Mike Tobey’s offseason has been consumed with talk of weight gain, but for once the conversation between Virginia’s lanky sophomore center and Coach Tony Bennett veered away from the scale earlier this week.
Walking down a hallway at Verizon Center, Bennett tried to persuade his pupil to join him at the International Spy Museum near their hotel in Chinatown. Tobey smiled at the proposition, realizing he had gained another nugget of insight he can take back to Charlottesville.
Turns out the master of the pack-line defense is also an espionage buff.
These sorts of moments have happened frequently in recent weeks. Both Tobey and Bennett are part of the U.S. under-19 team that will travel to Prague on Sunday for the 2013 world championships, and it has allowed them to strengthen a bond that developed over the course of Tobey’s first year on campus.
“I can get after him a little harder and say: ‘You know what you’re supposed to do. You’re a college player,’ ” Bennett said after practice at Verizon Center on Thursday. “But just hearing and seeing the excitement in his eyes and in his voice, and being with him when he made the team, those are memories he’ll have for life that I’m able to share with him. When you’re with someone like that, it definitely helps the relationship.”
Along with VCU Coach Shaka Smart, Bennett is an assistant coach for Florida’s Billy Donovan on this team, which also features former DeMatha All-Met Jerami Grant (Syracuse). The three coaches trade friendly barbs — VCU and Virginia will begin a home-and-home series with a game at John Paul Jones Arena this winter, and the Cavaliers lost to Florida in the 2011 NCAA tournament — but Bennett has relished working with coaches whose systems are on the other end of the playing spectrum from his methodical style.
Smart, of course, is the patriarch of VCU’s “Havoc” press defense, while Donovan’s Gators are the only team in the country to rank in the top six nationally in three-pointers each of the past two seasons. Bennett simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity, even though he will miss individual workouts with the Cavaliers on campus. Plus, the NCAA’s recruiting evaluation period begins the day after he returns from Prague next month.
But it’s the potential benefits Tobey could see that most excite Bennett. At 7 feet, Tobey is the tallest member of the U.S. team, making the final roster cut after 24 players were invited to tryouts earlier this month in Colorado Springs.
“I was even shocked to get the invite,” said Tobey, a top 100 recruit out of high school. “With the way my freshman year went, with it being so up and down, the invite was big for me.”
Blessed with preternatural touch, both around the rim and shooting from outside, Tobey averaged 6.8 points and 2.9 rebounds per game off the bench last season. But the Monroe, N.Y., native was overpowered at times, and after his best game — a 13-point, seven-rebound showing in a win over North Carolina State on Jan. 29 — he learned he had mononucleosis.
Though he missed just five games, it derailed any momentum. Tobey admitted this week to not feeling full strength again until after the season. But holding his own against fellow U-19 centers Jahlil Okafor, one of the top 2014 recruits in the country, and Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes — both of whom weigh more than 250 pounds — has helped his confidence.
“Billy Donovan made a joke: This tournament should be played in Switzerland because that’s how you’ve been,” Bennett said of the selection process. “I shared a couple things, but I really stayed out of it. . . . Deep down, I wanted [Tobey] because I knew how good it would be for him.”
The daily battles have been worth more than the on-campus weightlifting sessions Tobey will miss while playing in the world championships. After arriving on campus last fall at 227 pounds, he’s up to 245 now.
Bennett and Virginia strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis still want him to add 10 more pounds before next season.
“If he had it his way, I wouldn’t do anything but eat,” Tobey joked. “But that’s impossible.”