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STEVE DESHAZO: With Tobey in the paint, things begin to look up for Cavaliers

CHARLOTTESVILLE—Ralph Sampson set the bar pretty high, literally and figuratively, for centers at the University of Virginia.

Since the 7-foot-4 three-time national player of the year graduated 30 years ago, there have been few quality big men on campus (or, to be correct, on Grounds).

Olden Polynice, Sampson’s immediate successor, did help the Cavaliers reach the Final Four in 1984 and went on to play 15 NBA seasons. A decade later, Ted Jeffries was a serviceable four-year starter.

Aside from that, though, Virginia has made do with undersized power forwards like Junior Burrough, Norman Nolan and Travis Watson in the pivot. The Cavaliers have literally looked up at their Atlantic Coast Conference rivals on the court—and, not coincidentally, in the standings.

Long-suffering fans’ wait may be over, though. If 6-foot-11 freshman Mike Tobey continues to develop over the next three years, the Cavaliers may have an asset they almost forgot existed.

Tobey is still a work in progress, but his performance in Tuesday night’s 58–55 win over 19th-ranked N.C. State (13 points, seven rebounds, two blocked shots in 20 minutes off the bench) augurs well for the future. True centers are an endangered species, but the Cavaliers finally have one.

“He’s somebody that can make shooting tough for the other team,” said 6–8 junior Akil Mitchell, Virginia’s tallest starter. “And he’s so versatile offensively. He helps so much offensively.”

Tobey showed off his versatility Tuesday by making jump-hook shots with both his right and left hands. That’s no small feat for the Atlantic Coast Conference’s lowest-scoring team at 62.8 points per game.

And to do it against the ACC’s best frontcourt is even more special. The Wolfpack’s C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell dominated Virginia in the paint in their last meeting, in last March’s ACC tournament in Atlanta. On Tuesday, Tobey helped the Cavaliers compete evenly up front.

“He’s got terrific touch,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I think his length bothered Howell some.”

Tobey’s signature play of the night came midway through the first half. The Monroe, N.Y., native wrestled an offensive rebound away from Wolfpack freshman T.J. Warren and scored on a layup. It was a significant play for a lanky guy known as a finesse player.

“Coach has been telling us all week that these guys aren’t that much better than us,” Tobey said. “They’re pretty tall, but being a 7-footer, I definitely have an advantage.”

In height, yes. In strength, not so much. Still, Tobey (listed at 227 pounds) has skills that can’t be taught. That puts him well ahead of many teenagers his size.

“He’s playing a lot more rugged [recently],” Bennett said. “The weight and the strength will come.”

Tobey’s emergence has come at an opportune time for Virginia. Starting forward Darion Atkins missed the previous three games with a stress reaction in his right shin and played just six minutes Tuesday as Bennett erred on the side of caution.

Evan Nolte now starts in Atkins’ place, but Tobey’s minutes—and contributions—have increased in the past two weeks. Nolte and Westmoreland County native Justin Anderson have been Virginia’s headline freshmen so far, but on a night when they combined for just three points, Tobey got his turn in the spotlight.

“They’re the future,” point guard Jontel Evans, Virginia’s only senior, said of the freshmen. “The fans have got something to see the next couple years.”

And fewer people are questioning Tobey’ toughness now. He suffered a broken nose during a December game, but donned a clear face mask (since discarded) and hasn’t missed a contest.

And now, he’s had the word “rugged” attached to him—a badge of honor.

“We’ve been screaming at him all year: ‘You’ve got to get physical and rugged. Be a man!’” Michell said with a smile. “We saw that tonight. Last year’s game with N.C. State, the switch came on for me. Hopefully, the same thing will happen for him.”

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

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