No matter how well he has played, Virginia center Mike Tobey’s performances seem to come with caveats. Praise of Tobey’s skill are often cut with mentions of the center’s faltering confidence or of past issues with consistency or assertiveness. Anthony Gill offered an example after Tobey’s 15 points against Notre Dame on Jan. 2: “When his mind is right,” Gill said, “he can be a really effective player for the team and help us get to the next level.”
Such has been the story of Tobey’s career at Virginia. The 7-footer has always run up against high expectations because of his physicality, but his almost four years in Coach Tony Bennett’s system have been dotted with little issues that seem to keep him from reaching his full potential, even though he was named the ACC’s sixth man of the year for 2014-2015. In years past, he would get gassed and have to come out of games after logging long minutes, and Bennett has called him a “foul magnet.”
It has never been in Tobey’s nature to embrace the attitude that would match his size — Gill, who’s four inches shorter, slams his dunks, winding up beforehand and hanging on after. Tobey simply dunks, barely having to leave the ground to reach the rim, and moves on.
But Tobey’s finally comfortable — and more confident — playing within his style. He still draws more fouls than anyone else on the team relative to his minutes played, and his complaisant nature has landed him on the receiving end of a few withering glares from London Perrantes or Gill. But the center is having a career season.
As No. 7 Virginia (21-5, 10-4 ACC) prepares to battle Miami (21-5, 10-4) on Monday night in Coral Gables, Fla., for sole ownership of second place in the ACC, Tobey’s 7.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game are indispensable for Virginia.
“He’s showing some more consistency,” Bennett said after Virginia’s first game against Miami this season, a 66-58 win Jan. 12 in which Tobey scored 12 points in 18 minutes. “This is a big-boy league. I guess you want to say, this isn’t a tip-toe league. At this level, the play on the glass is important. The size is needed.”
Tobey flourished just as ACC play got underway, turning in a season-best 16 points in Virginia’s last nonconference game against Oakland on Dec. 30 and following that up with 15 points and six rebounds off the bench in just 15 minutes against Notre Dame in Virginia’s ACC opener.
He has been providing big boosts in small minutes ever since — in the Cavaliers’ win against N.C. State on Monday, he had five points in less than a minute as part of a seven-point performance. On Feb. 9 against Virginia Tech, he scored 10 points in 11 minutes. He played a crucial part in Virginia’s first game against Miami, in which he scored eight points in a 10-4 run and gave the Cavaliers a 27-21 lead.
“Spending four years in a system, you can’t help but get more comfortable,” Tobey said.
Tobey is the Cavaliers’ fourth-highest scorer behind Malcolm Brogdon, Gill and Perrantes, although six players on Virginia’s roster average more minutes per game.
That Tobey is playing his best now makes sense to assistant coach Ron Sanchez, who has known the wide-eyed center since Virginia first started recruiting him at Blair Academy in New Jersey. Tobey has grown three inches since then, but he still exudes the same youth.
“We got Mike committed really early,” Sanchez said. “. . . And he’s young. He just turned 21 in October, so most guys his age are [juniors].
“There was always a maturation that we knew was coming because of his youth, both physically and mentally,” Sanchez said. “And he has matched expectations, at the end of the day, if you look at what Mike has assisted us in doing collectively with his other teammates.”
Tobey, for his part, has always been aware of those expectations. He found success on the court this season when he let them go.
He knew his role at the beginning of the year was to be a stout defensive player — to be a consistent presence on the glass, provide size when the Cavaliers needed it — but he also made it a goal to be more assertive on offense in his final college season.
“Realizing that it’s my last year has really allowed me to free my mind and enjoy it, really go for it,” Tobey said. “In the past, I was so worried about all those little things, and now I understand that it’s been a really fun road, a fun trip we’ve had.
“I feel like it won’t hit me until after I graduate, but I’m just trying to soak everything in while I can.”