2005-06 Basketball Wrap-up: Dismal Season Behind, Better Days Ahead

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Nobody wants to relive the 2005-06 Virginia Tech men’s basketball season. No
one wants to read, once again, the litany of on-court and off-court tragedies
suffered by this team. Nonetheless, we must record these things for history’s
sake, and that will be part of this article. But we’ll also take a look ahead to
next year, for the future is always brighter than the past. Having said all
that, here’s our take on the 2005-06 basketball season, and the state of the
program.

Things Go South

Before writing this article, I first read last year’s
season wrap-up
, which was written on the heels of an 8-8 ACC campaign
and a trip to the NIT. While the prognosis for this year, as outlined in that
article, was fairly positive, my comments were also cautionary, including this
eerily prophetic statement:

At this point in the program, I think it’s realistic for the Hokies to
shoot for six ACC wins at home and two on the road [in 2005-06], and with that
schedule, it’s doable. But as noted, an injury or a turn of bad fortune could
spell 4-12 in the ACC, instead of 8-8.

Indeed. Before the season even started, the injuries and "turns of bad
fortune" started piling up. Wynton Witherspoon fractured his foot on
October 25th, just ten days before the Hokies were to play an exhibition game.
On October 27th, freshman forward Hyman Taylor was dismissed from the team for
unspecified disciplinary reasons. On October 29th, Robert Krabbendam suffered a
medial meniscus tear in his left knee and had to undergo surgery. In the span of
four days, Taylor was gone for good, Witherspoon was forecast to miss 6-8 weeks,
and Krabbendam was out indefinitely.

Witherspoon
eventually made it back, playing in 21 games, including Tech’s last 16. But
Krabbendam, although his knee eventually recovered fully, took a medical
redshirt this season.

Meanwhile, unknown to the general public, freshman forward Terrance Vinson
was suffering back problems that would eventually cause him to redshirt. The
Hokies depth in the post was gutted for the season, leaving Coleman Collins to
soldier on alone, with only raw freshman Cheick Diakite and capable walk-on
Chris Tucker to back him up.

As if that weren’t enough, death and misfortune hit the team to an
unimaginable extent:

  • Coleman Collins’ father, Jackson, started losing his battle with lung
    cancer, eventually passing away on February 13th, about a year after it
    became public that he had the disease.

  • Shawn Harris’ grandmother, who raised him, passed away on January 24th.
  • Witherspoon’s mother told him in late 2005 that she had breast cancer, a
    condition she found out about in early 2005 but didn’t tell him about for
    seven months.

  • Allen Calloway was diagnosed with inoperable soft-tissue cancer and
    started undergoing interferon treatments, which sapped his strength and
    caused his weight to fall a reported 40 pounds.

  • In late August/early September, Deron Washington’s mother Denise was
    displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

  • In early January, Becky Carwile, the "host mother" of freshman
    A.D. Vassallo, passed away from breast cancer. In high school, Vassallo, a
    native of Puerto Rico, lived with Carwile’s family while he attended Faith
    Christian Academy in Hurt, Va.

The Season

With 13 out of conference games, the Hokies set their sights on winning at
least 10 of them, maybe more. Most of the games were against creampuffs, but the
OOC schedule also included Ohio State, St. John’s, Stanford, and Old Dominion.
The Hokies went 2-2 against those four teams, setting the table for an 11-2 OOC
record, but Tech stumbled along the way, losing to a sorry Bowling Green squad
in the second game of the season.

In
that game, played November 12th, Bowling Green out-hustled the Hokies and played
their best game of the season. BGSU would only finish 7-21 this year, with one
of those seven wins coming over the Hokies when Vassallo accidentally tipped in
a Bowling Green miss at the buzzer, sending Tech to a
72-71 defeat
.

By now, you know that the Hokies shouldn’t have lost that game … literally.
A defensive tip-in at the buzzer has to go through the net before the horn
sounds, in order to be counted as a bucket. Vassallo’s tip was still in the air
when the horn sounded, and it shouldn’t have counted. A crew of ACC officials,
including veteran Ted Valentine, blew the call and counted the basket.

Viewed at the time as a freak incident, that game, and that play, served as a
harbinger of things to come.

How about another freak incident? On December 4th, the Hokies visited #1 Duke
and put up a good fight. Tech was down by 11 points going into the final media
timeout, though, and things didn’t look good. Witherspoon hit a free throw with
3:33 left to cut the deficit to 10, at 74-64, and over the last three and a half
minutes, the Hokies completed a remarkable 12-0 run that put them up 75-74 on a
tip-in by Coleman Collins with just over a second to go.

