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January 9, 2009

Hoops team hoping recent trend holds form

By: Jimmy Robertson

Malcolm Delaney and the Hokies are expecting to see even better results the second half of the season.

With the spring semester set to begin, it’s time for a little refresher course concerning the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team.
During the 2006-07 season, the Hokies, led by guards Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon, started the season 10-4 heading into January. They had lost to the likes of Western Michigan, George Washington and Marshall.

How did that season wind up? The Hokies finished 10-6 in the ACC and made it to the NCAA Tournament.

Last season, the Hokies, with a plethora of freshmen seeing extended minutes, started the season 8-6 after 14 games and headed into January with losses to Penn State, Old Dominion and Richmond.

How did last season wind up? You know the story. The Hokies went 9-7 in league play and received an NIT bid.

This season, the Hokies find themselves in a parallel situation. Tech sat at 9-5 after 14 games, with an 0-1 mark in the league following a migraine-inducing performance against Duke, a game the Hokies lost by 25 points at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 5.

The pessimists view the season as half empty. The optimists hope the recent trend holds form.

“I hope that’s true this year, too. I guess I’m not very smart,” Tech coach Seth Greenberg joked one day after the Duke debacle. “It takes me a while to figure it out.”

An examination of the rubble following the Duke game revealed some positives. Tech got off to a horrid start, falling behind 11-0. Yet with 17 minutes and change left, the Hokies cut that lead to four, 39-35, on a bucket by Cheick Diakite.

After that, of course, the landslide began. Duke outscored Tech 30-9 the rest of the way, as the Hokies scored just 13 second-half points in their lowest output (44 points) of the season and lowest since 2000.

Still, positives could be found. Diakite, a senior from Mali, played well in the post (more on him below). And maligned sophomore guard Hank Thorns, seeing his first action in three games (knee injury), played 21 turnover-free minutes. That enabled Malcolm Delaney to play his more natural shooting guard spot, and he scored 12 points on a solid 6-of-12 from the floor.

“I felt like we could attack them the whole game, and I think in the second half, after we went on that 4-0 run [to start the second half], we kind of went away from it,” Delaney said. “We started reacting to them more. I think we just got out of what we were doing good and started responding to them.”

Perhaps more importantly concerning this loss, Greenberg came away with some knowledge regarding his team. And that falls in line with the Hokies’ second-half performances the past two seasons.

“We’ve got to figure out rotations and roles, and you really can’t get that figured out until you get to league play,” Greenberg said. “I think, in general, when we get into league play, we get into that mindset of having a little chip and having something to prove. I think it’s a process to figure your team out and sometimes it takes a little longer.

“I think we’re close to figuring it out and I think we took a step closer in terms of figuring out how we’re going to guard. Each year, we’re going to do something a little different defensively, and I think I’ve got a better handle of how this team needs to guard without Deron [Washington]. I’ve got one part of the problem resolved. Now we’ve got to figure out where we’re going to get another guy who can score the ball.”

Greenberg plans on playing more of a containment defense as opposed to pressing and chasing. On offense, the Hokies need their big three – Delaney, Jeff Allen and A.D. Vassallo – to score. Allen and Vassallo didn’t get in double figures against the Blue Devils (of course, they only took 13 shots combined), but Greenberg worries little about them. He’s referring to finding that fourth guy.

Tech needs not to panic. It possesses three players capable of filling it up on any night, and the Hokies play solid defense (Duke only shot 40 percent). Plus, the Hokies have been in this situation before, including last season when they lost 92-53 to UNC in Chapel Hill. They won four straight following that one.

“This game is not going to kill us,” Delaney said. “This could be like one of the Carolina games last year where it takes this to help us respond, so hopefully that’s what it does.”

“It’s one game,” Greenberg said. “We’ve got 16 more conference games for sure, including the conference tournament. Going into the 16-minute timeout, we had a chance to win and then we stunk it up. There’s no magic dust. It’s a process. It’s one league game.”

There is plenty of time left in the season. The Hokies know they usually get better as the season winds along.

Need proof? Just look at the recent trends. They tell the story.

