Seniors See Persistence Rewarded
March 19, 2016
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RALEIGH, N.C. — They entered the season billed as the University of Virginia’s best players, and fifth-year seniors Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill have been every bit as good as expected, if not better, for a team that last weekend was awarded one of the NCAA tournament’s four No. 1 seeds.
There have been times in 2015-16, however, when it seemed reasonable to wonder if two of Virginia’s other seniors, 7-0 center Mike Tobey and 6-8 senior Evan Nolte, would play significant roles in the postseason.
Both were ineffective for long stretches late in the regular season, and their playing time dipped. But each bounced back on Senior Night at John Paul Jones Arena on March 5 — Tobey grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds and Nolte hit two early 3-pointers against Louisville — and they’ve continued to play well in the most critical part of the season.
For head coach Tony Bennett, seeing Tobey and Nolte return to form has been gratifying, and their contributions have been crucial for top-seeded Virginia (27-7), which meets No. 9 seed Butler (22-10) at 7 p.m. Saturday in a Midwest Region second-round game at PNC Arena.
“They’ve given so much to the program,” Bennett said Friday afternoon. “We talk about Malcolm and Anthony a lot, but Evan and Mike have both had significant impacts, and they are [a] reason why our program is where it is.
“I can’t tell you how happy I was — we all talked about it — to see Mike have that kind of game in his last game at John Paul Jones Arena. He just stayed faithful. Evan sometimes wasn’t playing, but we’re about the team and being a servant.”
The pillars on which Bennett’s program are based include unity and servanthood, and he hopes players will ask themselves what they can do to help the team. Nolte and Tobey continued to do so, even when they were struggling on the court.
“Of course it’s frustrating when you’re not individually getting as a last-year player, your senior year, the things you want, but they stayed true,” Bennett said. “Their time has come around and you can see it in their eyes.”
Virginia opened the NCAA tourney Thursday afternoon with an 81-45 rout of No. 16 seed Hampton. Tobey totaled eight points, six rebounds and three assists in 15 minutes off the bench, and Nolte had six points, three boards, one block and one steal in 16 minutes.
“They stayed patient,” Bennett said, “and they’re enjoying it and I think they’re going to get a lot out of it.”
Tobey said: “This is my last go-around. I don’t want to leave anything out there.”
Neither does Nolte, who is 7 for 11 from 3-point range in his past five games. This is not the first time Nolte has heated up during his UVA career — he hit five treys in a win at Virginia Tech as a freshman — but “it’s nice to see that and know he’s a threat,” Bennett said. “I think the other team has to account for that.”
That opponent Saturday will be one for which Bennett has great respect. Butler knocked off No. 8 seed Texas Tech 71-61 on Thursday and has won eight of its past 11 games. Most impressive to Bennett, though, is that the Bulldogs have built their program with high-character players who put the team’s needs first.
When Barry Collier, now Butler’s athletic director, was the school’s head men’s basketball coach, he traveled to Wisconsin to meet with Bennett’s father, Dick. The elder Bennett had a renowned coaching career at such schools as Green Bay and Wisconsin, and he and Collier “just exchanged basketball ideas,” Tony Bennett recalled Friday.
They also talked about the pillars of Dick Bennett’s coaching philosophy — humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness — and Collier began incorporating those principles into his program at Butler.
Now a member of the Big East, Butler has become of one of the nation’s most consistent winners. This marks the 11th trip to the NCAAs in 17 seasons for the Bulldogs. Under Brad Stevens, now head coach of the NBA’s Boston Celtics, Butler advanced to the NCAA title game in 2010 and again in ’11.
Stevens’ successors at Butler include Chris Holtmann, who’s in his second season as head coach at the Indianapolis school. Holtmann said Friday that he’s well-versed in Dick Bennett’s influence on the Bulldogs’ program.
Holtmann also said there “are certainly some ties with some of our core values” and those of the Bennetts. As a coach, Holtmann said, “you really have a great appreciation for the way they do things, their brand, their style of play, and their recipe for success.”
The Bulldogs prefer a faster pace than the Cavaliers, but “there are definitely a lot of similarities [between the teams],” Tobey said.
Nolte agreed. “I see an extremely disciplined team. A lot like us in ways. They don’t want to beat themselves.”
Butler has four players averaging at least 10 points per game: 6-6 guard Kellen Dunham (16.5), 6-6 forward Kelan Martin (16.0), 6-4 swingman Roosevelt Jones (13.7) and 6-7 forward Andrew Chrabascz (10.2). Dunham is shooting 43.4 percent (85 of 196) from 3-point range.
For all the similarities between the teams, Bennett said, there are differences too.
“Their guards are bigger than ours,” he said. “They have huge guards.”
The Cavaliers’ trademark is their stifling Pack-Line defense, and the Bulldogs have a good idea what’s coming Saturday night.
“It’s going to be a grind,” Chrabascz said. “It’s going to be one possession at a time.”
Butler plays its home games at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, and that was the site of one of Bennett’s most memorable moments as a player. On Jan. 18, 1992, as a senior on the Green Bay team coached by his father, and in his first appearance on ESPN, Bennett sank a deep 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Butler 69-66.
“It was a good memory, for sure,” Bennett recalled Friday.
He hopes to make more good memories Saturday night. This will be the first meeting between UVA and Butler in men’s basketball. A victory would send the Wahoos to the Sweet Sixteen for the second time in three seasons.
Last year, as the No. 2 seed in the East Region, UVA lost to Michigan State in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32. The `Hoos haven’t forgotten their disappointment over that defeat.
“I think every team that loses earlier than they want to has a lot more motivation the next year,” Nolte said, “especially with how many seniors we have on the team now. So there’s definitely that motivation to go farther than last year and even the year before.”
The first two days of this NCAA tournament have produced some stirring upsets, most notably No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State’s win Friday over No. 2 seed Michigan State in the Midwest Region. The Cavaliers know they can take nothing for granted.
“There’s nothing guaranteed,” Bennett said earlier in the day. “Especially in college basketball. This year you’re going to have to show up and play well. I think our guys have a belief if we play well, we’ll have a chance to advance. They truly understand if we don’t, we won’t.”
Virginia’s seniors — Brogdon, Gill, Nolte, Tobey and Caid Kirven — have helped Bennett build a formidable program, and a deep run in the NCAA tournament would be a fitting way for them to end their college careers.
“I think that there’s a hunger for that,” Bennett said, “and I believe they’re focused for it and I know that would be a great way for them to go out.”