RALEIGH, N.C. — Akil Mitchell’s job description with Virginia’s basketball comes with a fairly long check list.
Rebounding. Check. Playing physical defense. Check. Scoring. Check.
The list grew by nearly seven feet this year when Mitchell picked up one additional chore: to get Mike Tobey going.
After Saturday’s 31-point blowout win over N.C. State, the Wolfpack’s worst home loss since 1993 (33 points to rival North Carolina), Mitchell can add another check. On this particular afternoon, Tobey was a monster.
Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett made it clear before the game that he wanted his team to establish itself early and the 6-foot-11 Tobey took that message to heart. The big UVa sophomore, who averages 6.5 points per game, posted six in less than the first six minutes of the contest, scoring from underneath, then on a tip, and another over State’s 7-1 Jordan Vandenberg, sparking a 16-4 Virginia lead that grew to 48-24 by halftime.
By the half, Tobey had already posted 10 points and four rebounds in 14 minutes. He didn’t stop there, finishing with 16 points (season-high 18 vs. Davidson), on a 6-for-11 shooting performance, seven rebounds (five offensive), two blocks and an assist in 24 minutes.
Teamed with Mitchell, the twosome were a formidable force, combining for 24 points and 19 rebounds to help Virginia jump to its first 3-0 start in the ACC since Bennett’s first year in Charlottesville.
Watching Tobey flourish in the paint was something that Bennett has pined for, a big man that can deliver. With the other scoring options Virginia features, opponents would have to choose their poison if Tobey’s offense comes alive.
“It’s huge for us when Tobey and Akil play like they did today,” said UVa senior guard Joe Harris (16 points). “Mike has a tendency to kind of be soft with guys. If he has an aggressive mindset going into a game, he really can be unstoppable. He showed that today. He made those guys guarding him look silly.”
Tobey was getting whatever he wanted. He made State’s Vandenberg look like a stiff and maneuvered around the rotund BeeJay Anya (6-9, 325) with ease.
Bennett had to be pleased. He has been pushing Tobey ever since last season ended, from the U.S. Under-19 team that Bennett helped coach to a gold medal, to preseason practice, to the beginning of ACC play.
The Virginia coach has pushed all of his big man’s buttons, including pointing out to him that he was going to take away the gold medal whenever he saw Tobey slacking off in preseason practice.
Yet the consistency that Bennett has looked for hasn’t been there. Tobey has scored in double figures in only six of 16 games. His play has been spotty at times, opening the door for criticism.
“It was good to see Mike get some touches and get locked in,” Bennett said after watching the Cavaliers improve to 12-4 overall, 3-0 in the ACC. “He’s such an important part of [the puzzle]. Mike has a high ceiling and we just want to see him keep maturing and have the intensity to help our team.”
Which brings us to Mitchell’s checklist.
Apparently the senior from Charlotte had a little motivational session with the young New Yorker prior to Saturday’s game against the Wolfpack.
“I tried to get Tobey going,” said Mitchell. “Some games he kind of disappears and you want that energy and intensity out of him every game. But when he plays like he did today, he’s so tough to stop. When he plays like that, he’s an animal.”
Mitchell confirmed it’s part of his duty to get the young center going. He wouldn’t divulge his secret. He’d have to kill you.
“That’s between me and him,” Mitchell said with a canary-chomping, Cheshire cat grin. “I’ve got to find different ways to get him going.”
One thing is for sure, if Tobey continues to play this way against ACC competition, Virginia will find its diet of conference foes a lot more palatable.
Tobey admitted he has been somewhat frustrated over his shots not falling and that making a few early boosted his confidence. He didn’t make any changes, didn’t learn anything particular in the scouting report about State’s big men that helped him. He just did his thing.
“I just went out more confident and had more of a killer instinct,” said Tobey, a man of few words. “I got a little flow and it felt good. You just have to play through things sometimes.”
Mitchell, who had to play through his own struggles, appears back on track.
Now, it’s his task to keep Tobey in the animal-mode, the monster-like flow.
So far, mission accomplished.