History was about to be made: the Hokies were about to win their first-ever
road game over a #1 team.

But then Sean Dockery hit that 45-footer, and
Coleman Collins was crying on ESPN, and Duke won 77-75, and yes, this small
print is intentional, and yes, I’m trying to hurry through this part of the
article…

In retrospect, Virginia Tech never recovered from that loss to Duke. Six
weeks later, in mid-January, Mike Harris asked me on his Techbeat radio show,
"Do you think that loss still affects this team?" I answered,
"Mike, I can’t speak for the team, but that game was six weeks ago, and I
still think about it every day. Every day."

Just two weeks later, though, playing Stanford in Las Vegas at 12:30 a.m.
Eastern time, the Hokies played a tough, gritty game and downed the Cardinal
59-52, to go to 8-3 on the season. The Hokies then beat William & Mary, lost
a tough road game to ODU, and hammered JMU to get to 10-4, just as the ACC
conference schedule was getting ready to start.

Tech had gone 10-3 out of conference, the best regular-season OOC record they
had fashioned since the 1995-96 team went 9-1 out of conference. If the Hokies
could duplicate last year’s 8-8 ACC record, they would be 18-11, in prime
position for an NCAA berth.

We know that it didn’t work out that way. Whereas last year’s Hokies went 4-1
in games decided at the buzzer, this year’s Hokies turned losing close games
into an art form. You could say they had it down pat. In ACC play, the Hokies
went 3-9 in games decided by six points or less. Tech started off horribly in
the league, losing their first six games by an average of 6.3 points, including
heartbreakers to Duke (77-75), UNC (64-61), and Virginia (54-49).

Those six ACC losses dropped the Hokies to 10-9. On January 26th, the Hokies
hit rock bottom, when Duke came into Cassell and beat Tech 80-67 in a game the
Blue Devils controlled from start to finish. Late in the game, Deron Washington
kicked Duke’s Lee Melchionni as the two extracted themselves from a pile-up.
ESPN jumped on the kick, which one TSL message board poster cleverly described
as "intentionally negligent," and Dick Vitale pooh-poohed it and shook
his finger and clucked his tongue repeatedly.

Stinging from the Marcus Vick stomp, Tech’s administration reacted quickly
and suspended Washington for the next game, a road trip to Wake Forest. At the
same time, Coleman Collins departed Blacksburg for Georgia, where his father was
not expected to live through the weekend.

Thus the Hokies went to Winston-Salem more shorthanded than ever, with
Collins and Washington out, and Diakite and Vassallo starting. Guarding Wake’s
monster center, Eric Williams (6-9, 280) with walk-on Chris Tucker and a ragtag
band of helpers, the Hokies pulled off an improbable 76-70 victory. Vassallo,
who was averaging 10 minutes and 4.2 points a game coming in, blew up on the
Deacons, scoring 29 points. That was the most by a Tech freshman since Dell
Curry 20 years earlier.

The Hokies used that win as a springboard to win two out of their next three
games, beating GT at home by one, losing by one to #15 ranked Boston College,
and defeating Clemson in overtime.

Tech crawled out of the ACC cellar with a 13-10 record (3-7 in the ACC), and
NIT dreams danced in their heads. But the OT win at Clemson was Tech’s last
hurrah, as the Hokies faltered down the stretch, losing six out of their last
seven to finish at 14-16 (4-12 regular season ACC).

Under the Hood

Observing the season, it appeared that Jamon Gordon elevated his game from
this year to last year, and that Zabian Dowdell and Coleman Collins slipped. The
statistics don’t really match that impression.

Let’s take a look at Tech’s four returning starters – Jamon Gordon, Zabian
Dowdell, Deron Washington, and Coleman Collins – and see who improved from
last year to this year, and who didn’t.

Player Points Rbds Assists Steals TOs FG% 3Pt% FT%
Gordon 2004-05 10.9 5.1 120 67 76 41.6 26.4 58.1
Gordon 2005-06 11.4 6.0 133 63 66 45.9 28.6 65.3
Dowdell 2004-05 14.4 3.1 82 48 67 44.9 42.3 71.3
Dowdell 2005-06 15.3 3.1 103 70 70 41.7 35.8 69.6
Washington 2004-05 7.9 4.6 31 29 48 47.6 60.0 60.0
Washington 2005-06 10.5 5.0 31 47 47 49.2 26.9 57.0
Collins 2004-05 11.4 7.0 23 16 35 45.2 33.3 65.7
Collins 2005-06 14.5 6.8 15 13 40 51.1 0.0 67.2

All four returning starters for the Hokies improved their scoring and rebounding
statistics, with the exception of Collins slipping slightly in rebounds. On the
surface, that’s good, but there’s a story within the statistics that helps
explain why the Hokies didn’t fare as well in ACC play this year.

