2006-07 VT Men’s Basketball Preview

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While the Hokies have been enjoying another successful season on the
gridiron, another Virginia Tech team has been quietly preparing for a season
that could be even better than that of their football counterparts. The men’s
basketball team returns a lot of talented and experienced players from last
season’s team and will be looking to make a run to the Big Dance in March of
2007.

The Hokies went through a lot last year, including fractured fifth
metatarsals (just like every other year except this one so far, knock on wood),
a senior who almost succumbed to cancer (Allen Calloway), Coleman Collins’
father passing away from cancer during the middle of the season, an unlucky
night in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and numerous other things on and off the court
that I don’t care to remember, and you probably don’t care to read.

There
is a saying that goes something like “What doesn’t kill you, makes you
stronger.” That’s true for the most part, and last season’s experiences
should help mold Virginia Tech into a mentally tougher team for the 2006-07
season.

But being mentally tough is only part of the solution. The Hokies will have
to improve in several key elements of the game if they hope to qualify for the
NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996.

Perhaps the most important, and the most painful to watch if you’re a
Virginia Tech fan, is free throw shooting. The Hokies shot just 64.5% from the
charity stripe last season, which was next-to-last in the ACC.

In fact, shooting in general must improve. Tech’s overall field goal
percentage last year was 45.4%, seventh in the ACC. Their 3-point percentage was
32.2%, which tied for dead last in the conference with Clemson. The Hokies have
done a lot of things well over the past couple of years, but shooting the
basketball has not been one of them.

One other important aspect is rebounding. The Hokies were last in the ACC in
rebounding margin last year (-3 per game), 10th in offensive rebounds (10.97)
and last in defensive rebounds (20.7).

Shooting and rebounding are perhaps the two most important aspects of
basketball, so how did the Hokies come so close to winning so many games last
year? They forced turnovers and took care of the basketball.

The Hokies were first in the ACC in turnover margin at +5.13 per game. That
number is far ahead of the #2 team, Clemson, who checked in at +3.44. The Hokies
averaged just 11.2 turnovers a game, tops in the ACC, while they finished third
in steals (9.1 per game) and their opponents averaged 16.4 turnovers per game.

Those five extra possessions per game helped the Hokies win a few squeakers,
and stay competitive in some extremely close losses. If they can have similar
numbers in the turnover game this year and improve their free throw shooting,
3-point shooting, and rebounding, then they have a good chance to go dancing in
March.

But on the other hand, one of the most important factors in college sports is
experience, and the Hokies have no shortage of that. Tech’s roster is stocked
full of former full-time starters and part-time starters.

Career Starts
Name Starts
Zabian Dowdell 85
Jamon Gordon 80
Coleman Collins 62
Deron Washington 58
Markus Sailes 45
A.D. Vassallo 10
Robert Krabbendam 6
Cheick Diakite 5
Total 351

That experience could play dividends for the Hokies this year. The Hokies will
have three full-time fourth year starters and a full-time third year starter.
Markus Sailes was a full-time starter two seasons ago in 2004-05, but he’ll
likely come off the bench this year. That shows the type of depth that this team
will feature in 2006-07.

The Backcourt

Zabian
Dowdell and Jamon Gordon have been the backbone of the Virginia Tech basketball
team for quite sometime. They established themselves as full-time starters from
the very day they set foot in Blacksburg. Both are combo guards who are capable
of playing either position in the backcourt.

Jamon Gordon is the jack-of-all-trades in the ACC. He can score, pass,
rebound and steal. He averaged 11.4 points and six rebounds per game last
season. He was third on the team in scoring, second in rebounding average, first
in assists, third in blocks and second in steals. He is one of the nation’s
top defensive players. He runs the court very well and is a much better athlete
than he looks.

At 6-3, Gordon plays much bigger than his actual size. Averaging six rebounds
per game is good for some forwards, not to mention a guard. Against Wake Forest
last season, Gordon scored 21 points and grabbed an amazing 14 rebounds. Later
in the year against Clemson, he outdid himself, scoring 21 points with 16
rebounds. He also had four steals and four assists against the Tigers.

Not many guards can put up numbers like that. Gordon is the heart and soul of
Virginia Tech’s team. If he stays healthy all year, the Hokies have a chance
to make a run to the NCAA tournament.

