Freshman Evan Nolte’s three-pointer with less than nine minutes remaining Sunday night against North Carolina was impressive enough. Taken closer to Virginia’s bench than the three-point line, it helped break open what had been a close game and ignited John Paul Jones Arena, part of a sequence in which he hit two three-pointers in a row.
But the postgame comments were more telling.
It seems Nolte didn’t even realize just how far behind the three-point line he was. But after showing a propensity for clutch shots throughout the season, Nolte simply knew he wanted to shoot it and, in the process, cemented his status as Virginia’s most high-impact freshman.
“I could tell it was far away and then the crowd, right after the shot, was like, ‘Ohh,’ ” Nolte said. “I just try to shoot it every time with confidence, especially down the stretch.”
If there was any doubt that Nolte has become the first reliable freshman to emerge for Coach Tony Bennett this year, it was erased Sunday night when he showed the moxie of a veteran against the Tar Heels. Bennett has long praised Nolte’s grasp for the nuances of the game, calling him “a neck up player,” and at 6 feet 8, he has shown the versatility to play multiple positions on the floor.
But with Nolte averaging 6.8 points and 2.2 rebounds while shooting better than 47 percent from three-point range, Bennett showed just how much he trusts the Milton, Ga., native when asked about that long three-pointer following Sunday’s resounding win.
“If the guy gets his feet set, there’s probably three guys on our team where I’ll say that’s a good shot to take. He’s one of them,” Bennett said of Nolte, who finished with nine points against the Tar Heels . “Again, that was deep but it was open.”
Nolte — who leads all Virginia freshmen in scoring and steals heading into Wednesday night’s tilt at Wake Forest, a place the Cavaliers haven’t won since 2000 — has made a habit of rising to the occasion this year. He hit clutch shots in the second half at George Mason to start the year and when the Cavaliers beat Wisconsin on the road last month. He also had a season-high 15 points against Old Dominion, one of the few Cavaliers to stand out in that surprising upset loss.
Bennett credits his five freshmen with providing the sort of depth needed in order navigate a tricky start to the season that saw senior point guard Jontel Evans miss nine games and sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon take a redshirt because of foot injuries. All five of Virginia’s freshmen have started at least once this year.
“They’ve gotten tremendous experience, and they’ve been thrown into the fire because they’ve had to, and that’s helped,” Bennett said. “There’s five freshmen right there that have played at different times and given us valuable minutes and will continue to. … My hope is that those young guys are getting better as they get experience.”
What about the other four freshmen? Glad you asked. Here’s a brief glance at their progress:
F-C Mike Tobey — 5.9 points, 2 rebounds per game
The youngest member of Virginia’s freshman class, having just turned 18 in October, Tobey has looked the part at times even though he was in the starting lineup for the Cavaliers’ season opener at George Mason. The 6-11, 227-pounder has struggled to finish at the rim going up against more mature defenders and remains a work in progress on defense until he becomes stronger. But Tobey has shown signs of improvement in recent weeks and his ability to hit outside jumpers is intriguing. Sporting a protective face mask after breaking his nose, Tobey scored a career-high 19 points against Wofford last month.
G Teven Jones — 4.3 points, 2.3 assists per game
After missing the first three games of the year because of a suspension and an injury, Jones has become a vital cog for the Cavaliers. With Evans out, Jones started nine games and Virginia lost just once during that time. He provided a measure of stability after Bennett opened the season without a true point guard. In recent games, Jones has also shown off an improved outside jumper. He still needs to work on his on ball defense and is prone to careless turnovers.
G-F Justin Anderson — 5.4 points, 3 rebounds, 2.1 assists per game
The former All-Met from Montrose Christian has proven to be an asset defensively because of his college-ready physique and ability to guard multiple positions. But while he has finished in double figures three times this year, the same questions that dogged him out of high school have emerged again at the college level. Though Anderson is the most athletic player on the roster this year, his jump shot remains a weakness. The Montross, Va., native is shooting 37.7 percent from the field and has connected on just 4 of his 23 three-pointers.
G Taylor Barnette — 2.4 points, 1.4 assists per game
With Bennett in desperate straits at point guard to begin the season, Barnette received significant playing time even though he’s more of a shooting guard. But since Jones and Evans have come back, Barnette has seen his role decrease or, in some games, eliminated altogether. Known as a sharpshooter with a funky two-handed motion, Barnette has struggled to connect from outside, although it would appear his inconsistent playing is partly to blame. He must also improve defensively if he hopes to gain Bennett’s trust.