CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia’s Evan Nolte sat on one side of the room surrounded by a small gathering of reporters, saying all the right things about a homecoming that will be entirely different than a year ago. On the other end was guard Malcolm Brogdon, swarmed by cameras and microphones trying to gauge his emotions ahead of a homecoming that never happened last season.
Brogdon and Nolte, both from suburbs north of Atlanta, will play in front of friends and family Saturday afternoon when No. 20 Virginia visits Georgia Tech hoping to continue its best start in conference play since 1981-82. But the two sophomores have had to embrace entirely different roles now that the Cavaliers have established themselves as one of the ACC’s best teams.
Brogdon will be just 150 miles from the gym that set him on his current course, when Coach Tony Bennett first noticed the Norcross, Ga., native at the 2010 Peach Jam, the AAU basketball tournament in North Augusta, S.C., that college coaches flock to every July. To that point, Brogdon held scholarship offers mostly from mid-major programs such as Virginia Commonwealth and Wichita State.
“People always knocked me because they said I wasn’t athletic enough to play at this level,” Brogdon said Wednesday night after scoring 17 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing out seven assists as Virginia beat Boston College for its sixth win in a row.
That changed at Peach Jam after Cavaliers associate head coach Ritchie McKay first saw Brogdon while scouting another player on his AAU team. The next game of the tournament, McKay brought Bennett over. They offered Brogdon a scholarship that night, and by the end of the weekend, Brogdon was a hot commodity on the recruiting trail.
His final decision came down to Virginia, Harvard and Vanderbilt, a reflection of the household he grew up in. Brogdon’s mother is a psychology professor and associate dean at Morehouse College and his father is an attorney in Atlanta. One older brother just graduated from the University of Georgia’s law school and another is at Howard Law School.
“I think I want to do something different,” Brogdon said with a smirk.
Over the last five weeks, he has been a multidimensional menace for opposing ACC teams and recently supplanted senior Joe Harris as Virginia’s leading scorer this season at 12 points per game. During ACC play, he ranks among the top eight in the league in scoring, field goal percentage, free throw shooting and steals.
His signature moment came on Super Bowl Sunday, when he hit the first game-winning shot of his life to beat Pittsburgh. It was the final confirmation that Brogdon had fully recovered from the surgery that cost him all of last season and left three pins in his foot.
His family’s reaction, though, was to remind him of where he started.
“Don’t get a big head,” Brogdon said of the message.
That hasn’t been a problem for Nolte, who has seen his playing time and production cut in half since the Cavaliers last played at Georgia Tech on Feb. 3, 2013. A year ago, he averaged nearly 20 minutes per game and started eight times. Until hitting the freshman wall late in the season, he was one of Virginia’s most reliable three-point shooters.
It’s a testament to the sort of depth the Cavaliers possess this year considering the 6-foot-8 Nolte was one of the top 60 players in the country coming out of Milton, Ga., according to Rivals.
Against Boston College, though, he played a season-high 19 minutes and scored nine points, his best showing in more than two months. Before Wednesday, Nolte had just three two-point field goals the entire year.
“I don’t know if I’ve checked my ego. I had the same kind of mind-set last year,” Nolte said. “Just kind of being ready whenever, and if it’s starting, it’s starting. If it’s coming off the bench for three minutes, it’s coming off the bench for three minutes.”
But sitting on the bench for so long and playing more at guard has been an adjustment, Nolte admitted. Bennett knows what it’s like, having gone from the NCAA’s all-time leader in three-point field goal percentage during his college years at Wisconsin-Green Bay to a bit player in the NBA.
He just doesn’t want Nolte to think, “ ‘I gotta make shots to stay in,’ and define his role that way.” So far, it hasn’t been an issue.
“I guess I can sit here because we’re winning and say it’s easy to just be ready whenever,” Nolte said. “As long as we’re just plugging along, I’ll be ready to play. If we lose a couple games, I’ll still have the same mind-set.”