January 9, 2007
BLACKSBURG After Virginia Tech upset Duke 69-67 in overtime on Jan. 6, Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon were the first Tech players to find each other. They collapsed in a jubilant scrum underneath one of Cameron Indoor Stadium's baskets, two guys that have been the closest things to constant presences in Tech's starting lineup all season enjoying a rare moment.
Tech's unlikely upset it was Duke's third loss in its last 115 games at home against unranked opponents was the product of finding the proper balance.
Coach Seth Greenberg knows that his team isn't going to physically intimidate anybody. He knows there are some teams with better overall speed. Getting an ideal starting lineup and a productive rotation of substitutions on the floor at the right time is essential to Tech's success this season.
Greenberg is still looking for that perfect lineup and rotation. In Tech's first 14 games this season, he experimented with five starting lineups.
"It's the most I've ever gone with," said Greenberg, in reference to the number of lineup changes in such a short period. "I'm not one to change things a lot."
He did a lot of tinkering with different rotations last season, too, switching starting lineups four times in the first eight games. Last season, lineup flexibility was an absolute necessity for a team that dealt with a lot of family and personal issues off the court.
By the ninth game of the season, Greenberg had settled on a starting lineup of Dowdell, Gordon, Coleman Collins, Deron Washington and Markus Sailes, but Greenberg did some more lineup tweaking later in the season. He used eight different lineups in all.
"I don't think too many teams could've gone through the stuff we had and played as hard as we did each game," said Gordon, who had the game-winning shot against Duke in Tech's first win against an AP top-five team in almost 21 years. "Last year is a lot of motivation for us. We're going to use that for the rest of this season."
Going into the Duke game, Greenberg went with a lineup that featured plenty of familiar elements: Dowdell, Gordon, Collins and Washington. Freshman forward Lewis Witcher got his 10th start of the season. Greenberg rotated Sailes into the game for 23 minutes and worked in swingman A.D. Vassallo for 19. Sailes played more minutes than Witcher, who fouled out, and trailed only Dowdell, Gordon, Collins and Washington in minutes played.
The distribution of minutes was almost identical to how Greenberg split them up in Tech’ 77-75 loss at Duke last season. In that game, too, Dowdell, Gordon, Collins, Washington and Sailes were the leaders in minutes played.
Maybe Greenberg's philosophy wasn't complicated at all. If Tech could get within two points of a Duke team that included guard J.J. Redick and forward Shelden Williams using that distribution of minutes, perhaps using a similar playing-time model this season would work against a Duke team that doesn't include Redick and Williams.
COACH FACES BIG-SMALL CHOICES
Of course, it's not as if these lineup changes have just come to Greenberg in grand visions. He admits that he has spent more time than he'd like with his staff discussing how to get the most production out of some of his players. Two days before the Duke game, he had one of those meetings because he still wasn't sure how to distribute minutes.
"I think it's situational," Greenberg said. "I think it's who we're playing. It sounds crazy (to change the lineup so much), because we have a senior team with three seniors (who started last season), but Coleman wasn't right at the beginning of the year. So that takes us down to two seniors. Markus Sailes wasn't a starter (this season). Deron is obviously a starter, but he's changed positions. So we're still trying to find out some things."
Though he has more depth than he had in any of his previous three seasons at Tech, Greenberg said having options doesn't always equal clear-cut lineup decisions. He's dabbling with more 2-3 and 2-2-1 zone defense this season than in the past, which means he has had to figure out which lineup provides the best "big" attack and which combination produces the best "small" approach.
So, beyond the automatic starters Dowdell and Gordon Greenberg has worked with several combinations in the frontcourt. Center Robert Krabbendam and forward Cheick Diakite both have started more than four times to give a better rebounding presence for a team that traditionally struggles on the boards. Vassallo has started a few times because he rebounds well for a 6-6 player, and he has a knack for getting to the basket.
Even freshman point guard Nigel Munson earned a start against Richmond, when Greenberg made a "coach's decision" not to start Dowdell and Gordon. It was the only time all season that Dowdell and Gordon weren't in the starting lineup. Considering that Dowdell and Gordon are producing nearly 40 percent of Tech's offense, don't expect those two guys to sit on the bench at the start of games often in ACC play.
In the long run, Greenberg knows he'd like to implement the longest, most athletic and vertically imposing team he can possibly put on the floor. Reading between the lines, Greenberg wants more production from Collins, Diakite and Krabbendam. Of course, that's easier said than done. Going big means sacrificing quickness in man-to-man defense.
"I'd like to eventually be able to go big, as long as we can pass and catch and don't turn the ball over," Greenberg said. "It all depends a little bit on matchups, too, and how good we get at that zone."