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12 Aspirations for the Hokie Men's Basketball Program
by Jeff Ouellet, 3/18/04

In a previous column I offered 12 suggestions to the Hokie football program – I am sure Coach Beamer’s thank you card is in the mail – but I don’t want to make Coach Greenberg feel excluded. Understanding, of course, he is in a very difficult spot given the current composition of the roster, scholarship number limitations, and the level of competition, here are some philosophical thoughts on what it will take to become a midlevel program in the ACC over the next three-four years.

  1. Play great team defense. If you want to compete against the best teams in the country, this is an absolute necessity. Look at the ACC. Duke plays great defense. Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and N.C. State all play very good defense. Maryland plays good defense that can appear great at times because they are athletic enough to block shots. Roy Williams will demand that Carolina plays good defense once he has a shot blocker and enough depth to bench guys like Rashad McCants and Sean May when their defensive effort lapses. Of all aspects of the game of basketball, the one that the players themselves control the most is defense. Shooting will come and go over the course of a season and rebounding can have an element of luck (over the short term anyway – not over the course of a season), but great team defense is about effort and playing intelligently. If you play great defense, you give yourself more margin for error when your shots aren’t falling.

  2. Have man-to-man as your primary defense. Basketball is a team game, no doubt, but it is composed of five individual confrontations in any given possession. Most basketball players thrive on that individual competition or they wouldn’t have gotten to be a high major division I player. Man to man is the most aggressive defense, it demands individual accountability, and it makes it easier to block out for rebounding (a necessity when a team lacks size, as the Hokies likely will for the foreseeable future). There are some teams that run zone primarily and very well – like Temple and Syracuse – and zone has its place when a team lacks depth, has foul trouble or the opponent can’t shoot from the outside. With that being said, right now almost everyone in the ACC has someone that can drain threes if left alone (J.J. Redick, McCants, B.J. Elder, Justin Gray, etc.) so zone should be played sparingly. When zone is used, I think VT would be best served by playing aggressively in a 1-3-1 and using the length of their players rather than employing a 2-3.

  3. Take care of the ball. This is an area where VT did a fantastic job this year. A stat that just boggles my mind: VT’s all-freshman backcourt against Big East competition totaled more steals on the year (118) than turnovers (117). That needs to continue because almost everyone in the ACC plays defense and has great athletes. The quickest way to lose a game is to turn the ball over 20 times. Turnovers lead to fast breaks, and the ACC has too many tremendous point guards (I think I broke my ankle twice this year just watching Raymond Felton and Chris Paul) and wing finishers for a team to treat the ball like a hand grenade and expect to win. It is also important to acknowledge the difference between a "good" turnover (a coaching oxymoron) and a bad turnover. A good turnover would be one where the risk is worth the reward, the idea was solid but perhaps the physical execution lacking, and the turnover results in the ball out of bounds to the other team so there isn’t a fast break opportunity. A bad turnover is when there is 30 seconds left on the shot clock and the point guard makes a lazy wing pass to initiate the offense leading to an Isma’il Muhammed steal and posterization of the poor guy trying to catch him. Turnovers made out of being offensively aggressive are far more palatable than unforced mistakes that lead directly to points.

  4. Push the ball opportunistically. This may seem inconsistent with the point I made directly above, but pushing the ball is very, very important because it enables players to get easier offensive looks and, at least initially, VT is going to have a tough time scoring against ACC set defenses. Everyone talks about SportsCenter highlights and the spectacular dunk, but employing the three point shot well in transition is equally imperative.

  5. Use dribble penetration to set up the three point shot. Just jacking up three pointers is not a good way to consistently win in the ACC, especially when you have a talent deficit. In fact, it’s not even a good way to win at the local Y. Relying heavily on three pointers takes away offensive aggressiveness and results in drawing fewer fouls and generally keeping post players involved. With all the banging that "bigs" are required to do (have you seen the shoulders on Sheldon Williams?) they want and deserve some touches. However, the three point shot is imperative for the obvious mathematical reason that shooting 33% from 3 point land equates to 50% from inside the arc. The solution: use dribble penetration, or crisp passing, or both, to get open looks for your deep shooters. If you want to see a team that does this extremely well, watch St. Joe’s and the way Jameer Nelson, Delonte West, Tyrone Barley and Pat Carroll move the ball to create open three point shots.

  6. Recruit good guards. What do the last three points on this list all have in common? Yep, good guard play. With the short three point shot, the finishing ability of top notch Division I wing players, and the dearth of big men, guards rule college basketball. While landing a great guard is never easy, there also are more terrific 6’2" high school players out there than 6’10" players, and many of college basketball’s best guards were either under recruited or generally lightly regarded: Jameer Nelson, Blake Stepp (Gonzaga), Travis Diener (Marquette), Marques Green (St. Bonaventure), and Luis Flores (Manhattan) weren’t on a whole lot of top 100 lists. The 13 scholarship limit means that Duke, Carolina, UCLA and Kansas can’t hoard all the backcourt talent. Jamon Gordon and Zabian Dowdell are excellent examples. Dowdell wasn’t highly regarded nationally, but he did a nice job this year as a freshman. Gordon was more highly touted, but Ricky Stokes did a nice job identifying him as a good prospect and, unlike some other schools, VT didn’t waiver while he was waiting to see if he would be eligible.

  7. When in doubt, sign an athletic wing. I give Coach Greenberg enormous credit for using (perhaps) his last available scholarship this year to sign 6’7" wing Deron Washington. Everyone knows VT desperately needs big men, but VT more desperately needs talented players. If VT didn’t have a shot at a good big (6’8" or above), then VT should have signed the best available player. Washington appears to have the ability to contribute soon, and he’s a good athlete which should mean that he could contribute at any number of positions if necessary. Coach K has made a living off utilizing great wing athletes, and that’s why a solid 6’7" athlete who has some skill is never a bad signee.

