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October 7, 2008

League foe provides lesson for Hokies as they get ready to begin upcoming season

By: Jimmy Robertson

A.D. Vassallo is majoring in sociology. Cheick Diakite chose agricultural economics. Lewis Witcher picked accounting.

That’s just a smattering of majors for Tech men’s basketball players. There are others, though not a single one in the subject of history.

Rest assured, however, that Seth Greenberg will be delivering a few of his own lectures on that particular subject. In fact, his class could be called ‘Recent History 101.’

The Virginia Tech men’s basketball team opens its season on Nov. 14th, and the Hokies enter the 2008-09 season with some rather large expectations. For good reason, too, because four starters return and more than 80 percent of the scoring and rebounding return from a team that nearly slid into the NCAA Tournament at season’s end last March and ultimately advanced to the NIT quarterfinals.

But the first lesson for Greenberg’s class should be entitled, ‘The Demise of N.C. State.’ You may ask simply, ‘Why?’ Well, the Wolfpack found themselves in this exact same situation a year ago – and flunked miserably.

Heading into last season, N.C. State returned four starters and welcomed a five-star recruit in J.J. Hickson. Following a gritty season in which the Wolfpack landed in the 2007 ACC title game, they – and their fans – expected even more success heading into the 2007-08 campaign.

Despite being picked to finish third in the ACC, they belly-flopped all the way to last place. Plagued by injuries and besieged by poor chemistry, they lost their final nine games. Brandon Costner, a supremely talented player, was a poster child for disappointment and Hickson departed for the NBA. He was the ACC’s only first-round draft pick, which shows just how much the ’Pack underachieved. Head coach Sidney Lowe finds his coaching career now at a crossroads.
Paying attention, Hokies?

“I told our players in the first meeting that last year for us wasn’t about what other people thought and this year isn’t either,” Greenberg said. “It’s about the investment you make on a daily basis to yourself and to your team.

“We’re not going to talk about what we’re going to do. N.C. State did that last year and they’re not playing in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge [this year].”

Of course, there are some startling differences between this Tech team and that of N.C. State’s last year. The Wolfpack lost only point guard Engin Atsur, who graduated following the 2007 campaign and left a hole. In contrast, the Hokies return Malcolm Delaney, who played very well as a point guard – as a freshman, no less – last year and he continues to keep rapidly ascending the leadership ladder on this team.

Also, Tech’s chemistry was good last year and should be just as good, if not better this season. Lowe tried to run his offense through Hickson and guys like Costner and Ben McCauley suffered. The Hokies feature no NBA prospects at the moment, though a couple could easily develop into such, and Greenberg runs his offense based on match-ups. He gives freedom to all his players to make plays.

Plus, Greenberg’s teams have this nice trait of getting better as the season goes along. Remember two years ago when they got handled at Marshall and came back to make the NCAA Tournament? Last year, they lost to Richmond, and then played great down the stretch, which led to an NIT berth.

This all brings us to this season. Like the Wolfpack last year, Tech will be the trendy pick to finish in the top half of the ACC next to heavyweights Duke and North Carolina and to receive one of those coveted NCAA Tournament berths.

“It’s all how you approach expectations,” Greenberg said. “My expectation is to get better every day, learn how to compete and learn how to trust each other. That doesn’t change from year to year. Expectation is pressure from people on the outside. We understand that when you’re in this league, you better be good – because if you’re not, the league will hit you upside the head.

"We’re not going to buy into what people say. We didn’t last year. If we had, we’d have won about eight games. When the ball goes up, whatever has been written or said means nothing.”

A long-deceased poet once astutely wrote, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” That’s why Greenberg is focusing on the small picture and pointing out what transpires when you look at the big picture – as in what happened to the Wolfpack last season.

For the Hokies, that would simply be a history lesson well learned.