February 26, 2008
BLACKSBURG Though forward Deron Washington understood what happened Feb. 16 in Virginia Tech's 92-53 loss at North Carolina, it still frustrated him. He'd never endured anything like it in his college career, and a little part of him had to make him worry about whether it would last.
As the lone scholarship senior on the team, he felt the need to make a statement after the game. Something that might resonate with the seven freshmen on Tech's roster and make sure it wouldn't happen again in the final three weeks of the regular season. Learning to play on the road at the most hostile environments the ACC has to offer isn't easy. Washington had to learn how to do it, but it never got as bad for him as it did at UNC this season.
"It seemed like at one point we gave up," Washington said. "We were still trying to fight and get things going, but it was like we didn't have the energy we always have. Nobody really brought anything to the game.
"We know we're a better team than this."
It's possibly the ugliest word in all of sports, and a few Tech players threw the term around in the postgame aftermath of the UNC disaster. Just the mere mention of it implies a lack of desire and an unwillingness to compete. If it happens too often, it can get a coach fired. That's not the case with Tech coach Seth Greenberg.
Though the competitive fire burned out for his young squad late in the UNC game, it was quickly re-stoked in subsequent wins at Maryland and against Georgia Tech. Now it seems unlikely that Tech will be excluded from at least some sort of postseason scenario the NCAA Tournament, the NIT or the new 16-team College Basketball Invitational.
So how did Greenberg handle his team after the UNC loss? What did he tell the Hokies to carry with them from the game, going into critical conference road games at Maryland and March 9 at Clemson?
If Greenberg, a New York native, could've summed it up in his native vernacular, it would've sounded something like, "Fuhget about it." He didn't even review the game film with his team.
"I'm not sure that John Wooden could get much out of this tape," Greenberg said.
Greenberg has been down this road before suffering through painful, potentially soul-destroying losses like the UNC game and lived to tell about it like his team has this season.
In 1992, he was in his second season of coaching at Long Beach State. A cross-country venture to Richmond Coliseum for a game against Virginia Commonwealth resulted in a 95-61 drubbing for the 49ers.
On the way back to the West Coast, Greenberg and the 49ers stopped in Kansas to play the No. 1-ranked Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse. Long Beach State came away with an unlikely (and convincing) 64-49 victory.
It's the ability to draw from those kinds of experiences that keeps Greenberg sane while leading a team dependent upon so much youth. He also remembers his 2003-04 Tech team, which included the freshman versions of center Coleman Collins and guards Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon.
Though that trio ultimately would lead Tech last year to its first NCAA Tournament berth in 11 years, it's easy to forget that they also went 2-6 on the road in the Big East during their freshman season. They followed that season up with another 2-6 campaign, in their first year in the ACC.
Collins, Dowdell and Gordon didn't even have to travel to Chapel Hill in any of their first three seasons at Tech, but that's not to say that all three players hadn't already been indoctrinated to the rigors of ACC road play by their senior seasons. They had endured three road trips to Cameron Indoor Stadium, going 1-2 against Duke.
DELANEY, ALLEN SHINE ON ROAD
This year's group of Tech freshmen already has surpassed the young versions of Collins, Dowdell and Gordon as far as conference road success is concerned.
Bolstered by the presence of Washington and forward A.D. Vassallo (who averaged 23 points and shot 52 percent from the floor and 89 percent from the free throw line in the Maryland and Georgia Tech wins), Tech entered the Clemson game 3-4 on the road in the ACC.
Guard Malcolm Delaney and forward Jeff Allen have been Tech's most dependable freshmen in ACC road games this season. Both players have averaged 12.5 points per game away from home.
Delaney's overall shooting on the road hasn't been stellar 38 percent from the floor but he has made 39 percent (9 of 23) of his attempts from three-point range and 77 percent (24 of 31) of his free throws. For Delaney, the good news is that he has the green light to shoot at will. Greenberg has mentioned a few times this season that he isn't concerned with Delaney's shooting percentage. Just shoot.
Allen has added 6.7 rebounds per game on the road. Of course, his biggest struggles in the ACC also have come away from Cassell Coliseum, but they were self-inflicted. He was ejected from Tech's 81-70 loss at Georgia Tech on Jan. 19 for bumping an official and was suspended by the ACC for two games. One of those games was Tech's 81-73 win Jan. 26 at Boston College.
Allen's poor judgment at Georgia Tech served as a perfect microcosm for what Tech's freshmen have had to learn this season. You'd better keep your cool and stay focused on the road in this conference, or things can get away from you in a hurry.
Every Tech freshmen learned that lesson at UNC, but the win at Maryland showed that it started to sink in. At the very least, they proved that the word "quit" doesn't apply. The game at Clemson, which could have a lot riding on it for both teams, will serve as the final ACC road exam for Tech's freshmen.