Zabian Dowdell is Virginia Tech’s go-to scorer. The left-handed “Hokie
from Pahokee” averaged 15.3 points per game last season, which led the team.
He also led the team with 70 steals and dished out 103 assists. Like Gordon,
Dowdell is a very good defender and can play point guard or off the ball.

It will be important for Dowdell to be a better shooter from the outside this
year. As a freshman in 2004-05, he shot 37.5% from the outside. As a sophomore,
he was a blistering 44.9% from three-point range. But those numbers dropped to
35.8% last season, including just 32.9% in ACC play.

The Hokies are lucky to have an experienced guard like Markus Sailes coming
off the bench. Sailes isn’t a big scorer or a good shooter, but he is a great
ball handler and he can defend all three perimeter positions. He started 16
games for Tech last season, and all 29 in 2004-05. Last year he dished out 51
assists while turning the ball over just 27 times.

The other backup guard will be true freshman Nigel Munson. Munson was a
4-star recruit and top 100 player from DeMatha High School in Maryland. He is a
true floor general who makes players around him better. In high school, he shot
over 40% from three-point range and over 90% from the free throw line. It will
help Munson to play behind three experienced guards this year before he takes
over the starting duties in 2007-08.

Small Forward

Small
forward is Tech’s deepest position on the court, in terms of talented players
and the number of players on the team who can play the position. As it stands
now, Virginia Tech has two very good options in junior Deron Washington and
sophomore A.D. Vassallo.

Washington (10.5 ppg) is a two-year starter who has spent most of his time at
power forward. But as the season went along last season, he began to flash the
ability to hit the open jump shot. In his only extensive action at small forward
last year, Washington scored 21 points and grabbed six rebounds against Georgia
Tech. He was also 2-of-3 from three-point range.

Washington has spent the preseason at small forward and improved his outside
jumper even more in the offseason. He is no longer a player who can be left
alone outside the three-point line. In the Maroon-White scrimmage in October,
Washington drained five outside jumpers on his way to a big day.

For two years Deron Washington has played power forward in the ACC at less
than 200 pounds, and he will benefit from this move to small forward. He has
already built a reputation as one of the ACC’s top dunkers. Now as a junior he’ll
try to make the jump to being a complete player.

A.D. Vassallo should also see a lot of action at small forward. Vassallo didn’t
play much in the early parts of last season, but he exploded onto the scene with
a 29-point performance at Wake Forest. He averaged 6.9 points per game last
year, but he has the offensive potential to do much more.

As he became a regular in the lineup later in the season, Vassallo started
shooting better. He shot 40% from three-point range in ACC games, and he is
capable of upping that mark as a sophomore. At 6-6, 216, he could also see
minutes at power forward, where he would be a matchup problem for the opposing
defense.

One thing Vassallo needs to improve is his foot speed on defense, so it will
be interesting to see what kind of progress he made in that area in the
sophomore. Vassallo’s weight is listed at 216 this year, versus 213 last year,
but he appears to be more fit and in better playing shape.

Jamon Gordon, Markus Sailes and Chris Tucker could also play the small
forward position, if needed. Markus Sailes started all 29 games at the position
in 2004-05.

The Frontcourt

The
main question about this year’s team is the frontcourt. Coleman Collins is a
proven player, but who will step up and help him out? And will the Hokies have
the depth to compete on the inside with the ACC’s top teams?

When healthy and focused, Coleman Collins (6-9, 243) has proven to be hard to
handle. He has two dominating performances against Duke’s Shelden Williams to
his credit. In Tech’s 67-65 upset of Duke in 2004-05, Collins scored 14 points
and pulled down 18 rebounds against the ACC’s top center. In the near-upset in
Cameron Indoor Stadium last year, he scored 25 points to go along with eight
rebounds.

Collins averaged 14.5 points and 6.8 rebounds last season, but in ACC play,
that number dipped to 12.9 points and 5.8 rebounds. Collins’ head
understandably wasn’t in every game. His father was suffering through the
final stages of lung cancer and passed away during the middle of the season.
Collins was never the same player after that, and we probably saw the real
Coleman Collins just once last year, at Duke.

But Collins has talent, there is no question about it. NBADraft.net projects
Collins to be selected early in the second round of the 2007 NBA Draft, going to
the Minnesota Timberwolves with the 36th overall pick. But Collins’ season
will depend on his mental state, not his physical gifts. Will he be ready to
play game in and game out? We shall see. As a side note, Collins finally turned
20 last July.

