By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — From “out of the blue,” as Mike Tobey put it, people he hasn’t talked to in years have been contacting him, all with the same question: Do you have an extra ticket?
For the record, the answer is no. Tobey, a 7-0 junior center for the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, has no extras for one of the most eagerly awaited games in program history.
With ESPN’s College GameDay crew on hand for the first time at John Paul Jones Arena, second-ranked Virginia (19-0, 7-0) will host No. 4 Duke (17-2, 4-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday in a rematch of last year’s ACC tournament final.
Tickets for this clash were gone by late October. Walking around Grounds recently, Tobey said, he heard fellow students talking about the weekend’s main event.
“It was funny, just to hear them say, `Oh, I didn’t get a ticket to the Duke game,’ or `I got a ticket to the Duke game,’ ” Tobey said after practice Tuesday at JPJ. “They’re either really happy or really sad.”
Duke, which plays Wednesday night at No. 8 Notre Dame (19-2, 7-1), will arrive in Charlottesville with, as usual, a roster loaded with players who were four- and five-star recruits. In the summer of 2013, Tobey played with three of them — freshmen Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow and junior Rasheed Sulaimon — on the USA Basketball team that won the gold medal at FIBA’s U19 world championships in Prague, Czech Republic.
In Okafor, Tobey said, “I see some physical changes. I think he’s lost some weight and gotten faster and more athletic … He’s got phenomenal footwork, and as a big man you really notice that type of thing. He’s obviously a great player.”
A 6-11, 270-pound center from Chicago, Okafor is likely to be the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft should he decide to turn pro after this season. He’s leading the Blue Devils in scoring (18.5) and rebounding (9.0) and shooting 67.1 percent from the floor.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” said Anthony Gill, a 6-8, 230-pound redshirt junior who averages a team-best 6.7 rebounds for the Wahoos. “His IQ for the game is sky-high, and I think he definitely will be the best player we play all year.”
Head coach Tony Bennett can add personal observations to the Cavaliers’ scouting report on Okafor. Bennett was an assistant coach on USA Basketball’s U19 team in 2013, and he’s not surprised by Okafor’s success as a Duke freshman.
“He’s such a talented player,” Bennett said. “He’s so good. He’s such a good passer. He’s so strong, and there are so many things [Okafor does well]. But they have such good players around him, too. So it’s not like, well, you just kind of deal with him and forget about the others.”
In its Pack-Line defense, Virginia often double-teams post players when they get the ball down low, and Okafor has 47 turnovers, the most of any Blue Devil this season. Still, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski likes Okafor’s decision-making when trapped in the post.
“He’s done an excellent job, especially for a freshman,” Krzyzewski said. “Part of it is, he’s got really huge hands. So he can pass out of it one-handed, which gives you a little bit more room to pass. You can pass over or pass to the side, because you’re longer than you would be with two hands, and wider, in making your passes out.
“He can pass, and he wants to pass. He has made, overall, great decisions in handling that.”
Bennett, not surprisingly, declined to divulge how the `Hoos plan to defend Okafor.
“You just have to be sound, you gotta be consistent,” Bennett said. “Obviously, we trap the post — there’s no big mystery there — at times … You just gotta make it as hard as you can on [Okafor], but you can’t just leave everybody else alone.”
Virginia leads the nation in scoring defense (49.2 ppg). The Blue Devils, meanwhile, average 81.6 points, led by Okafor, senior guard Quinn Cook (14.3 ppg), freshman guard Tyus Jones (10.7) and Winslow (10.3).
“It’s really going to test our defense,” Gill said. “They’re a great team, and we’re a great team, so we’re going to see who comes out on top. There’s been a lot of anticipation building up to this.”
The `Hoos are aware of the buzz surrounding this game, Gill said, “but I think that we really understand where we’re coming from. Last year we were in a situation where we got put up real high in people’s eyes, then we got knocked down real hard. I think that we understand where we need to be and what we need to do in order to win games.”
Virginia has faced several teams, most recently Virginia Tech, that used four-guard lineups for long stretches. Duke takes a more traditional approach. The Blue Devils start 6-9 junior Amile Jefferson alongside Okafor in the frontcourt, and their reserves include 7-0 junior Marshall Plumlee.
Duke’s size means Tobey, the tallest Cavalier, is likely to play a significant role Saturday night.
“I’m excited for the challenge,” he said, “and I’m always excited to play Duke.”
Tobey, who’s averaging 7.6 points and 5.6 rebounds, has had several memorable performances this season. In UVa’s 50-47 win at Virginia Tech on Sunday, however, he had only four points and two rebounds and turned the ball over three times in 13 minutes.
“I’m just trying to get back into the swing of things and trying to really focus on what I can do to help the team,” Tobey said.
In the Cavaliers’ ACC opener, Jan. 3 at Miami, Tobey had 14 points and six rebounds, and four nights later he finished with 11 points and five boards against NC State at JPJ. Then came Virginia’s comeback victory over Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., where Tobey contributed eight points and seven rebounds.
Since then, however, he’s totaled 10 points and five rebounds (against Clemson, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech).
“These last four games have been pretty bad for me,” Tobey said. “But that’s part of it, the ups and downs of the season. I just gotta get back in the swing of things.”
In his most recent game against the Blue Devils, in last year’s ACC tournament final, Tobey played 18 minutes and had eight points (on 4-for-5 shooting) and four rebounds in UVa’s 72-63 win at the Greensboro Coliseum.
That doesn’t hurt Tobey’s confidence, but “I think they’re a completely different team,” he said. “Last year they [relied heavily on wings] Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker, and they had Amile Jefferson playing the 5. This year I know Marshall Plumlee’s gotten a lot better, and Okafor’s inside.”
Inconsistency has been an issue for Tobey throughout his UVa career, but he’s “improved with his ball-screen defense, his defensive rebounding and his physicality,” Bennett said. “He’s taken a step in the right direction in those areas … I think a sign of maturity is when offense doesn’t dictate how you [play] defensively, and I think he’s hopefully coming in the right direction in that area.”
Tobey (18.2) is one of three post players averaging at least 18 minutes per game for Virginia, along with Gill (23.8) and 6-8 senior Darion Atkins (21.2). Also in the frontcourt rotation are 6-8 junior Evan Nolte and 6-7 freshman Isaiah Wilkins, who was the first big man off the bench against Virginia Tech.
“It’s just real competitive, and they really challenge each other,” Bennett said. “Of course they want opportunities to play, but they’re pushing each other, and I think they’re making our team better. And it can be a different guy at a different time.”
OPEN INVITATION: All fans are welcome at JPJ on Saturday for ESPN’s College GameDay. Admission and parking are free. Gates open at 9 a.m., and the event will end at noon.
All seating at JPJ for College GameDay is general admission.