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October 10, 2011

Return of injured players and arrival of talented freshmen usher in a new era for Tech hoops

By: Jimmy Robertson

Given that the Virginia Tech basketball program lost the third-leading scorer in school history, the fourth-leading rebounder and fifth-leading shot blocker in school history, and a role player who contributions were incalculable, it would be easy to forget all about the Hokies this upcoming season.

Senior Victor Davila has started 77 games in his career and will be a player to watch for the 2011-12 season.

But that would not be advisable.

Sure, Tech lost Malcolm Delaney (2,255 points), Jeff Allen (1,702 points, 1,111 rebounds and 150 blocks) and Terrell Bell (577 points and 518 rebounds) and their combined 324 starts. But the 2011-12 Hokies feature two returning starters from last year. They also return three players who missed last season with injuries, including an All-ACC player from two years ago in Dorenzo Hudson and an experienced role player in JT Thompson.

So combine that with five freshmen from maybe Seth Greenberg’s best recruiting class – one ranked in the top 15 by – and you can see why Greenberg quietly likes his team and likes the Hokies’ chances of returning to postseason play for the sixth straight year.

“It’s very rare to have three players [Hudson, Thompson and Cadarian Raines] that you expect to contribute [last season] sitting out due to injury,” Greenberg said. “Two of them have a wealth of experience and understand what it takes to be successful at the highest level. So, despite having lost two of the most efficient, effective and statistically elite players in the history of the program, I’m extremely optimistic and excited about the upcoming season.”

Tech’s chances for a return to postseason play hinge primarily on the continued development of guard Erick Green and the return to form of both Hudson, who missed most of last season with a foot injury, and Thompson, who tore his ACL in an offseason pick-up game last summer. Both Hudson and Thompson received medical hardship waivers.

Hudson, a senior, played in nine games last year before deciding to shut it down, and he averaged 10.4 points per game in that span. He averaged 15.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game and earned third-team All-ACC honors as a junior, so the injury robbed Tech of a potent offensive weapon last season.

However, Hudson’s injury allowed Green to blossom. The junior from Winchester, Va., started 26 games and averaged 11.6 points and nearly three assists per game, even playing next to a scoring machine like Delaney.

“Erick is one of the elite guards in the ACC,” Greenberg said. “He’s got a new set of obstacles in that he’s going to draw the other team’s best defender. There’s going to be an added pressure on him, but he’s worked extremely hard on his body and his game. I think he’s going to be a much-improved 3-point shooter. I think he’s embraced the leadership role. We expect him to be a player who can lead us.”

Replacing Bell may be Greenberg’s most difficult task because of Bell’s versatility. He defended multiple positions and knew his role on offense.

But small forward might be the deepest and most talented position on this squad. Sophomore Jarell Eddie and talented freshman Dorian Finney-Smith figure to be the front-runners for the starting nod. Eddie played in 27 games a year ago and showed his talent with a dazzling display at Wake Forest in which he scored 17 points and made all six of his shots from the floor.

Finney-Smith ranked as one of the best players in the nation last season after leading I.C. Norcom High in Portsmouth, Va., to its second straight state championship. He averaged 18 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game en route to being named the state’s player of the year. His 6-foot-8 frame and his versatility allows him to play any number of positions.

“I think Bell is a hard player to replace, not only defensively, but also in his willingness to embrace a role,” Greenberg said. “His role will be taken up by Dorian, Jarell and maybe Robert Brown.

“Dorian has a lot of his [Bell’s] traits. He’s a guy in terms of those attributes – not just the position, but the attributes – who will fill some of that void.”

The rest of the backcourt includes sophomore Tyrone Garland and freshmen Marquis Rankin and Robert Brown. Garland struggled with the transition to college basketball last season, but the staff expects improvement. Rankin, a point guard from Charlotte, and Brown, a guard/forward from Clermont, Fla., played together at Hargrave last season along with power forward C.J. Barksdale. Rankin excels in an up-tempo environment, while Brown can really shoot it.

“Ty Garland is a guy who cut his teeth a little last year,” Greenberg said. “He’s explosive off the dribble, and I think the dribble-drive stuff we’re going to be doing is going to help him. I want to see him guard harder.

“Marquis has tremendous leadership skills. He can really guard the ball, and he’s not afraid to guard the ball. He pushes it at a high speed. He’s a better shooter than people realize. He looks to make plays for others.

“Robert is a big-time scorer. He’s got to continue to get stronger with the ball, but he’s got the potential to be an accomplished offensive player.”

Tech’s frontcourt isn’t quite as settled as the backcourt, though center/power forward Victor Davila returns. Davila, a senior who has started 77 games in his first three years, averaged 7.4 points and 5.1 rebounds per game last season.

Also, two players who missed last season with injuries return. Thompson averaged 7.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in a reserve role his junior season. He gives Tech energy and toughness, and he’ll need to help replace some of Allen’s substantial production.

Cadarian Raines played in four games last season, but missed the rest of the season with a foot injury and received a medical hardship waiver. At 6-9, 240 pounds, Raines is the biggest Hokie, but after two surgeries on his foot, one wonders about his impact.

Barksdale and Joey van Zegeren round out the post players. Both possess size and a ton of potential, with Barksdale probably closer to helping right away. Either or both need to emerge to give the Hokies some depth.

“We’d like to have a little more depth at the 4,” Greenberg said. “But you’ve got JT, who has competed at a high level, and C.J. has the bulk. He just has to learn how to play basketball at this level. Having said that, he’s a productive player.

“We need Victor to have a big season. I think that’s really important. He can’t tease us. He’s teased us in the past. He’s done some special things. Late in the Duke game [a 64-60 Tech win], the guy was phenomenal. That’s what we’re going to expect of him all the time. That’s what he’s capable of doing.”

Actually, all of Tech’s roster needs to contribute to replace the production of Delaney, Allen and Bell. After all, those three combined for 4,534 points, 1,993 rebounds, 896 assists and 484 steals – and 87 wins.

But the Hokies have the talent and a confidence about them. Those who forget this group in 2011-12 do so at their own peril.