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Shorthanded Lineup Faces Tough Stretch

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  December 15, 2003 BLACKSBURG — His eyes bulge. His pulse quickens. He breathes a little heavier. The topic isn't nearly as exciting as you think it might be, but it's still enough to cause Seth Greenberg, the men's basketball coach at Virginia Tech, some serious anxiety. Less than a month before the Hokies began their first and last Big East season under Greenberg before bolting to the ACC, he shuddered to think where his team would stack up in the Big East. He knew, but he even joked that he didn't want to say. Then again, how could he really know? He hadn't even had the luxury of working with his entire team. But he had worked with his players long enough in the early season to know they had some serious deficiencies in perimeter defense, shooting and toughness.

Those same three shortcomings likely will make life difficult in Blacksburg for Greenberg over the next few months, because it may not get much better.

There's nothing like watching an opposing team's guards race up the court, knowing those guards want to shoot, and still not being able to stop them. That was one of the many frustrating realities Greenberg had to deal with early in the season.

Greenberg's freshman guards, Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon, showed flashes of brilliance on offense, but they have a long way to go on defense. It was so bad in the first few games of the season that Greenberg adjusted his philosophy and dragged the entire defense up a few feet, giving his guards an opportunity to get into the flow a little earlier. The Hokies spent recent practices focusing primarily on denying passes and forcing ball-handlers to one side of the court. It was fundamental stuff, but the Hokies' young guards had to start somewhere.

In Virginia Tech's first seven games, opponents' guards shot 49 percent (58-for-118) from the floor, including 43 percent (21-49) from three-point range. The second statistic was the most troubling to Greenberg. It was as if his guards had their hands tied behind their backs, physically incapable of contesting a shot. There may have been an easy reason his guards were so lackadaisical on the defensive end.

Much was made of Tech's injury troubles in the early going. In the first three weeks of the season, the Hokies never had more than six or seven scholarship players in practice at any given time. Even some of their walk-ons got banged up, forcing them to use a manager or two in some practice drills.

Greenberg asked a lot of his freshman guards because injuries forced him to do so. Through eight games, Dowdell averaged a team-high 38 minutes per game. That was two more than senior forward Bryant Matthews, who was leading the team in points and rebounds.

Severe injury troubles are nothing new for Greenberg. In his last four years at South Florida, his last stop before coming to Tech, he had to endure five players going down with anterior cruciate ligament tears, two with stress fractures and one with a broken hand. Still, there's no formula to overcome such things.

“My wife says I'm cursed,” Greenberg said.

Big Concerns: Defense, Toughness

Cursed or not, when Dowdell and Gordon match up against walk-ons in practice, it stands to reason that there's not nearly as much incentive to get a hand in a shooter's face. Though the Hokies' four walk-ons played sizable roles early in the season, nobody was going to confuse their shooting acumen with that of Dell Curry any time soon.

“We're fine against the managers,” Greenberg said. “We're not doing such a good job defending against Ohio State. That becomes the real issue.”

It was a different story in the low post, where the Hokies were very solid defensively in November and early December. They out-rebounded opponents by nearly five boards in the first eight games of the season. In that same span, no opposing forward or center scored more than 16 points against the Hokies, and only one grabbed double-digit rebounds. With the recovery of forward Coleman Collins from a broken foot, Tech should remain solid at keeping opposing big men at bay.

Collins, a 6-8, 215-pound freshman, also may help the Hokies get a little better shooting the ball. He has started to develop a pretty jump hook and has range nearly out to the three-point line. Before Collins returned Dec. 13, with 15 points in a 73-60 victory against Radford, reserve forward Allen Calloway was the only Hokie shooting better than 50 percent from the floor.

Part of the Hokies' problem has been finding good leaders for the six freshmen to emulate. Matthews, excellent in all phases in the early season, has done an outstanding job of leading by example. But he's not a vocal guy. Greenberg would love to have a younger player emerge as a get-in-his-teammate's-face kind of guy. Since Gordon has stepped up to become Tech's apparent No. 2 scoring option, Greenberg probably would love to see that kind of attitude from him.

That same sentiment applies to the Hokies' lack of toughness. Greenberg wonders if his team knows how to set a screen sometimes. He wonders if they're afraid to take a hit. It was the kind of thing he worried about as his team prepared to start play in the black-and-blue Big East. But those worries about the Connecticuts and Syracuses on the future slate were secondary. He had problems closer to home to address.

“We can't worry about the (Big East) yet,” Greenberg said. “We've got to worry about ourselves. We can't worry about how we prepare for this team or that or these guys. All that stuff will come. If we can defend the perimeter a little bit better, if we can contest shots a little bit better. … Are we going to have better flow in transition in the offense? Are we going to set better screens and actually hit somebody? That'd be an interesting experience for them. If we get better at those things, then we'll be more competitive.”