Gym Rat's Notebook: 10 Keys to VT's First ACC Season (Part 1)
by Elijah Kyle, 11/5/04

Practice is two weeks old, the court in the main coliseum is clearly close to being ready for ACC basketball with the subtle updated changes, and many people are counting down the days until December 19, when North Carolina arrives at the Cassell for the first Virginia Tech ACC conference basketball game. But while most everyone acknowledges the steep road that the program has in trying to make some noise and become a bona fide player in the conference, year two of the Greenberg reign will be closely monitored to gauge just exactly where the Hokies will fit within the conference hierarchy.

We all know that the quality of basketball has just gotten better with the arrival of sixteen ACC conference games on the schedule. We all know about the year-in-and-year-out success of ACC programs in the NCAA Tournament. We all know that most everyone will understandably predict that Virginia Tech and Miami will take up residence in the bottom of the conference standings. We all know that after achieving 7 conference victories during the final Big East Conference campaign, few would expect the Hokies to come close to matching that total in the first season in the ACC.

But exactly what might we look for in this first season, now that it is so close, and what areas might help shape the season overall? Aside from looking at the best barometer of success -- the team record -- what other aspects might make the inaugural ACC season a success? Well, from this view, there are 10 keys that could very well end up determining the overall success of the season, and while they will likely shape the overall team record, they are really independent of that aspect.

In no particular order, five of ten key questions that might have a substantial impact on the season are listed below. In next week’s notebook, we will discuss the remaining five keys.

Key #1: Cleaning The Glass

Losing the 8.9 rebounds that senior forward Bryant Matthews took with him when he graduated leaves a huge void on the team to fill. 6-3 guard Jamon Gordan is the leading returning rebounder on the team from last year, with his 4.4 average.

The Hokies pulled down 34.7 rebounds per game last season, being out-rebounded by their opponents for the season last year by one full rebound a game. And that was with Matthews, who was undoubtedly the best rebounder on the team. Looking to replace your best rebounder, with no obvious replacement in place or among your incoming recruits, and to keep your team rebounding deficit from last year from ballooning, will be a very serious challenge for Greenberg and this team.

Someone will have to step up and get those 9 rebounds that the Hokies lost in Matthews. Someone will have to step up and prove that they can get the tough rebounds in traffic late in a road game in a hostile arena, where often the play is more physical at the end than earlier in the game. Someone will have to get the “man” type of rebounds that teams have to have in competitive, physical games which are predicated on securing as many possessions as possible late in a game.

Coleman Collins is the most obvious choice to improve upon his 3.7 average from a year ago, accumulated in less than 24 minutes per game. But it will take others. Carlos Dixon must be a dependable rebounder. Deron Washington, despite his narrow frame, is a player that brings a history of being a good rebounder. Whether he can do so effectively at 190 pounds, and playing minutes at the power forward remains to be seen.

Key #2: The Matthews Hardball Factor

No, this isn’t a roundtable discussion among the group of political experts talking about the latest tracking poll on the Presidential Election on Chris Matthews’ Hardball show. But there is a “hardball” factor that needs to be discussed concerning this year’s edition of the Hokies, the hard-playing, intense, consistent efforts that Bryant Matthews brought to the table last year. Matthews averaged 22.1 points and 8.9 rebounds, he shot 47.3% from the floor, and he lead the team in three point shooting.

Replacing those numbers will be a large task, but it was much more than that which was provided by Matthews. His play allowed three freshmen starters to flourish while finding themselves last year, knowing that Matthews would always draw the bulk of the attention from opponents. Matthews’ excellence allowed Coleman Collins especially to get better looks at the basket than he might expect to see this year, given that Matthews drew so much double team attention last year.

Matthews was looked to by a very young team for its big baskets, big shots, important rebounds and to lead the way. His consistent effort and intensity in practice and games paved a path for a very young team to follow. Finding some way, or some player, to step into that void should be carefully monitored this season. This is a new year and how each player will respond to the different attention they are sure to see from opponents will shape how effectively each will be from an individual standpoint.

Key #3: Turning Up The Heat

With a backcourt last year that saw two true freshmen average over 30 minutes per game, while a sophomore guard who had very little playing time as a freshman stepped into the lineup to average 32 minutes as well, one of the great mysteries of the season was in how little full court pressure this young and inexperienced backcourt saw during the course of the season. By and large, Zabian Dowdell, Jamon Gordan and Markus Sailes never really saw opponents turn up the heat with intense defensive pressure, especially during Big East Conference games. Why there wasn’t more pressure is unclear.

Perhaps it was the cockiness of conference opponents who had seen Virginia Tech finish out of the conference tournament in all three of the previous years. Perhaps they didn’t feel they really needed to game plan for Virginia Tech, and just needed to play their game and they would win. After three previous seasons of success against the Hokies, that could be understood. But, other than concentrated attention on Bryant Matthews, the team fortunately never saw any game in/game out defensive full court pressure.

