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March 10, 2011

DOUBLING UP - Jeff Allen doesn't like to talk much, but this much is sure - he's learned from his past and become a double-double machine in his senior season

By: Jimmy Robertson

Jeff Allen has been through some ups and downs in his career for the Hokies, but as a senior, he was a dominating force.

The question came at head basketball coach Seth Greenberg like most others.

It came in the news conference following the Hokies’ 102-77 win over Georgia Tech, a game in which Tech set a school record for points in an ACC game and a game in which star guard Malcolm Delaney netted a season-high 33 points.

“Do you think this team takes its cues from Malcolm?” a reporter asked.

Greenberg then provided a pretty direct answer.

“Honestly, I think it’s Jeff Allen,” he said.

That’s a bold answer, considering Delaney’s lengthy list of accomplishments, but it’s probably true.

One can cite many reasons for the Hokies’ success this season – Erick Green’s insertion into the starting lineup after Dorenzo Hudson’s injury, Delaney’s consistently great efforts, the unsung contributions of Terrell Bell and Victor Davila, etc.

But Allen, the Hokies’ top low-post presence, has played the best basketball of his tumultuous career.

The senior from Washington, D.C., set personal marks for double-doubles this season, including a stretch of seven consecutive spanning late January and early February. That marked the most consecutive double-doubles by a Tech player since at least 1978.

Not surprisingly, those also coincided with a streak in which the Hokies won 13 of 16 games.

“Our guys know that if Jeff Allen is into it and playing, then we’ve got a good chance of winning,” Greenberg said. “That guy affects the game in a lot of ways. Now, obviously, our seniors, as a group, give us leadership. But when Jeff is playing, that’s when we’re really good. When we’re getting Jeff and keeping him engaged in the game and he’s getting 15 shot attempts and snatching offensive rebounds and running the court, that’s when we’re really good.”

Allen’s efforts have been refreshing and rewarding for Greenberg and Hokie fans. He possesses that rare blend of talent and athleticism.

But getting to this point has been a journey – and at times, not a pleasant one – and getting him to open up about that journey wasn’t easy.

In a recent interview, Allen said he considered teammate JT Thompson as one of his closest friends. So Thompson, always polite, agreed to spill the beans on his friend and video-game-playing cohort.

He politely fielded the obligatory questions about Allen’s hoops exploits. But when asked his knowledge of Allen’s hometown, his family, his past, etc., Thompson wanted to call a 30-second timeout.

“I guess I don’t know as much about him as I thought,” Thompson laughed.

Not many do. That’s because Allen rarely opens up to anyone. Even after his tremendous performances on the court, he usually answers questions with a sentence, maybe two at best. Getting him to expand on his personal life is even a more daunting task, perhaps bordering on impossible.

Yet it goes far in helping people understand Allen.

The young man grew up in the crime-ridden Trinidad section of northeast Washington, D.C. He lived with his mother, grandmother and younger brother and sister, and he said that there was always something to do in the area.

Unfortunately, most of it was bad.

“Something like that,” he said. “I really don’t like to talk about it.”

He also hedged on talking about his father, who wasn’t around much. In fact, his father wasn’t around at all during Allen’s teenage years after being sent to jail when Allen was 12 years old.

His father remains there, though Allen refused to divulge any details as to why.

“We’re cool now,” Allen said. “He was in jail then. We talk now. We have a good relationship, but he’s still in jail. He calls me when he can.”

Without a father figure, Allen seemed destined to become a victim of the streets, like so many others. Fortunately, basketball offered him an assist.

He started playing as a young kid and became pretty good. Then he got noticed in middle school, and an AAU coach named Tony Langley invited him to join his squad. Langley became his mentor and probably saved his life in the process.

“He had seen me play in elementary school, and he talked to my mom,” Allen said. “I started playing with him, and I got better. Instead of being out on the streets, I was playing basketball.”

Langley ultimately steered him to DeMatha Catholic High School, a popular private boys’ school in Maryland designed to prepare young men for college. It seemed like the perfect place, offering Allen a shot at a future. But he struggled under the school’s strict guidelines, and he hated it there.

“It was an all-boys school, and it was a Catholic school,” Allen said. “It was real strict.

“My grades were starting to drop. I guess my mom thought it was because I was at home [Washington, D.C.]. I wasn’t really doing my homework and stuff. So I had to get away.”

He spent two years there. Then, Langley and DeMatha basketball coach Mike Jones shepherded Allen to Oak Hill, a tiny boarding school – and basketball factory – in Mouth of Wilson, Va., near the North Carolina border for his senior season. Allen started on a team that could have beaten most college teams.

Oak Hill’s lineup featured Mike Beasley and Ty Lawson, two guys currently in the NBA. It also had former Maryland star Landon Milbourne, current Duke standout Nolan Smith and current Michigan player Anthony Wright.

Allen played well, and he enjoyed playing with such a star-studded cast despite the school’s isolation from the world.

“There’s not even a town, really,” he said. “It’s just Oak Hill and woods. We weren’t there that much. Only after basketball season was over. But it was fun playing with those guys. It was competitive every day in practice.”

