Sept. 14, 2015
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Mike Tobey was only 17 years old when he arrived at the University of Virginia in June 2012, and he didn’t turn 18 until that October.
In basketball, big men often take longer to develop than perimeter players, and so Tobey’s career arc has not surprised the Cavaliers’ coaching staff.
“I always thought that Mike’s development was going to be behind his class, because he’s young,” associate head coach Ron Sanchez said.
From the start, the 7-foot Tobey flashed tantalizing potential. As a freshman, he totaled 13 points (on 6-for-10 shooting) and seven rebounds in a 58-55 win over NC State, a performance that left observers buzzing at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I was like, `Wow, he battled Richard Howell,’ ” said Sanchez, referring to the former Wolfpack big man who, at a muscular 6-8, 255 pounds, was an imposing figure around the basket.
Still, for all of his memorable performances — and there have been many in his three seasons as a Cavalier — consistency has eluded Tobey, who started two games as a freshman, 28 as a sophomore, and 11 as a junior. But 6-8 Akil Mitchell had a career year as a UVa senior in 2013-14, 6-8 Darion Atkins did the same in 2014-15, and Sanchez believes Tobey will follow suit this season.
The Wahoos’ first full-team workout of the fall semester is Tuesday afternoon at JPJ.
“There were things he had to learn, and now he’s got enough experience to put it all together,” Sanchez said. “I think this is his time.
“I think that physically he’s ready, mentally he’s ready. I think he’s due for a breakout season.”
For the Cavaliers, their breakthrough under head coach Tony Bennett came in 2013-14, when they swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles and advanced to the NCAA tourney’s Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1995.
In 2014-15, the `Hoos went 30-4 and repeated as ACC regular-season champions.
“I think that as a team we’ve definitely done a good job, but individually I feel like I haven’t really met my expectations,” said Tobey, a history major. “I just feel like going into this last year, seeing what Darion was able to do last year, hopefully I can make an impression like that and go out there and meet my expectations personally.”
Tobey, who’s from Monroe, N.Y., has the tools to do so. He came to UVa in 2012 with superb footwork and a soft shooting touch, but Tobey weighed only 227 pounds then. He’s now around 260, and he’s much stronger, too.
“Physically, he’s definitely developed into the person that we as a staff thought he would,” Sanchez said. “I think when we first met him he was about 200 pounds, at 6-9, and now he’s 6-11, almost 7-feet, [more than] 255 pounds, with 10-percent body fat and all this muscle.
“As much as Mike’s development has been physical, it’s also been mental. Watching him work this summer, I think his mental approach was one of a mature collegiate athlete. His preparation, his dedication, his fighting through the monotony of, `I gotta do this again today.’ I thought he had a phenomenal summer as far as his work.”
Not long after the 2014-15 academic year ended, Tobey returned to Charlottesville to take summer-school classes and to train with Mike Curtis, UVa’s strength and conditioning coach for basketball.
“This is the hardest and most disciplined effort I’ve seen him put into a spring and summer,” Bennett said of Tobey. “This is his last year, and he’s working on owning that position.”
Tobey said he focused on “trying to get stronger every day and help translate that onto the basketball floor a little bit better than the past years. I think a lot of that is just playing a little bit lower and just having my balance better. Because I think sometimes I would just be playing too upright, and it’s easy to get knocked over or not be as strong when you don’t have a good base.”
In only about 17 minutes per game, Tobey averaged 6.9 points and 5.1 rebounds last season, both career highs, and was named the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year. He wasn’t satisfied, though, and so he headed into the offseason determined to improve in several areas.
“Rebounding, defense and just being more consistent offensively and with my all-around game,” Tobey said.
“This year I’ve really just focused on being more aggressive. I think my freshman year I kind of just shot the ball every time I touched it. I think these last two years I’ve been a little bit timid in some situations, where I would just be hesitant and not necessarily trusting in my own abilities.”
Tobey watched closely as Atkins, who was determined to assert himself in his final college season, blossomed into one of the ACC’s better big men in 2014-15.
“He just had a different confidence about him,” Tobey said, “so I’m kind of going into it with that mentality.”
Tobey marvels at how quickly his time at UVa has passed. In the summer before his first year, he traveled with the team to Europe, where the `Hoos played games in the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
“It doesn’t feel that long ago to me, either,” Tobey said.
In the summer before his second year at UVa, Tobey returned to Europe, this time as part of the USA Basketball team that won the gold medal at FIBA’s under-19 world championships in Prague, Czech Republic.
Tobey’s teammates included Aaron Gordon, Montrezl Harrell, Jahlil Okafor, Elfrid Payton, Marcus Smart, Jarnell Stokes and Justise Winslow, all of whom are now in the NBA. Tobey hopes to join them there next year.
“That’s definitely a goal,” he said. “It’s cool watching all those guys that I played with, and it’s also kind of a bit of motivation for me, just to have one year left, so kind of leave it all on the floor.”
For the `Hoos, a remarkable 2014-15 season ended on a somber note. After earning the No. 2 seed in the East Region, Virginia fell to seventh-seeded Michigan State in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32 in Charlotte, N.C.
The Cavaliers’ goal this season, Tobey said, is to make an extended postseason run, and they have experience on their side. The team’s veterans include fifth-year seniors Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon, seniors Evan Nolte and Tobey, junior London Perrantes, redshirt sophomores Devon Hall and Darius Thompson, and sophomores Isaiah Wilkins and Marial Shayok.
“When people say, `Good season,’ I say, `We had a good regular season,’ ” Tobey said, “but the way it ended really [left] a bad taste in all of our mouths, and I think it’s going to help motivate us for this year.”