By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In its opening game in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Virginia will face Belmont at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C. That the Bruins’ starters include former UVa guard Taylor Barnette has been duly noted since the NCAA field was announced Sunday night.
So, too, has the possibility of a rematch between Virginia and Michigan State. They met in the Sweet Sixteen last year at Madison Square Garden, where the Spartans prevailed 61-59.
As if those storylines weren’t enough, Virginia forward Evan Nolte has more to ponder.
The Wahoos (29-3) are seeded No. 2 in the East Region. If UVa defeats No. 15 seed Belmont and No. 10 seed Georgia upsets No. 7 Michigan State on Friday, then the `Hoos would meet the Bulldogs in a third-round game Sunday. And that might test the loyalty of some of his family members.
Evan’s brother, Connor, is a former Georgia player whose college career included an NCAA tournament game in Charlotte, against Washington in 2011. Connor, coincidentally, roomed in college with a nephew of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
“Lots of different ties,” Evan Nolte said after practice Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
For Nolte, a 6-8, 224-pound junior from the Atlanta area, this is his second trip to the NCAA tournament. His first was memorable.
In UVa’s tourney opener last season, against upset-minded Coastal Carolina, Nolte came off the bench to hit two 3-pointers and a pullup jumper in the final 7:50. Without Nolte’s improbable lift, the `Hoos might not have pulled away for a 70-58 victory over the Chanticleers in Raleigh, N.C.
“I think he really kind of just epitomizes what it means to be part of Virginia basketball,” then-Virginia star Joe Harris said afterward. “He’s an unselfish guy, he’s a team guy, very positive.”
Nolte scored six points two nights later in UVa’s romp over Memphis and then had two against Michigan State. He finished 5 for 7 from the floor in three NCAA games.
“The way that he played in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year, that experience alone is something he’s going to be able to reflect on,” assistant coach Ron Sanchez said. “He’ll be better prepared to help us here on Friday and hopefully the next week as we move forward.”
Sanchez led the Cavaliers’ recruitment of Nolte, who starred for the powerful program at Milton High School. At Virginia, Nolte averaged 19.8 minutes and 5.7 points per game as a freshman, but on a deep, talented team, his role shrunk last season.
After starting eight games in 2012-13, he started none in 2013-14, when he averaged 9.3 minutes. Still, Nolte “didn’t sulk when he didn’t play,” Harris said after the Coastal Carolina game.
This season, head coach Tony Bennett kept Nolte in a reserve role until junior Justin Anderson suffered an injury Feb. 7 against Louisville. Used primarily as an outside-shooting power forward to that point, Nolte shifted to small forward, a position he played occasionally in 2013-14, and replaced the 6-6 Anderson in the starting lineup.
“Evan’s value is not only his ability to shoot, but he understands what Tony wants, and Tony can trust him with our defense and offense,” Sanchez said. “His understanding of our flow on the defensive end and on the offensive end, it’s invaluable to us.”
Anderson, a second-team all-conference selection, missed the final eight games of the regular season, but the Cavaliers went 7-1 during that stretch and earned the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament for the second straight year. Nolte didn’t come close to matching the offensive production of Anderson, who averaged 13.4 points during the regular season, but contributed in a myriad of other ways for Virginia.
“He’s usually in the right place doing the right things, and that’s a feel thing,” Sanchez said. “He’s a very smart player. He’s a neck-up player, as we like to say.
“I’m not saying he’s perfect, but he doesn’t get the credit that he should as a defender because he doesn’t jump above the rim and doesn’t make the highlight plays. But he makes a lot of safe and sound defensive plays for us. And he rebounds the ball well as a perimeter player.”
For most of the regular season, Nolte struggled with his outside shot, and he’s still shooting only 29.2 percent from long range. But he went 7 for 15 from 3-point range in the final four regular-season games, and then made 3 of 4 shots from beyond the arc against Florida State in the ACC quarterfinals. He added two free throws for a season-high 11 points against the Seminoles.
“I’ve been saying Evan has been so steady for us,” Bennett said afterward, “and it hasn’t always showed statistically. Well, today it showed with him stretching that defense and making some good plays.”
A day later, in a 71-67 loss to North Carolina in the ACC semifinals, Nolte missed both of his 3-point attempts but was 2 for 5 from the floor overall.
“I think I’ve always been confident,” Nolte said, but his confidence has grown as he’s become more comfortable at small forward.
In practice he’s often covered by 6-5 Darius Thompson, an athletic, long-armed guard who’s sitting out this season after transferring in from Tennessee.
“He’s ripped me a couple times, but today he tried to go for the same steal, and I went down and dished it,” Nolte said Monday. “It’s just about learning what to do and what not to do. I think I felt a little pressure [at first], just from myself, `OK, Justin’s out, and I don’t want this team to dip,’ and I think that’s gone away.
“When you get in all these games and play more minutes, you get more rhythm with your shot. I think it’s just a combination of a lot of different things.”
Nolte got off to “kind of a rocky start this year,” Sanchez said, “but the fact that he was able to get all the minutes pretty much that Justin left on the table, I think it’s only preparing him to play better [in the NCAA tourney], whether it’s 25 minutes he’s going to play, or 17 minutes, or whatever.”
Anderson, who fractured the small finger on his shooting hand in the Feb. 7 game against Louisville, had another setback near the end of the regular season: a March 5 appendectomy. He returned for the ACC tournament, coming off the bench in each of Virginia’s games, and he figures to have a greater impact in the NCAAs.
Whether Anderson will replace Nolte in the starting lineup against Belmont is still to be determined. Whatever his role in the NCAA tournament, Nolte will not be fazed.
“It’s all part of the journey,” he said. “I think I was raised really well by my parents. You never want to get too high and never want to get too low. I’ve just always gone back to that, talking to my mom and dad.
“Towards the beginning of the ACC regular season, it wasn’t looking too good for me, but you just gotta keep a level head. I guess it might sound clichÃ©d, but if you truly, genuinely do it and then you get your chance, you give it your best, because you know what it feels like to be on the other side.”