Moving forward

Cavaliers succeed thanks to depth at forward position

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It was Feb. 2013. Senior forward Darion Atkins was sidelined with a shin injury. Junior center Mike Tobey came down with mononucleosis. Junior guard Justin Anderson, the team's 6-foot-6 shooting guard, was forced to play power forward down the stretch in ACC play.

Of the four scholarship players left on the Cavalier bench, only one — then-freshman swingman Evan Nolte — was taller than 6-foot-3.

Virginia's post depth was not weak. It was essentially non-existent.

Two years later, as Virginia has transformed from an ACC also-ran into the second-ranked team in the nation, the team has benefited from a much-improved stable of capable big men. The additions of now-junior transfer Anthony Gill and freshman Isaiah Wilkins along with the development of Atkins and Tobey have given the Cavaliers their most talented post rotation in years.

With Virginia (17-0, 5-0 ACC) off to its best start in 34 years and Gill and Atkins thriving in the starting lineup, both Tobey and Wilkins have fully embraced their reserve roles.

Tobey has been the odd man out of the starting lineup in recent weeks. After starting 30 games in his first two seasons, the 7-footer has made just seven starts this season. But his presence on the second unit has presented opposing squads with a matchup nightmare. Few teams possess a post player on their bench capable of matching Tobey's physicality and finesse on the low block.

Anderson, the reigning ACC Sixth Player of the Year, has challenged Tobey to bring the award back to Charlottesville this season.

“I think [Tobey's] definitely one of the toughest guys to guard as a sixth man, so I think he definitely has potential to do what I did — probably more than I did last year,” Anderson said.

Following Virginia's 62-56 win against then-No. 13 Notre Dame, Anderson said he tried to encourage Tobey to embrace a bench role. According to Anderson, Tobey cut him off, replying, “'You don't understand. I'm just so happy we're playing so well as a unit and whatever [coach Tony Bennett] wants me to do, I'm willing to do for our team.'”

Gill, Atkins and Tobey are each playing at least 18 minutes per game, averaging six or more rebounds and shooting better than 55 percent from the floor. That trio has helped anchor a defense that ranks 12th in the nation in rebounding and first in points allowed, and has provided interior scoring for one of the most efficient offenses in college basketball.

“Really Mike, Anthony and Darion … any of those three can really start,” Bennett said. “I look at Mike as kind of a sixth starter.”

Tobey is not the only backup big man providing key minutes off the bench. Wilkins, a 6-foot-7 forward from right outside of Atlanta — his hometown of Norcross, Georgia is just 20 miles from the campus of Georgia Tech, the Cavaliers' Thursday opponent — has blossomed during his first season in Charlottesville.

Though his playing time has been inconsistent, Wilkins has impressed coaches with his energy and defensive intensity. With Virginia trailing by five in the second half against unranked Boston College Saturday, Bennett turned to Wilkins and the freshman did not disappoint. He scored four points, including the go-ahead lay-up, during a 10-0 run that put the Cavaliers in front for good.

“He's so active — you can see that — and of course there's some freshman mistakes that are apparent, but there's no substitute for the experience that he gets,” Bennett said of Wilkins. “When you're out there more in a game setting I think you really grow from that. I think he's gotten a little more comfortable, a little more full offensively.”

Wilkins did not appear during the team's first two games of ACC play, but has now played double-digit minutes in three consecutive contests. Sporadic playing time has not unnerved Wilkins, however, because it was precisely what Bennett promised when he recruited the four-star prospect two years ago.

“When I recruited Isaiah, it was a real candid conversation,” Bennett said. “I said, ‘There's some experienced upperclassmen in front of you and you'll get what you earn — and you might not play as much as you're used to.’”

Rather than being cowed by the lack of a guaranteed role, Wilkins was immediately drawn to the Cavaliers. He had initially planned to visit other schools before making a decision, but changed his mind and elected to announce his commitment to the University on Sept. 1, 2013.

In doing so, Wilkins not only passed over offers from Miami, Memphis and others, but also brushed aside the advice of an NBA Hall of Famer. Dominique Wilkins, the former Atlanta Hawks superstar and Isaiah's stepfather, had encouraged the 6-foot-7 forward to consider playing at his alma mater, the University of Georgia. The younger Wilkins replied that he wanted to play for a winner, an opportunity the rapidly improving Virginia program would surely provide.

With 13 games remaining in a regular season that has been nothing short of perfect, Virginia will continue to lean heavily on Wilkins and Tobey to stabilize a second unit that once was wholly devoid of post options. Their play guarantees at least one thing for the Cavaliers down the stretch.

Justin Anderson will not be playing much power forward.

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