That shouldn’t be the case this year. We can expect to see opponents in the ACC attack Tech with full court pressure. By adding freshman point guard Marquie Cooke to the mix, Greenberg has equipped his program with additional ball handling, and Cooke is a true point guard. But the backcourt will need to prove early on that it can capably handle pressure or else it will be inevitable all year. That is the modus operandi of many conference opponents.

Virginia Tech averaged 13.3 turnovers per game last season. Opponents averaged 18.1 turnovers. That 4.8 difference per game was both surprising, after earlier seasons under former coach Ricky Stokes that saw the team struggle with turnovers, and a very positive development. Maintaining that strong turnover ratio from last year could be a helpful occurrence toward having a successful season this year.

Key #4: Establishing A Defensive Personality

When you look at the season-ending team statistics from last year, there are several glaring problem areas that jump out at you, especially when surveying the defensive numbers from a year ago. Greenberg had some significant success with his 1-3-1 trapping half court pressure, and the team was able to force 18.1 turnovers per game from their opponents. This helped create some transition opportunities and it can be expected that Greenberg will continue to mine that well again this year.

But expanding upon that pressure package to incorporate some full court variations, and establishing a base half court defense should be watched closely. With interior size and depth limited last year, and with a player that was so critical to the team’s success that he had to insure that he stayed on the floor as often as possible, Greenberg may have played more zone last year than he would have liked. This year’s team is still lacking in depth and interior size, but it does have more depth along the perimeter, so seeing more full court pressure might be a direction that he looks toward moving.

In addition, Greenberg might also employ more man-to-man than was evident last season. Finding a defensive personality, and establishing that will be a key component for this team. Tech ranked dead last in the conference in field goal % defense last season by allowing opponents to shoot .458 from the floor. That figure actually spiked to .499 during conference games, also ranking last in the conference. The Hokies also allowed opponents to shoot .385 from the floor on three point attempts, ranking ahead of only Miami in the conference. The Hokies also ranked 12th in the conference in rebounding margin, so seeing some real tangible improvement in these areas, while adding some twists to last year’s defensive variations might help the team see defensive improvement, while establishing a team personality there.

Key #5: The Return of 'Los

Carlos Dixon was a three year starter under former coach Ricky Stokes before sitting out last season as a redshirt, due to injury. He returns for his final season under a new coach and to play in a conference that he grew up in the middle of, the ACC. Dixon has proven himself in the past to be a fine offensive contributor, capable ball handler and solid defender. With the loss of Matthews and his 22 points, Dixon is one player that can be expected to take up a significant part of the slack. Dixon can shoot the basketball, score in bunches and we have seen him take over games at times. He is also injury prone and prone to turnovers and suspect shot selection.

A thriving Dixon who is driven to have an outstanding senior season playing in the heart of the ACC could go a long way toward helping replace the contributions of Matthews. Dixon is truly a wild card on this team, and not having played before under Greenberg means both of them will need to rapidly learn about each other. Dixon will not walk right in and have a position given to him, especially with the four freshmen that Greenberg has added to the team to go along with the four returning starters. But Dixon can be a force on this team and can add in areas that the Hokies find themselves lacking, notably scoring, perimeter shooting and defense.

A huge final season from Dixon could be just the type of impetus that could help the team surprise people in their first ACC season. He is certainly capable of that, but also capable of maddening bouts of inconsistency, which serves only to tease and frustrate people at the talent that is there. Which 'Los will we see this year? That could be a very important issue to watch unfold.

Other Gym Rat Notebooks:

Hanging With the Big Boys - 10/15/04
Sobering Thoughts and a Dash of Culture - 8/9/04
Paging Ryan Odom, Paging Coach Ryan Odom - 6/18/04
Ch-Ch-Ch Changes - 6/18/04
ACC Recruiting Rankings - 5/25/04
Adding Another Piece - 5/19/04
Recruiting Hits Final Stretch - 5/11/04
The 5-8 Rule -- It's Finally Gone - 5/5/04
Help Could Be Looming on the Horizon - 4/23/04
A Look Ahead: The Backcourt - 4/16/04
A Look Ahead: The Frontcourt - 4/8/04
There's No Place Like Home, Toto - 4/1/04
About the Over/Under? - 3/26/04
Did You Say Four, or Forty? - 3/17/04
Big Game, Big Year, and Big Hopes - 3/10/04
Home, Sweet, Home - 3/1/04
On or Off Broadway? - 2/24/04
Trolling for Additions - 2/18/04
Georgetown a Must Win? - 2/11/04
Defense in Numbers - 1/28/04
Chemistry Class and Hitting It Early - 1/21/04
Subtraction and Addition - 1/13/04
Hey, Brother, Can You Spare a Big Man? - 1/6/04

TSL Pass Home

TSL Home