Zabian
Dowdell’s shooting percentages dropped from last year, especially his
three-point percentage. Dowdell took 151 three-pointers this year, making 54
(35.8%). If Dowdell had shot 42.3%, like he did last year, he would have made 64
three-pointers, instead of just 54. Those ten extra three-pointers would have
come in handy: one more against Bowling Green, two missed game-winners against
Boston College, one more at Duke, two more against Old Dominion, two more
against Virginia in Cassell, and one more against Virginia in Charlottesville
… and the Hokies are 21-9 overall, 9-7 in the ACC, and I’ve even got one left
over for the NCAA tournament.

It reminds me of Crash Davis’ speech in Bull Durham about the
difference between hitting .250 and hitting .300:

"You know what the difference is between hitting .250 and hitting
.300? I’ve got it figured out. 25 hits a year in 500 at bats is 50 points.
There’s six months in a season. That’s about 25 weeks. You get one extra flare
a week, just one — a gork, a ground ball with eyes, a dying quail — just one
more dying quail a week, and you’re in Yankee Stadium."

One more three-pointer a week from Zabian Dowdell, and the Hokies are in the
NCAA tournament.

There are a lot of theories why Zabe didn’t make more three-point shots: the
Hokies didn’t have enough three-point threats to take the pressure off him, he
was fatigued from playing 36 minutes a game, his shooting percentage suffered
switching to shooting guard from point guard … it’s hard to say, and it may be
a combination of things.

In any event, the Hokies had two players shoot over 40% from beyond
three-point range last year (Carlos Dixon and Dowdell), but no one this year.
Dowdell was the best Tech had at 35.8%, and Vassallo was second at 35.1%. Last
year, the Hokies made 167 three-point shots; this year, just 139. That’s 84
points that Tech really could have used.

In addition to decreased three-point production, the Hokies were hurt just as
much this year by Coleman Collins’ hot and cold season. At the high point of the
season, after Tech beat JMU to go to 10-4, Collins was averaging 18.2 points per
game – the fourth-leading scorer in the ACC at the time – and 8.4 rebounds
per game. Once ACC play started, his averages dropped considerably, and he
finished at 14.5 ppg and 6.8 rpg.

Granted, ACC opponents are tougher; Collins averaged 12.9 points and 5.8
rebounds in the ACC. But as he suffered through his father’s decline and death,
Collins had some nightmare games, like six points and two rebounds in 31 minutes
against UVa on February 11th, and five points and two boards in 31 minutes
against UVa in the ACC Tournament.

There were times where Collins was on the floor for 30 minutes or more but
was almost invisible. In those two games against Virginia, in 62 total minutes,
Collins didn’t have a single defensive rebound. If he plays a little better in
just those two games – just a little – the Hokies’ season is different.

Jamon Gordon, however, took games over at times, with a fantastic will to
win. Against Wake Forest, Gordon had 19 points and 11 rebounds in the second
half
. Against Clemson, in the overtime win, he had 12 points and 9 rebounds
after half time. But Gordon couldn’t do it alone, and it’s impossible for a
player to produce like that at all times.

We could talk about more – about AD Vassallo’s emergence, Wynton
Witherspoon’s inconsistency (and whether pulling the redshirt off him was a good
idea – in retrospect, he wasn’t very productive once he decided not to
redshirt), and Seth Greenberg’s four technical fouls, all of which came at
critical times and contributed to four close losses. But I don’t think any of us
have much of an appetite for that, and I would rather look ahead.

Keys to a Good Season Next Year

In previous articles, we have covered in detail the superior numbers the
Hokies will have available to them next year. The Hokies lose two scholarship
seniors, Allen Calloway and Shawn Harris, who contributed very little this
season. They gain Robert Krabbendam and Terrance Vinson back from redshirt
seasons, and they will add three ACC-caliber freshmen to the mix, maybe more: Lewis
Witcher
(Top 150 nationally), Nigel
Munson
(Top 75), and Tyrone
Appleton-Miller
(Top 75). A fourth recruit, Jeff
Allen
(Top 200), will almost certainly prep next year, and won’t be of
any help in 2006-07.

As it stands, Tech will have a full roster of 12 scholarship players next
year, and the Hokies are still recruiting a few players in the hopes of
adding one of them to the team next fall. The leading recruit the Hokies are
still in on is Top-100-caliber player Derwin
Kitchen
, who will decide late this week or early next week among VT,
Miami, St. John’s, JMU and Jacksonville.

