CHICAGO – When Mike Tobey first arrived at the University of Virginia, admission was free. Not at the University, of course. But at the Louvre in Paris.
During a European Tour of games for the men’s basketball program in August 2012, one of the sight-seeing stops landed at the glass pyramid building in the middle of the French capital. Admission to the museum is free for visitors under 18 years of age and Tobey was still 17 at the time.
”We went on that European trip and he got into the Louvre and he was able to go free because he was under 18,” Cavalier assistant coach Jason Williford said. ”Coach Bennett’s daughter Anna and son Eli and Mike Tobey were all able to walk in free and we all had to pay.”
Tobey indeed arrived at Virginia as a baby-faced 17 year old. His near 7-foot frame wasn’t exactly gangly or Bambi on ice – he had better coordination and footwork than that sort of description – but he wasn’t burly and overbearing either at a mostly skinny 227 pounds.
The skills were tantalizing from the beginning. Tobey could and can turn over either shoulder to either the paint or the baseline for a baby hook. His jumper reaches 17 to 20 feet, though he’s not asked to take it often. He has a soft touch near the rim, evident all the way back then on shots like an overtime-forcing scoop against Maryland as a freshman.
Some flaws were evident too. Tobey didn’t dunk much despite his size and missed some inside ‘gimmes’ as a result. Nevermind that everybody misses those chip shots sometimes. He also bobbles passes and, because he needs to gather his body to elevate, he sometimes brings the ball too low to get up. Both occur too frequently for fan tastes and their frustrations have been voiced as a result.
The thing is, however, that Tobey’s frustrations used to bubble up too.
”I think it’s definitely changed a lot for me being able to grow up maturity wise,” Tobey said. ”I used to get real frustrated with myself all the time. I remember my first year, I broke my nose and I used to throw the mask constantly when I messed up. I think growing up was a huge part of that.”
Tobey’s on-court development has followed a winding path. He started 28 games on the 2014-15 double ACC Championship team that broke UVA’s Sweet 16 drought, averaging 6.4 points and 3.8 rebounds as a sophomore. He followed that up with an ACC Sixth Man of the Year season on the repeat ACC Regular Season Championship squad last year with 6.9 points and 5.1 rebounds as averages. As a senior, he’s averaged 6.9 points and 4.3 rebounds. His minutes in all three seasons fell between 15 and 18 minutes, the last two falling slightly from the high water mark his sophomore season.
Each year, Tobey has shown steady progress as well. He’s grown to 7’0” and 260 pounds. He dunks a lot more often over the past season and half. His rebounding rate has climbed each year in the program. His efficiency ratings have too. And, of course, he’s had some monster nights like the recent 15-point, 20-rebound feast against Louisville on Senior Night. That burst has continued in the ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament where even in games with limited minutes like Butler, he’s still a big contributor. He threw up 10 points in 9 minutes without missing a shot against the Bulldogs.
”He’s caught some fire sometimes, but he’s always worked and he’s continued to work,” Williford said. ”I think he’s turning it up right now at a time when we need him to turn it up. He’s playing aggressive, he’s going to the glass, he’s finishing inside, and playing with a lot of confidence. His progression has been good and I honestly think some of his basketball is still ahead of him.”
The team’s growth has been on a steady incline at the same time. The Hoos have climbed from an NIT qualifier during Tobey’s freshman season to a top two seed in the NCAA Tournament over the past three seasons, including two No. 1 seeds. The senior class has 111 total wins, one away from matching the 1983 class.
Growing success for the program with a shifting, and at times a somewhat diminished role, for the individual? That’s not always easy to balance.
”I think that it’s hard, but I think as you mature and get into the program and realize it’s such a team atmosphere, it’s not hard to do it for these guys,” Tobey said. ”I love the guys in this locker room to be honest with you. You do it for them. You make sacrifices for them. It’s really such a family here, such a brotherhood, you’d do anything for anybody else for the team’s success. I think that’s a big thing for our team.”
”He’s definitely a senior leader for us. … Mike will do whatever it takes to win,” sophomore Isaiah Wilkins said. “When it’s time to step up, he’ll be there for us. He’s a different type of leader for us. … He’s very vocal in huddles and things like that.”
As a result of that unselfishness – or servanthood, if you will – this team has joined the Ralph Sampson years as the program’s golden times. The last three years have featured 88 wins, which matched the Sampson-led era from 1981-83. Tobey’s father loved Sampson in those days and told his son all about it when he first considered UVA as his destination.
Now Tobey and company have joined that rarefied air among Virginia fans, who appreciate that Tony Bennett has led a resurgence in fortunes. And he’s done it with a committed, unselfish, and high character guys. They’ve stayed for three, four, and five years in an era of one-and-done talent across college basketball.
They’ve also embraced the Bennett family’s 5 pillars of humility, passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness. In fact, that part goes well beyond the basketball court when you speak to players like Tobey. Not only do you mature from a baby-faced 17 year old on the court, but you develop a sense of community and your place in it too.
”The more you’re here, the more you really do buy into the pillars and realize how important they are,” Tobey said. ”Even in everyday life, not even just basketball. You grow up as a person as well as a basketball player. I think once you really accept this program and accept the pillars for what they are, you really see yourself grow in a lot of ways.”
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