  8. Don’t waste a scholarship on a big stiff. Just ‘cause you can tape a horn to a horse doesn’t make it a unicorn. Translating that theory to the hardwood, just because a guy is 7 feet doesn’t mean he can play. The game has changed a lot over the past decade. In the early 1990’s, UNC had three 7 footers on one team: Eric Montross, Kevin Salvadore and the unforgettable Matt Wenstrom. Now the whole league has one seven footer, Luke Schenscher of Georgia Tech, and he’s from Australia. There are a lot of power forwards masquerading as centers in college basketball these days, in part because if you can walk and chew gum at the same time, the NBA will look at you (DeSagna Diop, nice call on ditching the Cavs for the – umm - Cavs) so there isn’t a need to recruit a big kid with questionable skills. NBA scouts have gone way beyond checking out high school kids in the class of 2004: they are already reviewing sophomores in high school like 6’11"Greg Oden, 7’1" Jason Bennett, 6’8" Derrick Caracter and, yes, even 6’9" Norfolk star Vernon "Big Ticket" Macklin. With the really talented kids just going straight to the League, most teams can get away with one true big and three guards.

  9. Do take a chance on a springy 6’9" kid. Just because the ACC lacks centers doesn’t mean they don’t have guys that can score in the paint. Sheldon Williams, Sean May and Eric Williams all are a load inside at 6’8"-6’9", and you have to have someone that can at least battle them down on the blocks. While I’d love to tell Coach Greenberg to go get David Harrison, Brian Butch or David Padgett, the truth is it is going to be very tough to win those recruiting battles. Even leaving the land of McDonald’s all Americans, landing a top 35-75 6’10" kid like Chris Taft, Courtney Sims or Darryl Watkins will be really tough unless VT makes some NCAA runs. A more realistic approach at this point is to take your shot with a kid like Jamar Smith at Maryland who was a Juco transfer that had athletic skills and has blossomed into a defensive force for the Terps. I do realize these kids don’t grow on trees, but this is a long term wish list and that’s where I think the center position in college basketball is going for all but the elite programs. Duke and UNC may be able to play "Rent a Center" for one year prior to the call of the NBA, but for most of the other ACC programs that isn’t plausible (conceding that GT just did that last year with Chris Bosh). Perhaps the single VT player who has piqued my curiosity for next season is Allen Calloway. I think he’s got a lot of athletic upside and might be able to help significantly next year, but he’ll have to get stronger and more consistent. If he does, he might provide a "springy" inside presence next to Coleman Collins.

  10. Establish an in-state recruiting presence. I am not suggesting that Coach Greenberg "settle" for talent, but there are a lot of top 50-100 guys in the Commonwealth that VT will have a shot to recruit with the ACC behind their program. I realize Duke and Carolina at first will still be able to cherry pick the best talent, but eventually success builds on itself. Want an example? Check out Wisconsin. Of the twelve returning players on their roster this year, nine of them were from Wisconsin, two were from Illinois and one was from Austria. After experiencing some success lately with in-state players, Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan went out last year on the recruiting trail and beat UNC for a Wisconsin in-state big man named Brian Butch who was a 7 foot McDonald’s all-American. Do they land Butch without that presence? I doubt it. For an example closer to home, look at Wake. Five of their returning players were from North Carolina: Taron Downey, Justin Gray, Richard Joyce, Trent Strickland and (the only top 50 kid of the bunch) Eric Williams. None of those kids had Duke or Carolina offers, yet along with Josh Howard they helped form the nucleus of an ACC regular season champion last year. Wake also nabbed three of their four signees last year from North Carolina, including top national 10 freshman and future superstar Chris Paul (he already is good enough to have an annoying Dick Vitale nickname). Paul grew up a lifetime UNC fan, but Wake offered him early and Paul already had established relationships with some of the Deacs players so when Matt Doherty offered late, Paul said no thanks. Again, this recruiting success presupposes that the VT program shows signs of revival. No matter how many friends there are on the team, Butch doesn’t go to Wisconsin or Paul doesn’t go to Wake if they won four conference games the year before. My point, however, is that Virginia has enough ACC level talent below the Duke/UNC recruiting radar for VT to be successful, and perhaps procuring enough of that talent will enable the Hokies to one day nab a kid with the chance to go to Duke or Carolina.

  11. Recruit outside the box. I’m all for the patriotic movement in the wake of 9/11, but we need to check that at the door with respect to basketball recruiting. If you have even a passing interest in the NBA draft, you know about the significant influx of foreign talent in the last few years. This year as many as half the lottery picks might be born outside of the U.S. The best chance for landing a big stud for the next decade may very well be a recruiting trip to someplace like Australia, as Utah did this past season in landing 6’10" Andrew Bogut, who is averaging a double-double as a freshman. It takes time to develop international relationships with coaches, but that is an area that Coach Greenberg will explore, especially with the connections already in place with Assistant Coach Ryan Odom.

  12. Hold serve at home. If you want to have any success in the ACC, you must win at home. Cassell, when full, is a very intimidating environment. There is absolutely, positively no reason that Cassell should not be sold out for every ACC game with over 25,000 students on campus and an arena that seats less than 10,000 people.

In the wake of what has been a tremendous year by VT, those are some of my thoughts as to what it will take for the Hokies to become competitive in the best basketball conference in the country.

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