Not
to put too much pressure on one player, particularly an unproven one, but 6-11
Robert Krabbendam is a big key to next year. Krabbendam has been praised
recently by Seth Greenberg, and one source who observes practices bluntly told
TSL, "Krabbendam is one of VT’s three best players right now. "
Krabbendam is a skilled player and shooter, but what Virginia Tech really needs
is for him to show up next year with toughness and an attitude. His frame, which
currently weighs in at 240 and could be 250 by next season, is badly needed on
the boards, where Tech got outrebounded by three per game this season, tied for
dead last in the ACC with NC State.

The extra bodies will be nice, and there is no question that the quality of
players entering the VT talent pipeline is gradually improving, as Seth
Greenberg builds recruiting and builds the program. What other items are key to
a successful season next year?

  • The return of fans to Cassell: Last year, VT enjoyed capacity crowds
    for most of January through March. This season, as the losses mounted, the
    crowds thinned. Cassell was still much fuller and louder in 2005-06 than it
    ever was in Tech’s Big East days, but the size and intensity of the crowds
    dropped this past year from the year before. Just a little more juice from the
    crowd could make a difference.

  • Improved play from the seniors: When Bryant Matthews became a senior,
    his game took a quantum leap from the earlier stages of his career, to All-Big
    East status. When Carlos Dixon was a senior, he was a game-breaker and a more
    complete player than he was as an underclassman. If one or more of the trio of
    Collins, Dowdell, and Gordon makes a similar jump, the Hokies will be
    formidable. Those three players will enter their senior seasons as four-year
    starters, and one or more of them could be poised for great seasons next year.

  • Good luck, good fortune, and no injuries: If there ever was a team that
    had built up good karma, it’s the Virginia Tech Hokies. The personal tragedies,
    season-ending injuries, and late-game losses have built up momentum in the
    opposite direction. Surely some good things will happen to this team next year.
    Someone asked me recently what this team "needed" to win 20 games or
    get an NCAA tournament bid next year, and I replied, "One thing they need
    is for something good to happen early in the season. Next year, VT needs to be
    the team to hit a 45-foot game winner, or something like that, to get things
    going and get them to believe in themselves."

If these three things happen, and the other pieces fall into place – if
younger players like Vassallo and Washington continue to develop, and if the new
recruits integrate nicely into the program – the Hokies will have a good shot
at a 20-win season and/or an NCAA tournament bid. They were so close this year,
and in many ways were more competitive than last year’s team. The 2005-06
Hokies’ largest margin of defeat was only 13 points, whereas the 2004-05 Hokies
lost seven games by 13 points or more, including four games by 20+ points.

Tech will have an improved out of conference schedule, with no team having an
RPI lower than 200, unlike this year’s schedule, which included eight teams with
RPIs of over 200, plus Radford at 193. If the Hokies can increase their 13-game
OOC record to 11-2 or better, then win six games or more in conference, Tech
will be knocking on the door of an NCAA bid. The big key is to win their early
games and establish a strong RPI early in the season. This year’s home loss to a
bad Bowling Green team killed Tech’s RPI, and it never recovered, staying above
113 the whole season before nosediving to 146 at the finish.

Rightly or wrongly, Seth Greenberg will come under increased scrutiny next
year, because it will be his fourth year leading the Tech program, and most of
the players on the team will be his recruits. The exceptions are Jamon Gordon,
Coleman Collins, and Markus Sailes, who were all recruited by Ricky Stokes. But
with the three key seniors leading the team next year, and a full complement of
players on the roster, the time is right for Tech to step up under Greenberg.
They might take a step back the following year, after losing Collins, Gordon,
and Dowdell, but most reasonable observers agree that a winning record next year
is a given, barring disaster, and an NCAA bid and a 20-win season are goals to
shoot for.

Building an ACC-caliber program is a long, slow process, and Virginia Tech,
as Greenberg has rightly noted, is ahead of schedule right now. The Hokies are
positioned to have a memorable season next year, but the ACC will be tough, and
the Hokies need to get – and make – some breaks in 2006-07. There are some
long-term concerns, mostly centered around Tech’s ACC-worst basketball support
facilities, which are hampering the Hokies’ recruiting efforts. But for the time
being, Virginia Tech is making progress, about as much progress as one can
expect.

I closed last year’s season wrap-up with advice that is worth repeating:

But as with all sports endeavors, don’t get too caught up in the day-to-day
and game-to-game swings. Remember to enjoy the ride and the high spots,
wherever they may occur. And be patient, because it takes time to build a
program.

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