A Gym Rat's Notebook: Searching for Answers
by Elijah Kyle, 12/30/04

With the Virginia Tech basketball team joining the football team in Louisiana this week, awaiting a matchup in the Big Easy with #21 Mississippi State in the Sugar Bowl Basketball Classic on Thursday, head coach Seth Greenberg would like nothing better than to see Bourbon Street live up to its name and intoxicate his team with some success as it closes out the 2004 portion of the schedule.

After struggling at times on Monday night against Morgan State before pulling away to a 13-point victory, Greenberg knows it is time for his team to find its collective groove, prior to hitting the ACC conference wars.

Before doing that, Greenberg must find a regular rotation and playing style, something he has talked more and more about lately. With the return of Coleman Collins from injury Monday, the Hokies had 9 separate players log double figure minutes. More importantly, the lineups that Greenberg has sent out during the last three games have run the gamut, from a traditional 2-guard, 2-forward and post player alignment to sending 4 guards on the floor for long stretches of the game with a small forward, as was witnessed against Western Michigan. There were even periods during that Western game when the Hokies played 5 guards at the same time, with Carlos Dixon being their tallest player on the court.

Now that junior guard Markus Sailes is finished for the year (redshirting due to injury), Greenberg has one less player to worry about, and in the game against Morgan State, guard Shawn Harris only logged 4 minutes, as freshman Wynton Witherspoon has seen his minutes increase in the last two games, seemingly at the expense of Harris. But, itís not just about minutes and finding a rotation for Greenberg. It is clearly much more and much deeper than that. With the heavy dependence on perimeter players, along with the glaring lack of inside players to provide balance on the floor, Greenberg has seen his team play very inconsistently on the offensive end. The team seems to desperately be searching for both on-court leadership and a distinct playing style and persona, something that Greenberg has focused on in many of his after-game comments.

In fact, that hare-Kari, schizophrenic team identity and playing style has even started affecting certain facets of the Hokiesí playing style that has been very productive in the past season-and-a-half, namely the 1-3-1 half-court trapping pressure defense.

Tech went into the Morgan State game as the ACCís leading team in turnover margin, at +9.67, far ahead of runner-up Clemson at +6.38. That can be largely attributed to the care that the Hokies have demonstrated in taking care of the ball offensively, where they average 12.9 turnovers a game, ranking behind only Duke and North Carolina State in the ACC.

But the Hokies have also been very good at turning their opponents over this season, leading the ACC in that category by forcing opponents into 22.6 turnovers per game. Part of that success can be attributed to the Hokiesí smaller personnel lineups, which provide opportunities to pressure the ball on the perimeter, as well as the 1-3-1 trap that has affected most every opponent that they have played.

Starting with the North Carolina game, when the Hokies understandably largely eschewed the 1-3-1 so that they could try and dictate the tempo and pace of the game, using it for only one possession, the Hokies have gotten away from that half-court pressure. Greenberg decided not to utilize it in either the Western Michigan or Morgan State games. Perhaps he is simply not wanting to go to the well too often and become too reliant upon it. Perhaps he has felt that the even smaller lineups that he has used in the past several games as the team has struggled to find an identity without Collins, did not provide him the size that he desires to effectively implement it.

One thing that has happened is that after seeing the Hokies lose the turnover battle against Morgan State by a 20-16 count, the team now has 56 turnovers in their last 3 games, which happens to be the exact amount that they have forced opponents into during the same stretch. The Hokies have all but eliminated the 1-3-1 from their defensive package in the past three games, and they have not forced as many turnovers during those three games, while seeing their turnovers increase rather significantly.

In any event, with Greenberg determined to make some hard decisions very soon on his personnel and playing style, tossing aside the 1-3-1 for the balance of the season would be quite surprising. The teamís defense was decent against Morgan State, but as the Western Michigan game demonstrated, when the Hokies lost perimeter shooter Levi Rost all night behind the arc, as well as not locating Ben Reed in transition, especially after made baskets, the Hokies still have some work to do with their transition defense.

Greenberg has stated that he thinks his team will be a good defensive team for the balance of the season, something that has to happen for the Hokies to continue to turn opponents over and get their transition game going. Much of that defensive intensity starts with sophomore guard Jamon Gordon, who continues to provide the team with an excellent floor game night in and night out. Gordon was the ACC leader in steals prior to the Morgan State game, with an average of 3.63 per game. Runner-up Daniel Ewing of Duke is averaging 3.13 per game, and Gordon was a full steal ahead of Vern Hamilton of Clemson, who is in third place with a 2.64 average. In addition, Gordon ranks sixth in the conference in assists and fifth in the conference in assist/turnover ratio. Although just a sophomore, Gordon seems the ideal player to step up and take an on-court and off-court leadership role on the team, something Greenberg himself has alluded to recently.

A healthy Collins would go a long way toward providing a boost for the team inside for the remainder of the season. Collins is the one player that has shown an ability to score inside, and his return on Monday from injury was welcome news for a team lacking in size. Collins showed more bounce and activity than at any time previously during the season.

Freshman point guard Marquie Cooke also seems to be slowly gaining confidence and overcoming his extremely slow shooting start. Cooke has been 6-13 from the floor over the past two games, while looking a little more confident and comfortable on the court. The emergence of the versatile Wynton Witherspoon has also provided Greenberg with another rangy, athletic player who can handle and pass the ball. Witherspoon has also shown early signs of being able to be an adequate perimeter shooter for the team, an area that continually needs fortification. The Hokies ranked eighth in the conference in three-point field goal percentage prior to the Morgan State game, while lagging dead last in the conference in overall field goal percentage.

Greenberg knows that the decisions he makes on a rotation and playing style will be critical in positioning the team for the ensuing conference games. There are blemishes on this team that will remain regardless of the direction he picks. Deciding on a team identity and profile will be the first hurdle. It wonít be the last though, because then effectively implementing that style in midseason while covering up the warts on the team will require a leader both on the court and on the sidelines, something Greenberg showed he was adept at last year.

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