- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2016

CHICAGO — Since they weren’t so sure about his decision, Mike Tobey’s friends asked what Virginia was like after the center committed in 2011.

That was Tony Bennett’s second season as Virginia coach, when the Cavaliers went 16-15 overall. The following season, they moved to 22-10 and hopped into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.

“I would be like, ‘They’re up and coming, they’re up and coming,” Tobey said. “People were like, ‘Everyone always says that when they commit to a school.’ I was like, no, we’re legit.”

Tobey laughs now about stressing his claim then. Virginia is a top seed in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons. When it plays No. 4 seed Iowa State on Friday night in the Sweet 16, it will have a chance to move to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1995.

There’s also another numeric milestone awaiting Friday night’s outcome: If Virginia wins, its senior class of Tobey, Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Evan Nolte and Caid Kirven, will match the winningest class in program history. The group they are chasing is anchored in Virginia, and college basketball, lore. In 1983, the Ralph Sampson-led Cavaliers finished with 112 wins. The 88 wins the last three seasons has also matched the most in a three-year span at the university. The last time was from 1981-83.

To be on the cusp of matching another marker left by Sampson’s crew punctuates the depth of turnaround in the program since Bennett arrived from Washington State in 2009. A losing first season was followed by a slight two-win increase before the first tournament entrance at Virginia under Bennett. Then, a leap. In the last three seasons, Virginia has won 30 games twice, been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament twice, and made it to the Sweet 16 twice. The pace of the climb even surprised Tobey.

“I honestly didn’t know it would happen this quickly,” Tobey said. “I figured by my senior year, we’d have an opportunity to be playing in the NCAA tournament. But, it really has happened a lot quicker than I even pictured. I feel so happy and blessed to be in the situation we are now.”

Brogdon and Gill have anchored the program’s ascension, uplifting a bubbling revival begun under Bennett by players like Joe Harris, Mike Scott and Darion Atkins.

Gill began assessing his transfer options when Darrin Horn was fired as coach of South Carolina in 2012. During his visit to Virginia, he met Brogdon, a person who would eventually become such a good friend, that he will be in Gill’s wedding party April 8.

“Just remember him being a very playful guy but very serious, very determined,” Brogdon said. “He reminded me a lot of myself, and then once we got on the court, I realized how hard he worked and his work ethic, and I realized with his talent, with his work ethic and leadership, he’d be able to help us take this program to another level.

“We’ve always been great friends off the court and on the court we’re great teammates, as well.”

Gill, as he often does, diverted from that origin tale in order to shape things from his perspective.

“I’ll take it back a little further for me and Malcolm,” Gill said. “I actually met him at an all-star game in Florida in high school, and that was pretty much where we met then, and I sort of helped raise him from that point on.”

Cue the laughter.

Brogdon’s injured foot caused him to redshirt his sophomore season. During much of his recovery, he wheeled around on a scooter that propped his foot into the air. But, he was also working. Brogdon watched his diet and made sure to get into the weight room. He was on one leg, still trying to improve years before becoming ACC player of the year.

“I knew Malcolm was going to be really good when he sat out his whole second year with his foot injury,” Harris said. “I’ve never seen somebody be so meticulous.”

Harris had tagged along with Bennett when the latter was hired away from Washington State. Being from the middle of Washington helped make Harris “naive,” to use his word, as to what ACC basketball consisted of. He, too, is surprised at the brisk rise.

“I would have never really expected them to have this level of success,” Harris said. “I would have always hoped they could get there and have that kind of success. I didn’t really expect that at all. I didn’t really know what to expect.”

The machine began turning three seasons into Bennett’s tenure, when the first NCAA tournament spot was claimed. The last three years have been such an unexpected uptick, that Bennett has found himself in the odd spot of program defender since this season’s tournament began.

It happened again Thursday afternoon. The first question of the day moved Bennett into a defensive mode, where he was explaining that no matter what happens in the tournament, the legacy of this group is substantial and not to be discarded. Short memories coupled with rapid success can prompt such a stance. As can consecutive seasons of being removed from the tournament well before the expected dismissal.

“They’ve had such good careers, they really have, and this is the last piece of it,” Bennett said. “No guarantees that they can, you know, [but] want to do well and finish it off, because they’ve really built something special. Regardless of how this plays out, it can’t be taken away what they’ve established for Virginia basketball.”

“Up and coming” has been replaced with “here.” Tobey can tell everyone that now, with no qualifiers. Bennett will remind anyone who forgets. Brogdon and Gill will laugh their way to the end, wherever and whenever that comes.

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