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CHICAGO — Seven-foot-tall true centers are like CD players: Everybody wanted one, until suddenly they didn’t. There was a time when sportswriters would have written waterfalls of superlatives about Virginia senior Mike Tobey. But that was before the era of small ball, before seven-footers Andrew Bogut of Golden State and Timofey Mozgov of Cleveland sat for most of last year’s NBA Finals while their coaches dared each other to go big, and before anybody ever uttered the words “pace and space.”
Teams used to match up against an opponent’s size; now they match up against speed. This is a problem for Tobey, a 7-footer who started the first game of his first year at Virginia but is coming off the bench at the end of his last one. He has a hard time chasing smaller players, or to be more blunt: He has a hard time catching them. But sometimes, there's a man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And Tobey was that dude in Chicago.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett smartly bet that Iowa State senior forward Jameel McKay was not athletic enough to punish Tobey. Tobey responded with 18 points (on 8-of-12 shooting from the field, in just 20 minutes) and four offensive rebounds (Iowa State had two the whole game).
Tobey was not No. 1 seed Virginia’s best player in its 84–71 win over the No. 4 Cyclones in the Midwest Regional semifinal. That was senior forward Anthony Gill, who scored 23 points and hauled in eight rebounds. But Tobey played a huge role. He played, you could say, with reckless abandon. That’s not my phrase. It’s his.
“Reckless abandon: I don’t know what that means to him or what, but let him say it and let him keep hooping,” said Cavs sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins, who gave up minutes to Tobey. “Him and coach Bennett talk about it. It’s Mike’s thing.”
Iowa State had a chance going into this game. It evaporated for three reasons: Virginia’s hot start, Cyclone senior star Georges Niang’s bogus fourth foul and Tobey. He was a reminder that a big guy with nice touch around the basket still has a place in today’s game. And he was a reminder that the Cavaliers are more versatile offensively than critics realize, and that their national-title hopes are as legitimate as any team’s.
It is easy, and lazy, to dismiss Virginia as a regular-season wonder, as though finishing first, first and second in the nation’s best basketball conference in the past three seasons is a sign of weakness. But college basketball history is full of programs that supposedly couldn’t hoist the trophy, then did it.
Bennett has taken a door-knocker on every road trip, a reminder to his Cavaliers that they just have to keep knocking. They are one win away from making a Final Four that would validate the program, but there would be no reason to stop there. As Wilkins said: “We’re fully capable of doing this thing. We’ve just gotta stick together and do it our way.”
In Bennett’s low-maintenance program, everybody expects Wilkins to be happy for Tobey, and he was: “Since Senior Night, he’s been killing it.” (Tobey, perhaps emboldened by his last run at Virginia, grabbed 20 rebounds against Louisville in his final home game on March 5 and has been hot ever since.)
Bennett’s last two teams were easier to de-fang in the postseason. This one is offensively diverse and efficient. All-America senior guard Malcolm Brogdon only made 4 of 13 shots against Iowa State, and it didn’t matter. As junior point guard London Perrantes said: "We're a different-style team. But our defense isn't going anywhere."
Said Brogdon: “I defer when other people are playing really well, because other guys defer when I'm playing well, and we just play well together.”
It seems simple, but try guarding it. Try showing up at the United Center with Final Four dreams, a team capable of fulfilling them and so much of the crowd dressed in your colors. That was the Iowa State Cyclones here Friday, and a slow 7-foot senior came off the bench and destroyed them. Virginia will keep on knocking. Good luck to everybody on the other side of the door.