The injury-ravaged Virginia men’s basketball team will look to its bevy of young contributors to help halt a two-game skid and earn the program’s first win against Florida State in nearly six years when the Cavaliers host the Seminoles Saturday.
Fresh off an exhilarating 61-52 home victory against North Carolina, Virginia (11-5, 1-2 ACC) managed just 96 total points and shot under 40 percent from the field during last week’s two road losses to middling Wake Forest and Clemson.
To junior forward Akil Mitchell, the disastrous road swing testified to the dangers of playing any game at less than full throttle, regardless of the quality of the competition. With four first-year players receiving substantial floor time as part of coach Tony Bennett’s rotation, Mitchell is hoping the message sinks in sooner rather than later.
“It should have been a lesson we learned [during losses] at George Mason or against Old Dominion, but for some reason, we didn’t,” Mitchell said. “Hopefully, this will be the time that we realize that we have to come out with the same intensity for every game.”
Still, the freshmen trio of forward Evan Nolte, guard Justin Anderson and forward-center Mike Tobey, along with redshirt freshman point guard Teven Jones, has proved invaluable for the Cavaliers this season. The four have combined to score nearly a third of Virginia’s points this season.
Anderson and Nolte offer versatility on the wing to complement Mitchell and junior guard Joe Harris, and Jones has helped dull the sting of senior point guard Jontel Evans’ nagging health issues with a broken right foot.
Tobey has impressed the most in recent weeks, leading the team in scoring twice in the past four games and helping compensate for sophomore forward Darion Atkins’ swoon as he copes with a shin injury. Combining a polished low-post game with an adequate jumper, Tobey has helped stretch opposing front courts defensively and granted Mitchell more room to operate.
“With teams keying in on me so much on the offensive glass and setting traps and stuff like that, we get some easy buckets,” Mitchell said. “When you have to account for both [Tobey and me], there’s no way you can do both at the same time.”
Even though Bennett noted that Tobey is still learning how to defend bigger, stronger forwards such as Clemson senior Devin Booker last Saturday, Tobey’s potential is hard to ignore.
“He had a little trouble [against Booker], but I think what’s promising for him is he’s shown the ability to adjust and improve, and he does have that offensive prowess,” Bennett said.
Tobey’s difficulties with Booker epitomized one of Virginia’s shakiest defensive afternoons all season. The Cavaliers allowed Clemson — which entered the game second to last in the ACC with 64.3 points per game — to shoot 17-of-33 from the field and 6-of-10 from beyond the arc.
“It was a very impressive second half,” Bennett said of the Tigers’ 35-point eruption in the period. “They certainly were effective, and we didn’t do a good enough job, obviously, to stop them.”
Virginia will need to tighten its usually staunch defense against the Seminoles (10-6, 2-1 ACC), who rank fifth in the ACC in field goal percentage. Less than a year after winning the ACC Tournament and earning a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Florida State has failed to meet lofty preseason expectations, dropping its opener to South Alabama and dropping three straight games in late November and early December. But the Seminoles didn’t catch fire last season until the 17th game on their schedule — a 90-57 drubbing of then No. 3 North Carolina — and still feature senior guard Michael Snaer, who leads the team with 15.1 points per game.
Florida State has handily defeated Virginia in past contests, winning 10 of the last 11 matches between the two schools. The last seven times the two teams faced off, the Seminoles came out on top. Last March, with the teams neck and neck in the ACC standings, Seminole then-sophomore guard Ian Miller sank a game-winning 3-pointer to help Florida State escape John Paul Jones Arena with a 63-60 victory.
Ultimately, Virginia will depend upon its young contributors to strengthen its NCAA tournament prospects by earning another ACC win against a talented adversary.
“They’ve been a huge help,” Mitchell said of the newcomers. “We need them to step up and make big plays for us, and they have. The young guys, they just need to continue to do what they’re doing now.”