Diakite a bright spot at Duke

Diakite was one of the lone bright spots for the Hokies in their game at Duke. The Mali native scored a season-high eight points, hitting 4-of-6 from the floor. He also grabbed five rebounds and blocked three shots in 20 minutes.

Diakite has been getting more minutes in the post in place of freshman Victor Davila. Davila started against St. John’s, Charleston Southern and Duke, but in the latter two games, played just two and seven minutes, respectively, and did not score.

“Cheick’s played well,” Greenberg said. “He was playing hard. So he earned it.”

That’s not to say Greenberg is down on Davila by any means.

“We’ve got to throw him the ball,” Greenberg said. “He can score. I believe he can be another double-figure scorer. We’ve got to empower him and give him the ball. He’s got good hands and he’s got good footwork. He’s got an array of offensive moves around the block, and we’ve got to get more confidence in getting him the ball.

“He’s not as mature as Cheick and he doesn’t block shots the way Cheick does. He’s got to get tougher and put a body on someone and rebound the ball. But I do think that he can give us another scoring option.”

Delaney named MVP of Holiday Festival

Delaney played every single minute in the Holiday Festival held at Madison Square Garden because of a knee injury to Thorns. But that didn’t bother the sophomore from Baltimore, who was named the most valuable player in the tournament – which the Hokies won by downing Columbia 64-52 and then knocking off St. John’s 81-67.

In the championship game against the Red Storm, Delaney scored 22 points, hitting 7-of-16 from the floor. He also dished out eight assists and nabbed five steals.

His assist total tied his career high (Charleston Southern, last January), while the steals total marked his career high. His previous high of four steals came in losses at North Carolina and Wake Forest last season.

In the first game of the tournament, Delaney tied his career high with 25 points in Tech’s 64-52 win over Columbia. He hit 8-of-15 from the floor. He also dished out four assists and grabbed a career-high nine rebounds, surpassing his eight rebounds in Tech’s win over BC last February.

Vassallo also made the all-tournament team. He scored 16 points in the Columbia game and 24 in the victory over St. John’s. Vassallo averaged 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game in the tournament.

Vassallo did not the start the game against Columbia while being punished for a violation of team rules, snapping his consecutive starts streak. The senior from Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, had started 49 consecutive games.

Thompson working his way back

After missing the first 10 games of the season because of injuries (eight because of a hernia, two because of a sprained foot), J.T. Thompson made his season debut in the Hokies’ victory over Columbia. The sophomore from Monroe, N.C., played 24 minutes in the game and scored two points, but grabbed four rebounds.

He was much better in the St. John’s game. He came off the bench to grab 10 rebounds in 18 minutes of action. He scored four points, hitting 2-of-6 from the floor.

He scored a career-high 15 points against Charleston Southern, hitting 5-of-7 from the floor. He previous career high of 14 points came last season at BC.

“He still needs to get a feel for the flow of the game,” Greenberg said. “He missed the whole preseason. Just learning what we’re doing. Defensively, being alert to get to the right spot quickly enough. He’s an ‘X’ factor for our team. We need him playing at a high level.”

Allen tops 20-board mark

Jeff Allen has been leading the Hokies in rebounding in just about every game this season.

On Dec. 14, the Hokies downed Longwood 79-57 in a non-conference game at Cassell Coliseum, and the story of the game was the performance of Jeff Allen.

Allen, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound sophomore from Washington, D.C., dominated the smaller Lancers inside. He scored 19 points, hitting 7-of-11 from the floor and 5-of-9 from the free-throw line. But more impressively, he dominated on the glass, grabbing a career-high 21 rebounds. He surpassed his previous career high of 17 rebounds, which he recorded in the Seton Hall game at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan earlier this season.

“They were a small team,” Allen said of Longwood. “Coach [Greenberg] told us we needed to pick up our rebounding and I felt like I needed to get a lot more rebounds. So that’s what I did.”

His rebounding performance marked the best by a Tech player since 1986 when Russell Pierre grabbed 22 rebounds in a loss to Florida. Pierre transferred to Tech from N.C. State, but played in just three games as a Hokie. He was ruled ineligible after it came to light that he had not met the NCAA’s minimum hour requirement. Tech forfeited two wins as a result of the games in which Pierre played.