Attracting the notice of college recruiters, he decided to take an official visit to Virginia Tech. He committed on the spot, citing the atmosphere and being close to his mom in D.C. It went unsaid that the shy, young man didn’t want the attention that the recruiting process brought.

Allen, though, wound up at Hargrave Military Academy for a year first, shoring up his academic credentials before coming to Tech. Chatham, Va., served as a stopping point, and it featured a little more of a social scene than Oak Hill, though not by much.

“It was kind of the same, just a little more strict. It was alright,” he said. “By then, I was just ready to get out of school.”

Allen’s first three years at Tech were a combination of dazzling displays of basketball sprinkled with an occasional burst of ugliness.

He recorded a double-double in his first collegiate game, scoring 19 points and grabbing 10 rebounds against Elon. That marked the first of 10 double-doubles that season, and as a freshman, he averaged a respectable 11.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.

But in a January game against Georgia Tech in Atlanta, he bumped official Zelton Steed after fouling out. That resulted in a two-game suspension, courtesy of the ACC office.

As a sophomore, he averaged 13.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. But again, an incident at Maryland marred a quality season. After fouling out, he made a derogatory gesture at a fan, and the television cameras caught it. Allen said the fan hurled a racial remark at him. His gesture, though, earned him a one-game suspension from Tech AD Jim Weaver.

Last season, Allen averaged 12 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. But in a Jan. 28 game against Virginia that season, he was ejected for a flagrant foul, albeit a questionable one.

For a guy who shuns attention, he’s brought a lot of it on himself.

“Jeff really wishes he hadn’t done those things,” Thompson said. “He knows he shouldn’t have done that stuff. He’s often told me he wishes he could take them back. But you can’t. You just have to learn from them and move forward.”

“I’ve gotten older,” Allen said. “All that stuff’s in the past. I’ve changed since then. There are a lot of mistakes I made back then that I don’t make now.”

That certainly appears to be the case. In this, his senior season, his play stands nothing short of remarkable and warrants All-ACC recognition. He and Maryland’s Jordan Williams were the only two players in the conference to average a double-double.

Part of his success can be attributed to staying on the court for longer spells. Allen has fouled out of 20 games in his career, and it comes as no surprise that the Hokies are 4-16 in those games.

That includes five games this season, but all five came before Christmas. Once the calendar turned, he turned into a dominating force. In conference play, he averaged nearly 16 points and 11 rebounds, robust numbers to say the least. He established a Tech record for rebounds in an ACC game with 19 in a loss at BC.

So yes, his success partly comes back to staying on the court. But it goes deeper. It gets back to maturity and learning from past mistakes.

“His focus is really, really good,” Greenberg said. “His attention to detail is really good.

“He’s just playing well. He’s playing smart. He’s moving his feet. He’s like Pac-Man. He’s gobbling up rebounds. He’s just playing well.”

“Jeff knows how important he is for this team, and that’s why I think his maturity helped him out this year,” Delaney said. “He knows he has to be on the floor and doing what he’s capable of doing for us to be an NCAA team and to get to our goals. He’s been doing a good job with that, playing smarter. He’s not committing the dumb fouls. He’s staying on the court more. He’s just playing how he’s capable of playing.”

His playing career will end with the end of Tech’s postseason run. But his future remains up in the air.

Allen said he needed the summer to finish up coursework toward a degree in sociology. But he wants to get started on a professional basketball career, and there’s another person to consider in the equation – Allen and his girlfriend have a daughter named Londyn, who turns 2 in May. He wants her to have a better life than his as a child.

“Hopefully, I’ll make it to the pros,” Allen said. “I want to play basketball somewhere. The NBA is my dream. If that doesn’t work out, I want to play somewhere for money.”

Based on numbers, Allen ranks as one of the best basketball players in Virginia Tech history. He is the only active ACC player with more than 1,500 career points, 1,000 career rebounds and 200 career steals. He ranks in the top 15 in scoring at Tech and the top five in rebounding, steals and blocked shots (see chart).


10. Ace Custis (1,706)
11. Wally Lancaster (1,696)
12. Bryant Matthews (1,656)
13. Bill Matthews (1,652)
14. Jeff Allen (1,648)

1. Chris Smith (1,508)
2. Bill Matthews (1,379)
3. Ace Custis (1,117)
4. Jeff Allen (1,072)

Blocked shots
1. Roy Brow (251)
2. Jimmy Carruth (194)
3. Bobby Beecher (170)
4. Rolan Roberts (167)
5. Jeff Allen (149)

1. Dell Curry (295)
2. Jamon Gordon (290)
3. Zabian Dowdell (241)
4. Jeff Allen (225)

Those are quite lofty numbers for a shy, young man who came to Tech without any expectations. He just wanted to play a little basketball.

The only question that remains is how Jeff Allen will be remembered. Will Tech fans point to his transgressions? Or do they view him as one of the greatest Hokie players of all time.

Allen said one thing is for sure.

“I feel like I’ll be remembered,” he said. “Hopefully, in a good way.”