous 3-point shooter.

Just ask Virginia Tech. The Hokies saw Nolte bury 5 of 9 shots from 3-point range Jan. 24 in the Wahoos’ 74-58 win at Cassell Coliseum.

“I think he gives us some flexibility,” Bennett said, “and I told him when we talked, `I look at you as a versatile wing forward.’ “

And so Nolte is likely to split time between the 3 (small forward) and the 4 (power forward) this season. Either position is fine with him.

“I just try to follow the process and do what the coaches really want me to do as much as I can,” Nolte said.

He played almost exclusively at the 4 as a freshman, when he averaged 5.7 points and 2.4 rebounds and shot 38.9 percent from beyond the arc. His ballhandling has improved, though, and “hopefully defensively he can handle it [at the 3],” Bennett said.

To earn minutes on a deep team, assistant coach Jason Williford said, Nolte must “play to his strengths. He’s got to shoot the ball. He’s got to be that stretch guy who can make shots after screening and separate off ball screens.

“Another one of his strengths is his feel and his IQ, and I think being able to maybe play both forward spots will help him.”

Nolte had many more assists (36) than turnovers (21) last season, and he also had 16 blocked shots to go with 27 steals on defense. Still, the question remains: Can he cover small forwards?

“I think that’s where we’ve sort of got to rely on our system, from a defensive standpoint,” Williford said. “I think that would be the biggest question mark. As far as being able to run our stuff, execute our stuff, he can do all that.

“There’ll be times when we’ll run certain things offensively for him, to his advantage. But he’s gotten better away from the ball, playing more as a perimeter guy, moving without the ball.”

The Cavaliers play a man-to-man defense — the Pack Line — devised by Bennett’s father, Dick, during his illustrious coaching career. The term Pack Line refers to an imaginary line 2 feet inside the 3-point arc. The defense aims to clog the middle, protect the paint and prevent dribble-penetration by guards. Defenders do not deny opposing players on the wings. Instead, they sag back inside the Pack Line, coming back out to aggressively challenge outside shooters.

“I think especially with this system I’ll be able to guard more guys than I would maybe with a more individualized one-on-one defense,” Nolte said. “I’ve gained a lot of experience and quickness through last year, and being more efficient in your movements helps a lot too.”

He’s noticeably more muscular than he was last season, when he played at about 215 pounds. Nolte is up to 227, and he’s moving better, too. “Which is the goal,” said Mike Curtis, UVa’s head strength and conditioning coach for basketball.

“When we’re looking at guys that need to gain weight, we’re also looking to make sure that things that are performance-related, in terms of jumping and sprinting and change of direction, all those things are getting better or staying the same,” Curtis said. “The ultimate goal is to add the weight and make sure it’s functional weight, so it allows you to move faster. And the process that Evan has gone through has allowed him to do that. We tested at the end of the summer, and his jumping increased, and his change-of-direction ability and his sprint, all of his stuff that we test, all increased.”

Opposing post players occasionally overpowered Nolte in 2012-13. Nolte is still not and may never be “the banging type,” as Williford put it, but he’s better-equipped for battles in the paint.

“He doesn’t necessarily want to be in there, and that’s not his strength, but he’s gotten stronger, and I think that’ll give him some confidence that he can, from a defensive standpoint, rebound and do some stuff,” Williford said.

Two of the main 3-point threats on Virginia’s 2012-13 team, Paul Jesperson and Taylor Barnette, transferred to Northern Iowa and Belmont, respectively, after the school year ended. If the `Hoos are to attain their goals this season, they’ll probably need consistent shooting from Nolte, who struggled to provide that last season.

After his 18-point outburst in Blacksburg, Nolte had several other solid games, scoring nine points in a win over Boston College, nine in a rout of Clemson, eight in a victory at Maryland, six in a loss at North Carolina.

Late in the season, though, his production dipped. In UVa’s final nine games, Nolte was 3 for 14 on 3-pointers. And so his offseason workouts focused on shooting.

“Late in practice, late in the possession or late in the season or the game, I want my shot to be consistent and be able to sustain it,” Nolte said. “So I worked a lot on my arc, because I noticed my shots were really flat and short, and my misses were hitting the rim. I worked a lot with Coach Bennett” — and on the Noah’s Arc shooting machine in the men’s practice gym — “just working on my arc and getting my feet set and a lot different things that I really believe will help with consistency.”

In his first year at UVa, Nolte roomed with Tobey, and they’re sharing an apartment with senior Joe Harris this year.

No introductions were necessary when Nolte and Tobey arrived at the University in June 2012. They first met as high school juniors, after each had committed to the Cavaliers, at the Boo Williams Nike Invitational in Hampton. They stayed in touch, and in the spring of 2012 they roomed together in the D.C. area while preparing for the Capital Classic all-star game.

“We got to really know each other,” Tobey recalled Wednesday, “so going into the [2012-13] year we were already good friends, and it’s been a good relationship ever since. He’s a good guy.”

Nolte wants to be known as more than a basketball player at UVa. He’s a serious student who hopes to be admitted to the prestigious McIntire School of Commerce next year.

“It’s an uphill battle,” he said, “but I’m trying to take it head on.”

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