By David Glenn
November 22, 2005
BLACKSBURG After two years of listening to coach Seth Greenberg tell him he needs to run faster in practice, shoot a little more after practice and be a lot more vocal with younger players in and out of practice, it finally has sunk in for guard Jamon Gordon.
Nobody expected much from Virginia Tech last season, during its first year in the ACC, but it provided a flicker or two of hope for the future. A 16-14 record, including 8-8 in the conference and stunning upsets of Duke and Georgia Tech, plus a trip to the second round of the NIT, showed that the timetable for Tech's progress might need to be sped up.
Gordon is on the same page with Greenberg, who leaned on his backcourt to get Tech to the NIT. There's nothing holding Gordon back these days, especially when it comes to whipping the young players into shape.
"If you don't play defense, you ain't gettin' in the game," said Gordon, who averaged 9.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists through Tech's first four games this season. "You've just got to play hard. Even if you make mistakes, we'll let that go by as long as you play hard. If you don't play hard, you'll be out of here fast."
That's music to Greenberg's ears. Though he's entering just his third year as Tech's coach, Greenberg has a firm grasp on last season's importance. His frenetic style of play has helped transform Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg from a drafty, empty cavern into one of the hottest tickets in the ACC.
"I don't think many times in the last 10 years people have been talking about Virginia Tech basketball," Greenberg said. "I don't think many times in the last 10 we've oversold student tickets and we've got to have a lottery to get tickets out to them. I don't think many times in the last 10 we've have the building sold out before we make our first basket."
Indeed, it may be difficult to even get near the doors of Cassell Coliseum without a ticket this season. Tech averaged 9,405 fans per home game last season, an increase of 3,063 from 2003-04. It was the largest attendance increase in the nation.
With construction on the west side of Lane Stadium, Tech's football facility, in its final stages, the athletic department is turning its eyes toward Cassell. Plans are in the works to build new practice courts for the men's and women's basketball teams inside Cassell.
It has to be nice to count several thousand more believers among the Hokie faithful. Raised expectations can be a good thing, but setting those expectations and fulfilling them are two different things.
Greenberg lists three areas his team must improve upon. He wants to see better rebounding (last in the ACC last season in rebounding margin; minus-3.41), more preparedness in transition defense (10th in the ACC in field goal percentage defense; 44.4 percent) and more effort toward creating easy baskets.
Just as it was in Greenberg's first two seasons, the catalyst for this year's team will be the backcourt. Gordon may be the hard-as-nails leader, but fellow junior Zabian Dowdell isn't far behind. Dowdell was Tech's leading scorer last season (14.4 ppg), and he led the way through the first four games this season (14.2). His shooting has improved every year, thanks to an offseason program that includes launching up to 500 shots per day.
Two years ago, it was hard to get guard Markus Sailes off the court. He started all 29 of Tech's games. Last season, he played in three games before sitting out the rest of the schedule with a broken right leg. He was quick to point out in October that he anticipated this season much like his veteran teammates did last season, because this will be his first crack at the ACC.
"It's hard not to get excited to be in this conference," Sailes said. "I mean, you've got to watch it and make sure you don't sit there and ooohh' and aaahh' when you see Mike Krzyzewski or Roy Williams. At the same time, they're our competition, so you have to stay level-headed and focus on the players."
Getting the frontcourt healthy might help achieve some of Greenberg's goals. Tech's frontcourt is so banged up, it may be well into the ACC slate before it gets close to being 100 percent. It'll never be completely healthy this season.
Allen Calloway is fighting to overcome alveolar soft part sarcoma, a form of cancer. He is receiving treatment during the season and practicing only in a limited capacity. He will play in games when he feels up to it. Robert Krabbendam is recovering from a medial meniscus tear in his left knee and is out indefinitely. He had gained 35 pounds in the offseason and looked poised to improve upon the one point and 1.2 rebounds per game he contributed last season.
Those two injuries thinned out Tech's bench, but Wynton Witherspoon's fractured left foot is having a profound effect on the lineup. He had won one of the starting forward jobs when he was diagnosed with the injury in late October. He'll be out until at least mid-December. Gordon said Witherspoon had made the greatest improvement of any Tech player in the offseason, especially on defense.
Two other forwards are dealing with off-court issues that could prove to be distractions.
Deron Washington's mother, Denise, had her life uprooted in late September. Denise, a resident of New Orleans, sustained significant damage to her home and had the school she taught at destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Denise evacuated to Houston to stay with friends and family before the storm hit, but she's just now beginning to put her life back together. Deron is splitting time at both forward positions, while Witherspoon recovers.
Coleman Collins, the team's most important frontcourt player, is playing with a heavy heart. His father, Jackson, is battling cancer in Atlanta. Collins missed Tech's win against Mount St. Mary's on Nov. 18 to be with his father.
