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October 7, 2008

Experience, talent and motivation have Hokies' hopes high

By: Jimmy Robertson

A.D. Vassallo

The stock market’s recent plunging has investors searching far and wide for a safe haven to put their future retirement dollars.

From a college basketball perspective, the safe money seems to be on the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team. Most, in fact, appear to be quite bullish on the Hokies as the 2008-09 basketball season gets ready to tip off.

Whether Tech’s stock soars this season depends upon the play of a senior with the potential to be an elite player and the continued development of a contingent of young players. Perhaps even more so, it depends upon finding the replacement for Deron Washington, who left after becoming the face of the type of program that head coach Seth Greenberg wants in Blacksburg.

Tech finished with a 21-14 overall record a year ago. The Hokies won a game in the ACC tournament and advanced to the quarterfinals of the NIT before seeing their season come to an end with an 81-72 loss to Ole Miss. Tech enjoyed such a fine season because Washington scored, he rebounded, he defended, and he led. No other Tech player possessed such a combination, and Greenberg’s immediate charge is to find someone or a group to replace those attributes.

“I think Deron reflected what we were trying to do with player development – playing hard, being tough and competing for 40 minutes,” Greenberg said. “The thing I’m most proud of is that he came in as a center, left as a small forward and got drafted in the NBA. Those are all positives in terms of the big picture of the program. We’re going to miss him.”

Rest assured, though, that Greenberg loves what he has coming back for this season. In all, eight guys return who started at least two games last season. Six guys return who started at least 12 games, and 81 percent of both the scoring and rebounding return from last year.

“I like our basketball team,” Greenberg said. “We’re still a very young basketball team. You’re talking about eight freshmen or sophomores, but our sophomores are experienced. We do have senior leadership in A.D. Vassallo and we have some juniors who have been in our program.

“After our first three weeks of individual workouts, our guys have been great. They’re focused and buying in. It’s exciting. But I’m not excited because of what other people think because if we believed in what other people think, then we would have finished in last place last year. I’m more excited about the individual commitments that our guys are making and their commitment to what we need to get done as a team.”

That gets Tech fans excited. It’s also why the Hokies appear to be a trendy bet to finish in the upper echelon of the ACC and to receive one of those coveted at-large NCAA Tournament berths.

The investment has been made – by the coaching staff, the players and the fans. Only time will tell what the return will be.
Now, here’s a closer look at this year’s version of the Hokies.


Greenberg feels pretty good about his situation even with the departure of Mr. Everything – Washington. That’s because Vassallo, Malcolm Delaney and Hank Thorns all return to the Hokies’ backcourt.

Vassallo enjoyed a sensational season a year ago, leading the Hokies in scoring at 16.9 points per game. The senior from Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, hit 44.3 percent of his shots from the floor – respectable for a guard/forward – and 39.5 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. He hit a team-high 85 3-pointers on his way to earning All-ACC honors last season. He figures to be one of the league’s best players this season and the clear leader of this team.

“He reflects our philosophy. Each year, he’s pushed out the walls of his game,” Greenberg said. “Everyone thought he was just a shooter, but he’s a basketball player. He rebounds his position. He’s sneaky quick getting to the rim. He’s tough. He’s an underrated defender. He’s improved defensively.”

Delaney and Thorns suffered some growing pains as freshmen, but the two sophomores learned from that and figure to be much better because of that experience. Delaney started 24 games a year ago, and despite being a tremendous shooter, he served as the Hokies’ point guard for the most part. He’ll probably stay in that role, too.

“I’ll probably keep him at the point,” Greenberg said. “Because we’ve got those other wings.”

Thorns started 12 games, but during the second half of the season, he came off the bench to spell the starters at both guard spots. The 5-foot-9 dynamo averaged a team-leading 3.2 assists per game.

