By Darryl Slater
Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch
November 20, 2007
BLACKSBURG When Virginia Tech opened the 2007-08 season on Nov. 9 against Elon, coach Seth Greenberg could crouch in his familiar position next to the bench and look across Cassell Coliseum at the banner hanging from the rafters. It commemorates Tech's trip last season to the NCAA Tournament, its first since 1996.
But Greenberg didn't need to look that far to witness how much his team changed during the offseason. All he had to do was glance down the bench and see the young players who now shoulder the increased expectations the Hokies created last season.
After a tumultuous spring and summer, the Hokies have five freshmen, including two starters, among their 11 scholarship players. Tech likely will get a sixth freshman, talented guard Dorenzo Hudson, after the first semester.
"I'm not going to build in excuses because we're young," Greenberg said, several days before the Hokies struggled to a 69-64 win over Elon, a Southern Conference team that went 7-23 last season.
The bright spot for Tech in the opener was freshman Jeff Allen, a 6-7, 258-pound power forward who showed the potential to become the Hokies' best player at some point this season. Allen, a 20-year-old who does not have a freshman's body, had 19 points, 10 rebounds, four steals, two blocks and two assists. He became the first Tech freshman to record a double-double in his debut since Dale Solomon in 1978.
"Jeff Allen has to have a very good season for us to be good plain and simple," Greenberg said.
The Hokies do bring back two starters from last season, wing A.D. Vassallo and forward Deron Washington, but considering how the offseason went, they will need more than Vassallo's smooth shooting and Washington's explosive dunks to come close to last season, when they finished 10-6 in the ACC, beat North Carolina twice and won at Duke.
The offseason changes started with the expected. Guards Jamon Gordon and Zabian Dowdell and forward Coleman Collins left because they were seniors last season. That was bad enough for the Hokies, because all three players started. Dowdell was the leading scorer (17.4 points per game), Gordon the second-leading scorer (11.4) and Collins the second-leading rebounder (4.8 per game). Dowdell and Gordon were rocks of stability over the last two years.
Things really started to spiral for the Hokies when Nigel Munson, who would have started at point guard this season as a sophomore, decided to transfer because of a personal issue. Junior center Robert Krabbendam, unhappy with his lack of playing time (7.4 minutes per game last season), decided to leave school and play for his father's team in the Netherlands, his home country.
The Hokies were banking on getting 6-10 power forward Augustus Gilchrist, one of the jewels of their recruiting class, but Gilchrist decided to back out of his letter of intent. (He recently signed with Maryland.) The class took another hit when Hudson did not finish his high school course work in time for fall enrollment. The coaches hope he will arrive after the first semester.
Then, a few weeks before the season, freshman guard Darrion Pellum was declared academically ineligible by the NCAA. That development polished off the most stressful offseason of Greenberg's 16-year head coaching career.
"You wish you could have the old team back," Vassallo said, "and go for another great run."
Yet the reality is much harsher for the Hokies.
Their point guard is 5-9, 140-pound freshman Hank Thorns, whom Greenberg didn't start recruiting until Munson's situation became tenuous. Thorns' other scholarship offers were from New Hampshire and Old Dominion.
Thorns and Allen, along with Vassallo, Washington and big man Cheick Diakite, are likely to be Tech's leaders in minutes played this season. Two more freshmen, guard Malcolm Delaney and forward J.T. Thompson, are projected to be among the top contributors off the bench.
With so many young players, Tech needs Vassallo (a 41.5 percent three-point shooter last season) and Washington to increase their leadership roles. Last season, those duties fell on Gordon and Dowdell, but Vassallo and Washington took mental notes on how they approached certain players, based on how much criticism those players could take.
Washington, naturally a quiet guy off the court, thinks his new role is going well so far. "They like to listen to me," he said.
The expectations for Washington also extend to more tangible aspects of his game. As a junior last season, he was Tech's second-leading scorer, with 12 points per game. He is best known around the ACC as one of the league's most exciting dunkers. Tech needs him to be more than that this season. He will play his natural small forward position, the spot he played in high school. He started last season there before moving to power forward halfway through the year.
"I think Deron could do things for us that Al Thornton did for Florida State," Greenberg said.
Said Washington, "I feel like I'm going to have to step up a little bit more and probably end up taking over the games."