The effectiveness of Tech's frontcourt will depend on the ability of three freshmen to absorb a lot of information in a hurry. A.D. Vassallo, a swingman from Puerto Rico, looks like he may play a big role. A promising scorer, he started the first two games at small forward. This past summer, he averaged 8.6 points per game for the Puerto Rico national team at the Under-21 World Championships in Argentina. Freshman forwards Cheick Diakite and Terrance Vinson will be expected to step up early on the boards.
Players like Gordon don't have much patience. He knows his time to make an impact in the ACC is getting short. That's why losses such as the one Tech suffered Nov. 12 at home to Bowling Green are so disturbing to him. Tech went through the same thing last season, when it was dealt an inexplicable early loss at VMI. Those defeats are RPI-killers.
Inconsistency may be the reason Tech was predicted to finish eighth in the ACC. That's not good enough for Gordon and the veterans. He wants more, and he wants the young players to expect more.
"I say it all the time," Gordon said. "I'll always be the one to bring it up. Why did we get picked eighth when we finished fourth (last season)? ... It's just motivation that we need, really. We need motivation to play hard."
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1996 NA 23-6 NCAA 2nd Round
1997 NA 15-16 None
1998 NA 10-17 None
1999 NA 13-15 None
2000 NA 16-15 None
2001 NA 8-19 None
2002 NA 10-18 None
2003 NA 12-17 None
2004 NA 15-14 None
2005 8-8 (4) 16-14 NIT 2nd Round
x - won ACC title
Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Allen Calloway 6-8/215 BF Sr.
Shawn Harris 6-4/220 WG Sr.
Coleman Collins* 6-9/235 BF Jr.
Zabian Dowdell* 6-3/200 WG Jr.
Jamon Gordon* 6-3/200 PG Jr.
Marcus Sailes 6-5/210 WG Jr.
Chris Tucker 6-7/220 BF Jr.
Robert Krabbendam 7-0/230 C So.
Deron Washington* 6-7/195 WF So.
Wynton Witherspoon 6-7/185 WF So.
Cheick Diakite 6-8/230 C Fr.
A.D. Vassallo 6-6/213 WF Fr.
Terrance Vinson 6-8/210 BF Fr.
* - returning starter
Two of Tech's true juniors were waiting when coach Seth Greenberg arrived in 2003. Jamon Gordon and Coleman Collins were recruited by former coach Ricky Stokes, and Greenberg has gone out of his way several times to throw praise in Stokes' direction for those two. Zabian Dowdell signed on soon after Greenberg was hired. The three are the wheel of Tech's bus. Gordon is the team's best defender, its in-your-face leader. Through the first three games of this season, he averaged almost eight rebounds and six assists per game. Dowdell is quick into the lane, and he has a smooth and fast release on his shot. He's cool, too. When Duke took the lead against Tech late last season on a J. J. Redick three-pointer in the final 30 seconds, Dowdell quickly answered with one of his own to provide the winning points. Collins is a strong scorer and a rugged rebounder whose best trait is his mobility. He runs well and can shoot from 15-18 feet.
OTHER KEY RETURNEES
Markus Sailes is back. That might not seem like a big deal, considering his modest career statistics, but he's one of those way-beyond-the-numbers guys every team needs. Two years ago, he averaged 32 minutes per game. A bum leg limited him to three games last season, and he was able to get a medical redshirt, so he has junior eligibility. Sailes has what Greenberg calls a "no-ego mentality." He doesn't care if he scores, though he can when necessary. He can play either guard position or small forward. Ideally, Greenberg would like to use Sailes off the bench. Early in the season, the Hokies' injury situation forced Sailes into the starting lineup. Two sophomores Tech badly needs to contribute have been injured, and their returns are uncertain. Wynton Witherspoon had earned the lone vacant starting spot before breaking his left foot. Surgery was needed, but he should be back in December. His shooting touch would help a lot. Center Robert Krabbendam had knee surgery in the preseason and may be able to play in late December or early January. If he's not ready by then, Greenberg said, he may be redshirted. Sophomore Deron Washington is Tech's other returning starter, along with Collins, Gordon and Dowdell. An ACC all-rookie selection last season, Washington has improved his range and may play each of the forward spots some, instead of exclusively inside.
Tech's freshman class went down by one in the preseason, when forward Hyman Taylor was dismissed for an unspecified violation of team rules. The remaining three newcomers will get plenty of chances. A.D. Vassallo started the first two games and will play if he proves he can shoot, especially with Witherspoon out. Cheick Diakite, from Mali, has to help out on the boards. He's a physical specimen but still has a lot to learn. Terrance Vinson will have the most limited role among the freshmen, though he'll get his minutes, too, if he shows he can rebound.
ALSO WORTH NOTING
Senior Allen Calloway is battling cancer. He remains on the team while he undergoes treatment. ... A player to watch is junior walk-on Chris Tucker. Greenberg likes the way he plays defense and has encouraged him to be more aggressive offensively.
Chart By: The Tech Insider