Gym Rat's Notebook: 10 Keys to VT's First ACC Season (Part 2)
by Elijah Kyle, 11/12/04

Click here for part 1

With the first exhibition game arriving sooner than anyone expected, itís time to look at the remaining keys to this first ACC season that might help define Virginia Techís foray into Tobacco Road basketball. Every team looks for emerging players and surprise developments within the program that help shape any given season.

Part 2 will again define five additional key components that might determine how successful this season will become, all of them no less important than the five I mentioned earlier.

Key #6: Sophomore Slumps

Clearly one thing that Seth Greenberg does not want to see this year is any of his three sophomores suffering from that dreaded sophomore jinx that so often happens in sports. With the huge contributions made from the entire freshman class last year of point guard Zabian Dowdell, guard Jamon Gordon and frontcourter Coleman Collins, the Hokies can ill afford for any of the three to see their play decline.

Dowdell is needed to play the important point guard position and step up his scoring, especially now that leading scorer Bryant Matthews has graduated. Dowdell is the leading returning scorer on the team. Collins has added weight to help him do nightly battle in the paint against post players, and his front court scoring is especially critical after the departure of Matthews. Allen Calloway and Robert Krabbendam donít have the upper body strength that Collins does, and he is vital defensively guarding post players. Gordon is simply the glue that holds this team together. His value will probably always be greater than the sum of his individual statistics, but his toughness and poise and court savvy are ingredients that the team feeds off of. For the program to be competitive in the ACC, all three of these players simply have to continue to advance their games and log big minutes the entire season.

Key #7: Which Drink Will Be Spiked?

Virginia Tech forced opponents into an average of 18.1 turnovers last year, which ranked #2 in the Big East Conference, behind only Georgetown. In addition, Virginia Tech led the conference as a team with 10.28 steals per game. The Hokies also had a +4.79 turnover margin, again a statistic that led the conference. The turnover margin, steal category and turnovers forced were all significantly higher than the previous year under former coach Ricky Stokes and were instrumental in the teamís winning record last year. Which areas this year might we see a sharp spike in? Or will there be any at all?

Surely the program can look at improving their three point shooting percentage, field goal percentage defense and free throw shooting. The Hokies ranked last in all three categories in the conference. The team also ranked 12th in the 14-team conference in overall field goal shooting percentage and scoring offense. To win consistently within the ACC, Tech simply has to shed itself of those glaring problem areas. The program will be better positioned for success if this team can eliminate as many of these problem areas as quickly as possible, without springing additional leaks.

Key #8: Special K and The Freak

It is arguable whether freshman Robert Krabbendam is a true 7 footer, or simply 6-11. Regardless, one thing we do know is players of that size have not taken up residence in Blacksburg much in recent years. The last to do so was Luke Minor, from two years ago. Minor contributed next to nothing in his abbreviated one year stay, although he entered Virginia Tech as a huge project.

The unfortunate thing with seven footers is that the expectations of fans are so great. Krabbendam falls into that category. The difference between Krabbendam and Minor is that there is a legitimate chance that Krabbendam can have a productive career here. Certainly he will play some this year, whether he is ready for minutes or not. Such is the extreme lack of inside depth on the team. Should he develop quickly, his set of skills could be a huge boost to a team in need of frontcourt firepower. The word from those close to the program is that Krabbendam has a real chance to be an outstanding player before his career is finished. It might not be this year, at least until he redefines his body, but his emergence earlier than expected could be a definite kick start.

While Krabbendam will garner great attention because of his size, the freshman that everyone seems to be talking about inside the program during early practices is 6-7 forward Deron Washington. Point guard Marquie Cooke and junior college transfer -- and now departed -- forward Justin Holt were the two players that most were eagerly talking about this time last year, when the Hokies secured both in that fall recruiting class. Later on, the spring brought aboard 6-6 Wynton Witherspoon and the aforementioned Krabbendam. Washington seemed to be the player that not enough people knew about or talked about. His play early on has been outstanding, and people who are in a position to know think he can be an impact player this season, even while playing out of position.

Key #9: The Daily Double

Last yearís three-man recruiting class of Dowdell, Gordon and Collins all became significant cogs to a team and program in great need of their early contributions. The Hokies certainly struck gold that all three could play at the Big East level, and play right away. Not every program is fortunate enough to go three for three as far as their freshman class is concerned, which is exactly what the Hokies were able to accomplish with that trio. There are few, if any, doubts remaining as to whether they can be four year contributors to the program, rather just how huge their contributions will eventually become.