At least through one game, Allen looked like Tech's most dominant player. He is well-prepared for college ball. He played three years for one of the nation's most prestigious prep programs, DeMatha Catholic High in Hyattsville, Md. Then he spent his senior season at powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., before playing as a postgraduate and improving his grades at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va.
"I feel like a freshman, but I don't play like a freshman," Allen said. "Maybe I play stronger."
When he came to Tech, he selected jersey No. 0, even though he had never worn that number before. "I just wanted to be different," he said. So far, he's proving to be just that.
Different is the operative word for the Hokies this season. A big challenge for Greenberg is teaching his players the importance of playing high-intensity defense every night and taking care of the ball. Tech led the ACC last season with a plus-4.62 turnover margin, something Greenberg has focused on since he arrived in Blacksburg in 2003.
"We've gone four years without turning the ball over (at a high rate)," he said. "I'm not about to start saying that now that we're younger that we're going to turn it over. To turn the ball over is unacceptable. That's something that I've got to make sure that our guys understand."
If Tech's young players don't understand that yet, at least they know how last season's seniors raised the expectations at a school primarily known for its football program. After Tech lost to Southern Illinois last season in the NCAA Tournament's second round, Greenberg reflected on how much the program has changed since he arrived because of his senior trio and how his future players would have to maintain the new environment.
"There was no culture, there was no ownership, there was no passion," Greenberg said. "The program was void of personality, and four years later there's ownership, passion and expectations, and they created that. And they set a standard now that others will have to live up to."
|2005||8-8 (4)||16-14||NIT 2nd Round|
|2007||10-6 (3)||22-12||NCAA 2nd Round|
x won ACC title
* returning starter
With three critical starters gone from Tech's lineup, forward Deron Washington has the difficult task of taking over a leadership role. He's a highlight reel-worthy player with his high-flying dunks and dramatic late-game shots who matured into an all-around talent last season, when he led the team in rebounding. It's hard to find a better perimeter dead-eye in the ACC than swingman A.D. Vassallo. He'll draw much more attention from opposing defenses this season, which means he'll have to work harder to find shots.
Other Key Returnees
Cheick Diakite added about 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason to his already rippling frame. His willingness to do the dirty work will be invaluable for a team that lacks interior heft. Though he started 20 games last season, Lewis Witcher didn't have the kind of freshman campaign he had envisioned, averaging just 2.9 points and 2.6 rebounds in 13 minutes per game. His playing time likely will increase, which means his production must follow suit. Former walk-on Marcus Travis, a senior, earned a scholarship this fall. He played in only 12 games last season but may have to provide depth in a young backcourt. Tech has waited two years for Terrance Vinson to get a legitimate shot at playing time. He missed all but six games (back injury) in 2005-06 and received a medical redshirt. Last year he played in three games before a knee injury sat him down. With three years of eligibility left, he's beginning his career again.
At least four of Tech's scholarship freshmen will either start or play significant minutes. At 20 years old, Jeff Allen is a mature rookie with an advanced game. Considered by many recruiting analysts to be the top prep player in the country last season, he has the ability to attack the basket from the wing, shoot from the perimeter, and handle the ball on breaks all in a 6-7, 258-pound package. Hank Thorns was a big-time producer in high school, averaging 27.8 points and 12.5 rebounds per game as a senior, but his most important role as Tech's point guard will be taking care of the ball. Malcolm Delaney is a versatile guard who will spell Thorns and give Vassallo periodic breathers at shooting guard. J.T. Thompson offers a level of athleticism that has been compared to Washington's, which means he'll be fun to watch in transition. Terrell Bell, who has an outstanding reputation as a defender, will miss the first month or so after undergoing hernia surgery in late October. The Hokies still hope that talented guard signee Dorenzo Hudson will arrive at midseason.
Also Worth Noting
At 6-9 and 228 pounds, Witcher will be asked to play some at center this season, especially on the defensive end. ... There won't be much rest early in the schedule. Tech plays six games in 12 days (Nov. 22-Dec. 4), including three games in three days at the Great Alaska Shootout. ... Tech has gotten approval from its Board of Visitors to begin construction on a $20-million, 49,000-square-foot basketball practice facility that should open in the summer of 2009. The facility will include locker rooms, offices and two practice courts.
Chart By: The Tech Insider