CHARLOTTESVILLE — A question about his free throw shooting finally arrived Saturday afternoon, and Virginia forward Akil Mitchell simply shook his head in response. “I’m not gonna answer,” he said, shifting in his seat to move on to the next topic.
A few feet away sat center Mike Tobey, who acknowledged being “a little frustrated” by his inability to finish consistently at the rim. But in the next breath, he announced there was “nothing more I can do.”
The two issues were relatively minor given the circumstances — another double-digit victory over Florida State — but given the way Virginia has solved its problems recently, they now stick out on a team that looks poised to make a run at its second NCAA tournament berth in three years.
Over the past two weeks, the Cavaliers have gotten off to their best start in ACC play (4-1) since 1994-95, a campaign in which the program shared the league’s regular season title and reached the Elite Eight. In the process, Coach Tony Bennett has settled on a starting lineup, shortened his rotation and tweaked his offensive sets, all while maintaining the defensive principles that are his hallmarks.
Mitchell and Tobey, Virginia’s starting front court, are prominent pieces in the resurgence. But each has been saddled by a weakness that has diminished his effectiveness, and those troubles could crop up again when the Cavaliers take on an inconsistent but dangerous North Carolina squad Monday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
For Mitchell, the problems came to a head in last Monday’s loss at No. 23 Duke. A 69.3 percent free throw shooter a year ago when he earned third team all-ACC honors, the senior has made eight of his past 30 foul shots. His free throw rate is 43.3 percent for the season.
Against the Blue Devils, he went 1 for 5 from the free throw line, and Bennett had to strategically substitute Mitchell out of the game down the stretch to avoid him getting fouled anymore. After the defeat, a dejected Mitchell conceded the problem was “absolutely” mental.
“I don’t say anything to him. He can knock down free throws,” senior Joe Harris said of Mitchell. “It’s more of a psychological thing for him. He knocks down free throws in practice. I tell him every time he misses one, ‘Don’t think about it.’ ”
On Saturday, Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton began purposely fouling Mitchell when the Seminoles cut Virginia’s lead to 12 points with less than four minutes remaining. Bennett again had to remove Mitchell from the game, this time in favor of Tobey.
Bennett said earlier this week he no longer wants to talk about Mitchell’s free throw issues publicly, in part because Mitchell happens to be the team’s best defender, capable of shutting down Duke’s Jabari Parker one game and frustrating Florida State star Okaro White the next.
“It’s kind of to the point now, everybody knows he’s struggling at the line,” Bennett said. “He’s giving us a lot in other areas.”
Tobey’s problems are more developmental. The 7-footer has added 25 pounds to his frame since arriving in Charlottesville before last season, but “the strength factor” continues to be an ongoing concern, according to Bennett.
The sophomore has seen an uptick in his production since being reinserted to the starting lineup ahead of ACC play and ranks among the top 10 in the league in offensive rebounding. But he has connected on better than 50 percent of his shot attempts just twice in the past 14 games.
“I usually was just a lot taller. There were stronger players, but in high school you play against football players that are big men,” Tobey said. “I don’t think I’m doing a bad job out there with the strength thing. I think I match up pretty well, especially better than last year.”
The statistics suggest otherwise, though. According to the Web site hoop-math.com, Tobey is hitting just 50.9 percent of his shots at the rim this year, down from 65.2 percent as a freshman. He is just 6 for 20 from the field in his past two games, although some of that was due to what Tobey called the “ridiculous” length of Florida State’s interior players.
“That’s a work in progress,” Bennett conceded.
He can only hope a breakthrough comes in time for another key conference battle Monday night.