Greenberg could go with these three guys as his starting backcourt. But he also thinks quite highly of two other sophomores – Dorenzo Hudson and Terrell Bell – and those two continue to create competition in the backcourt. Hudson came in for the second semester last season and struggled from the floor, but Greenberg expects bigger things from him after he dropped 20 pounds over the summer and looks much quicker.

At 6-6 and blessed with long arms, Bell is the closest thing the Hokies have to someone with Washington’s skill set. The staff just hopes Bell buys into becoming the Hokies’ defensive stopper, as Washington was.

“We lost a stopper,” Greenberg said. “There’s no question about it. Terrell could be that guy. He’s much more confident than he was last year.”

Two walk-ons, Paul Debnam and Tom Amalfe, round out those looking for time in the backcourt. Greenberg thinks highly of these two because they make his prominent players work hard every day in practice.


A year ago, the Hokies actually out-rebounded their foes by an average of 37.3-33.2. But the Hokies’ season-ending loss to Ole Miss illustrated a problem when they faced teams with huge, physical post players. Tech got out-rebounded 46-23 by the brawny Rebels in that defeat.

The Hokies, though, should be much more effective in the post this season both on the boards and on the defensive end. Four post players return in the form of Jeff Allen, Cheick Diakite, Lewis Witcher and Terrance Vinson. Allen, Diakite and Witcher all started at various points last season.

Allen may be the most gifted player on this team. A year ago, he earned a spot on the ACC’s all-rookie team, but he disappeared at critical times. In the Hokies’ last two games of the season, he scored just six and seven points, respectively.

Those days may be over. Allen stayed in Blacksburg over the summer and got himself into tremendous shape. He’s also displaying an improved attitude and work ethic and Greenberg raved about him.

“I’m so proud of where he is now,” Greenberg said. “He’s in the best shape he’s been in during his adult life. But more importantly, he’s embracing his talent and his attitude and work ethic have been great. I’m really, really encouraged.”

Greenberg expects that same light to go on for Witcher, an extremely talented 6-9 junior who possesses the length and skills to be a double-digit scorer and rebounder and a big-time shot blocker in the ACC. And Greenberg wants to get more from Diakite, the other senior along with Vassallo. Diakite could provide some of the rebounding and defense in the post that Tech desperately needs. The 6-8 Vinson provides depth and leadership.

Greenberg and the staff also added two post players in last year’s recruiting class – 6-8, 245-pound Victor Davila and 6-11, 260-pound Gene Swindle. They rank as the two biggest players on the squad.

“Victor is a guy whose footwork is really, really good,” Greenberg said. “He has good patience around the basket and an understanding of how to score. If we can get his motor running full speed, he’s got a chance to be special.

“Gene is a work in progress. He’s a big, ol’ rascal. He’s got good feet and good hands and he’s strong as an ox. He wants to be good and he’s getting there.”

Tech just missed out on heading to the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row, with a few close losses early in the season hurting the team’s potential at-large berth, as they attempted break in a handful of freshmen (Penn State, ODU, Richmond). The Hokies ended up losing eight games by six points or less. But experience figures to go a long way toward rectifying that this season.

In addition to being more experienced, this team also has more depth. That gives Greenberg some flexibility to take advantage of potential mismatches.

“I think we’ve got nine or 10 guys who can contribute,” Greenberg said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to defend and attack more. I’m hoping we can extend our defense a little bit because of our numbers. I think our strength is in our numbers and that we have three guys who can legitimately score [Vassallo, Delaney and Allen]. And who knows who else will emerge.”

If the depth and experience merge together quickly, the Hokies could be in for a special season. Most prognosticators seem to think that will be the case.

Greenberg, though, cautioned about getting the cart in front of the horse.

“What gets it done is working. What gets it done is being tough. What gets it done is what you’re doing in the weight room,” he said. “Not talking or listening to what other people say.

“Our two words are ‘team’ and ‘commitment’ and if you’re committed to the team and coming in every day and busting your tail to get better and help the team … if you have a guy who isn’t doing that, then you need to hold that guy accountable. That will determine how successful we are.”