No player elicits more emotion from the Virginia fanbase than Mike Tobey. Whether folks are enthralled by his talent or frustrated by his inconsistency, it seems like everyone has an opinion on the senior center.
Tobey isn’t Virginia’s best player. Heck, he isn’t even Virginia’s best post player. Those honors go to Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, respectively. But if you ever sit in the stands during a game at JPJ, you’ll notice that Tobey brings out stronger responses from fans than Brogdon and Gill combined. Nothing fires up the crowd more than a Tobey basket. And nothing brings out more groans than a Tobey mistake.
Tobey has had a roller-coaster senior season. He was almost non-existent against West Virginia, Cal, and Virginia Tech. He caught fire against Oakland and Notre Dame, and he was an important part of the win against Miami.
Throughout his career, he's played some absolute gems. He scored Virginia's first nine points in the blowout of Harvard last year and finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds. He kept Virginia in the game during the first half of its loss to George Washington.
But when he's off his game, Tobey can be maddening to watch. He picks up quick fouls. He brings the ball down and dribbles in the post, allowing smaller players to take it from him. He gets lost under the basket.
Maybe the best example of Tobey's highs and lows came in last year's victory over Louisville. Tobey scored 9 points in the game's first seven minutes. But he only ended up playing 13 minutes total after picking up four fouls. When Tobey is in the game, Virginia fans know that something is going to happen quickly, even if that something isn’t altogether good.
I’ve lately found myself wondering why Tobey evokes such strong feelings. I think there’s something about his size and his mix of skills that makes him a dynamic figure. I also think that he gives the impression of being "oh-so-damn-close" to putting it all together and becoming a consistent dominant figure. I get the sense that fans badly want to see Tobey turn the corner and so we react strongly to any indication about it happening.
Tobey reminds me in some ways of Elton Brown, the Newport News native who played center at Virginia from '01 - '05 and frustrated fans all four years. Brown was a good shooter for a big man. He had all the tools, and I kept getting the sense from watching him that he was always just inches away from achieving his potential. Brown, like Tobey, could leave you shouting "give him the ball" one night, only to scream "take him outta there" the next. Of course, Brown also had a reputation for being overweight most of his career. No one will ever accuse Mike Tobey of that needing to shed pounds.
As Virginia comes down the stretch, it needs solid play from Tobey if it wants to achieve the ACC and NCAA goals it hopes for this year. Tobey is a game-changer when he's in the game and playing well. The guards get better looks more easily. Post defenders can’t focus on Anthony Gill as much. And with Tobey in the line-up and performing well, Virginia gets a legit threat for an offensive put back every time a shot goes up.
In a way, Tobey needs solid play from himself just as badly. Seven-foot big guys who can shoot make for interesting NBA prospects. But Tobey can’t show off his skills while he’s riding the pine. Tobey must be more consistent if he wants to improve his own stock while helping the team get to the next level. He can't afford to get into quick foul trouble or be passive. He can't be afraid to use his size to get his shot.
Tobey has the experience with Bennett's system. He has a track record of performance in big games that should boost his confidence. He has all the tools he needs -- good size, good hands, decent footwork.
For Virginia to achieve its goals, he needs to bring them every night.