Virginia’s basketball season didn’t end well last March when a physical Iowa team delivered the coup de’ grace to the Cavaliers on their own home floor in the quarterfinals of the NIT.
If there was a lasting impression from that season-ending defeat, UVa coach Tony Bennett knew his team was going to have to become more physical if it were to live up to this year’s expectations. With three new teams joining the ACC from the nation’s most physical conference, the Big East, it was imperative for the Cavaliers to improve in that area.
Enter Mike Tobey, the team’s 6-foot-11 sophomore center. As impressive as his rookie season was (6.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, .530 percent from the field, 18 blocks), Tobey was often pushed around by more imposing ACC big men and that had to change. The native New Yorker survived the team trials and made the USA Basketball U19 squad that won the gold medal in the FIBA World Championships in Prague.
What Tobey brought back from that experience is exactly what Bennett had hoped for, a more aggressive, physical mindset that has spread to the Virginia team.
The big man was amazed at how intense practices were and how tenacious teammates became for every rebound, every loose ball. There was a hunger exhibited by the nation’s top high school recruit, Jakil Okafor (6-10, 253/ Duke or Kansas), Jarnell Stokes (6-8, 250/ Tennessee) and others, that it impacted Tobey’s attitude toward the game.
“The hunger by those guys was unreal. They’re the best young players in the country, some lottery picks. They had non-stop relentlessness. Each possession meant everything to those guys,” Tobey said. “Every loose ball, every rebound was precious. It’s like you’re trying to steal money from them. They’re not having it unless you want to fight for it. If I can incorporate that into my game it should help me a lot.”
As soon as Tobey returned to Charlottesville with Bennett, who served as an assistant on that USA team, the UVa center was eager to share his experience with teammates like Justin Anderson, who will never forget the moment.
“We had a team meeting and Coach Bennett talked to our whole team about the games, practices, everything pertaining to the Team USA,” Anderson said. “Then Mike, who is normally a quiet guy who rarely voices his opinion, stood up and spoke to our team.
“Mike said, ‘Guys, we have a chance this year and being on this [USA] team, it gave me a lot of hope,’” Anderson said. “He talked a lot about the physical aspect and told us that we were just as physical as the USA team was, and about how he has adapted that mindset of ‘You’re not going to take my ball, it’s like my money.’ Him bringing that attitude to the team is great for us.”
While getting stronger and adding muscle weight was imperative, Tobey put even more emphasis on it once he returned from the summer games and practically lived in the weight room under the direction of strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis. Tobey also began to put on pounds, but in the proper way.
Since then, the UVa big man has eaten five or six meals per day.
“If it’s in front of me, I eat it,” Tobey said. “I eat as many calories as I can. I try to eat healthier, but at this point … If I see a steak, I go after it.”
After weighing in at 227 right after high school at Blair Academy in New Jersey, Tobey played at around 240 as a freshman at Virginia. Now he’s in the 250 to 255 range and feeling stronger and more confident.
“Mike had to fight for court time in the USA Basketball team trials and in the games because those guys were fighting for the opportunity to practice,” Bennett said of the summer experience. “I think it was invaluable what Mike learned, how competitive it was and how hard fought it was. I think that’s a key for him because he has the skills, he has the size, he’s getting more athletic. It’s just how hungry, how physical, how hard you really have to go and I think Mike continues to stretch himself and get out of his comfort zone, that will be the difference for his long-term future.”
Toby had no choice but to get tougher in those trials because the workouts were so intense that if a guy wasn’t ready to fight for everything, it stuck out like a sore thumb. That has spread throughout the UVa ranks in preseason practice because with all the playable depth Bennett has, there is an uncertainty about what court time is available, who will start, who will be in the rotation. In turn, that has bred physicality in practice.
Bennett has preached to his players about how much more physical Iowa was in that game that prevented the Cavaliers from going to Madison Square Garden for the NIT’s final four. He told his team that if it could match that physical attitude, then the sky is the limit.
“Tobey is so much stronger and his confidence is higher,” noticed Anderson. “He’s always been a dangerous scorer and a great finisher, but his defense has improved. I think he has a chance to be one of the best bigs in our league.”
Virginia was destined to be a more physical team this year with senior Akil Mitchell leading the way along with South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill, Darion Atkins, Malcolm Brogdon, Evan Nolte, Anderson and of course, Tobey, whose message about loose balls being equivalent to loose money was taken to heart.
“If Tobey steals any of my rebounds, we’re going to get after him,” Mitchell grinned. “I told him if I’ve got a rebound and you come and grab it, I’m kicking your butt in the locker room.”
Of course, Bennett has also gained an extra motivational tool, so any time he sees Tobey messing up or not giving it 100 percent in practice, the coach will mention something about taking the gold medal off his neck.
“Coach will try to get under your skin a little bit to get you motivated,” Tobey said. “It’s good. I know he means well but I also know he means to pick it up.”