It is very early, and the first game has not been played, but this new four-man freshman class of Marquie Cooke, Robert Krabbendam, Wynton Witherspoon and Deron Washington appears to have four players that have the ability to contribute at the ACC level. It remains to be seen how many in this class are able to make the kind of early contributions and garner the huge minutes that Gordon, Collins and Dowdell did last season. But Krabbendam will immediately move into the frontcourt mix, Washington has an excellent chance to be a first game starter, Cooke comes with the largest pedigree and is a true point guard, and Witherspoon adds perimeter shooting to a team that is sorely lacking there. Opportunities for all four will be there.

If the Hokies are lucky enough to look back at the end of the season and see several freshmen assume large roles on the team, that will be very good news indeed. That almost certainly will mean that those large minutes that any of them assume will come at the expense of the junior, or upper, class of Allen Calloway, Shawn Harris and Markus Sailes. And, it will mean excellent back-to-back recruiting classes, which is just the tonic for a program looking to stamp itself as a legitimate and competitive ACC program. That is how you build a fine program and will show that the Hokies are establishing a young base of ACC talent, which will bode well for the future.

Key #10: Offensive Makeover

We know that the offensive style and look of this team will be drastically different than last year. Bryant Matthews was the focus of that team, and everything the team did went through him. How quickly this team assumes a new offensive identity and asserts its playing style will be a great determinant in defining the season.

Matthews provided the only real post offense last season, so that is an area that Greenberg and his staff must have true concerns about. Who, if anyone, will step up and provide low post scoring? Coleman Collins is the obvious candidate, but he seems more comfortable facing the basket and as a high post shooter. It might be too soon to expect Krabbendam to be a go-to low post threat, at least until he adds upper body strength so that he can hold his position there and not be forced further away from the basket. The Hokies will need someone to step up there, so that opponents will not be able to simply extend their defense and constantly harass the passing lanes. Someone has to draw the double teams in the post that Matthews did last season, so that open shots develop on the perimeter.

Finding a low post threat is a huge question, but one thing that you can expect the team to do this season is push the ball. With the strength of the team being its guards and wing players, expect Greenberg to play at a considerably faster pace than last year. This team will push the ball after misses and after made baskets, and will press full court as well as trap in half court settings. One shouldnít expect to see many shot clock violations with this team this year. It will be run, run, run til daddy takes the T-bird away.

The other huge difference that will characterize this team, while setting it apart from last year, is the number of players on the team who can beat people off the dribble and get into the paint. Jamon Gordon and Zabian Dowdell were really the only two players on last yearís team who could beat people off the dribble, get into the paint and score or create opportunities off that penetration for teammates by kicking the ball to open shooters.

Finding enough good perimeter shooters to convert opportunities there is a question mark. However, the team has added Marquie Cooke and Wynton Witherspoon, and Carlos Dixonís return will give the team five legitimate threats to beat people off the dribble. Last season, the Hokies never had more than two players at a time on the court that could do that. This year, they can have as many as four on the court together, and will have at least three at all times who can do so. This will enable Greenberg to spread the court more when they are in half court settings and allow his players to make plays. That might be the biggest difference that will be apparent this season, along with the increased tempo. And that might be the way that Greenberg makes up for the low post scoring that he lost in Matthews.

Reviewing the 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.

Key #2: The Matthews Hardball Factor: Bryant Matthews' 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.

Key #3: Turning Up The Heat: We can expect to see opponents in the ACC attack Tech with full court pressure. The backcourt will need to prove early on that it can capably handle pressure or else it will be inevitable all year.

Key #4: Establishing A Defensive Personality: Greenberg had some significant success with his 1-3-1 trapping half court pressure last year, and the team was able to force 18.1 turnovers per game from their opponents. Expanding upon that pressure package to incorporate some full court variations, and establishing a base half court defense should be watched closely.

Key #5: The Return of 'Los: A thriving Carlos 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 Bryant Matthews.

Key #6: Sophomore Slumps: . With the huge contributions made from the entire freshman class last year of point guard Zabian Dowdell, guard Jamon Gordon and frontcourter Coleman Collins, the Hokies can ill afford for any of the three to see their play decline.

Key #7: Which Drink Will Be Spiked? To win consistently within the ACC, Tech has to shed itself of the glaring problem areas of three point shooting percentage, field goal percentage defense and free throw shooting.

Key #8: Special K and The Freak: How quickly Robert Krabbendam develops and how much of an impact player Deron Washington can be will play a large role in how successful the Hokies are this season.

Key #9: The Daily Double: If the Hokies can hit the jackpot with this year's four-man recruiting class like they did with last year's three-man recruiting class, they'll be in good shape not just this season, but in the future.

Key #10: Offensive Makeover: This team will put multiple players on the perimeter who can drive to the paint and score or dish. A key question is, who can step up and provide low-post scoring?

Other Gym Rat Notebooks:

10 Keys to VT's First ACC Season (Part 1) - 11/5/04
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

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