Helping Collins on the inside this year will be Dutch inside man Robert
Krabbendam (7-0, 234). Krabbendam is a r-sophomore who redshirted last year due
to an injury. He played in 2004-05, starting six games when Collins was injured.
Krabbendam is obviously big, but what else can he do?

Despite his size, he is skilled with the basketball in the typical Euro
style. He can hit the open jumper and he has good range. The main question is
how he can help rebounding the basketball, and how good is he defensively. If he
can answer those questions in a positive way, then the Hokies should be fine on
the inside.

Freshman forward Lewis Witcher (6-9, 218) should be able to provide some
depth on the inside. Like Collins, Witcher is a skilled inside player. In fact,
he may be a little further along than Collins was as a freshman. Joining Witcher
coming off the bench will be 6-9, 217 sophomore Cheick Diakite. Diakite got some
experience as a freshman last season, and proved to be very raw. But he is a
physical presence on the inside and he plays extremely hard. He’ll find a way
to help the team again this year, and in the preseason scrimmage on October
21st, he looked smoother and more comfortable than he did last season.

Senior walkon Chris Tucker (6-7, 240) will also be able to help in spot
situations. Tucker was a big part of Tech’s win at Wake Forest last year. He
can handle the ball well, is a good passer, and can shoot the ball surprisingly
well. His playing time will depend on matchups.

Keys to Reaching the NCAA Tournament

I believe there are a few important steps that the Hokies need to take to
make the Big Dance this year. In no particular order:

1)
Rebound better.
The Hokies already create extra possessions with their
outstanding turnover margin. But their poor rebounding margin offsets that
advantage. This year Tech’s lineup will be bigger, with two true inside
players in Collins and Krabbendam, and a bigger small forward in Washington.
Rebounding should be better.

2) Improve from the outside. Preferably, that would be Zabian Dowdell.
With Deron Washington reportedly improving from the outside, and A.D. Vassallo
flashing outstanding potential from downtown last season, Dowdell needs to get
back to his earlier form. I’m looking (hoping is probably the better word) for
Dowdell’s three-point percentage to be around 40%, give or take a percentage
point or two.

3) A consistent Coleman Collins. Collins has never really been a
consistent player for the Hokies, but it’s never really been his fault either.
He’s battled through two foot problems (a broken foot as a freshman and a
cyst as a sophomore), a bad back, and other injuries. Not to mention going
through the death process (not just death…the long, slow-moving process is the
tough part) of a parent in the sight of a national audience. His teammate and
roommate, Allen Calloway, suffered through cancer. If Collins can stay healthy
and have no off court distractions, he can stay focused. And a focused Coleman
Collins is a dangerous Coleman Collins.

Unfortunately, reports have indicated that Collins has suffered through a
high ankle sprain in the preseason. There are no further details. It is unknown
if the injury is serious, or if it could effect his play.

Final Thoughts

I want to believe. Part of me does believe. But I’ve been an avid follower
of the Tech basketball program for about a decade now, and I’ve just not seen
very many good things happen to the Hokies in that time. I’ve seen fractured
fifth metatarsals, a lot of them. I’ve seen two halfcourt heaves to beat the
Hokies. Remember the lucky one by Duke last year? Not nearly as lucky as ODU’s
a few years back.

I’ve seen bad recruiting. I’ve seen bad coaching. Bad rolls, bad bounces.
And a lot of close losses, especially last season. Point being, I’ve seen a
lot of things while following the Tech basketball program, and not a lot of it
has been good.

Even when the Hokies have been good, or been close to being good, something
almost always happens, whether it be an injury or injuries, the death of a
parent, a senior with cancer, a player’s home getting destroyed by a
hurricane, or whatever. Tech has had a lot of luck throughout the years, but
most of it has been the bad kind (the first ACC year notwithstanding).

But at the same time, I’m tired of being a pessimist. I think this team has
the talent to make the NCAA tournament. They certainly have the experience, and
the want-to. And one thing’s for sure, they are due a heckuva lot of good
luck, or at least just a season with no bad luck. Whatever happens, I’m ready
for some Hokie Hoops, and it all starts on Friday night with Coppin State.

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