This past summer, when organizers of the annual Holiday Festival basketball tournament in New York City contacted Virginia Tech basketball coach Seth Greenberg about a return trip to Madison Square Garden to participate in the event again, the Hokies’ coach quickly accepted.
After all, the Hokies won this tournament in 2007, beating Hofstra and St. John’s and, being a native New Yorker who grew up watching Knicks games from the blue seats at MSG, Greenberg has always enjoyed bringing his teams to Gotham.
Counting a win over Seton Hall in 2006, the Hokies have won three straight games at the Garden, and 11 of their past 13 games played here. The Knicks should be so fortunate, eh?
This year’s participants also include Columbia, Marist and host St. John’s, which isn’t the most daunting field ever assembled. Columbia is an Ivy League school that lost four starters from last year’s squad. Marist was picked last in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. And St. John’s, despite an 8-1 start under embattled coach Norm Roberts, was picked 14th in the Big East this season and has lost its best player for the season, Anthony Mason, Jr., with a torn tendon in his right foot.
No RPI boosters in the bunch, but at this point, Greenberg is rightly concerned about how his team plays, not who it plays.
“We’re not were we need to be,” Greenberg said. “We’ll improve. We’ll get better, but there’s not one phase where we need to be, or where we can be. But we’ll get better.”
Since coming to Tech five years ago, Greenberg’s teams have improved each season, and this weekend’s event in New York gives Tech a chance step up its game with ACC play starting in two weeks.
Here’s a look at areas that need improvement:
Defensively: The Hokies aren’t pressuring the ball or turning teams over like they did a year ago. “We’re more of a contain defensive team right now,” Greenberg said. Since turnovers are down, fast break points and easy buckets aren’t coming as often as Greenberg would like.
“We’ve got to stop the ball, and we’re having a hard time doing that,” he said.
Seton Hall gave Tech fits with its dribble penetration and St. John’s has the roster to cause similar problems should the Hokies and Red Storm meet Sunday.
Rebounding: Tech’s been up and down here.
“How can Jeff Allen get 21 rebounds in one game after getting four (against Navy)?” Greenberg asked after his sophomore’s monster game on Sunday against Longwood. “He can be the leading rebounder in the ACC. That should be his goal. He’s good enough. He’s got the talent. He’s got to want to.”
The fact is Allen is just 10 games into his sophomore season. Yes, he had a double-double in his first college game, and yes, he’s posted some Dale Solomon-esque stat lines, like his 19-point, 21-rebound game last week. As he matures as a player and learns the college game, he’ll be more consistent. His development is key not only to this year’s team, but also to the future of Tech’s 2010 and 2011 clubs. He can be that good.
Delaney’s offense: Greenberg called guard Malcolm Delaney into his office this past week with an ultimatum.
“I told him he either needs to shoot the ball more, or he’s going to sit on the bench with me,” Greenberg said. “He is a world-class shooter who needs to shoot 12 times per game.”
Delaney’s numbers are down across the board this season, but he’s never attempted more than 11 field goals in a game in his career. Getting him 12 might be a stretch on Greenberg’s part, but he trusts Malcolm not to force bad shots. The kid has the green light and Greenberg needs him to be a scorer.
J.T. Thompson’s return: The Hokies expect to have J.T. Thompson in action this weekend. He’s missed the first 10 games of this season following hernia surgery and then a sprained foot. Thompson averaged 5.6 points per game and 4.1 rebounds last year. While those aren’t eye-popping numbers, he was Tech’s second-best player in its preseason scrimmage with Georgetown and showed last year (14 points and 12 rebounds at BC) that he can be a key man. Plus, he’s a high-energy guy who brings hustle stats to the team. Tech has missed Deron Washington’s energy as much as his stats through 10 games and Thompson brings a lot of those elements to the table.
Little things: Greenberg has repeated to his team over and over that the reason it lost at the buzzer to Seton Hall, Wisconsin, Georgia and Xavier wasn’t the late heroics of the opponent, but a key missed free throw, loose ball, or missed box out during the course of the game.
“We’re very close to being 10-0. Eight points from 10-0,” Greenberg said. “But that comes down to one bad decision on a fast break, or a missed free throw. It comes down to not boxing out on a free throw. You go back and look at the Xavier game, and yes, they threw in a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to win the game, which was luck, pure luck. But in the second half, go back and look at the plays we made that could’ve won the game in regulation. I told the guys that each person could have made one better decision or gotten one loose ball that wins that game. Same with Wisconsin. Same with Georgia.”
Greenberg wants Dorenzo Hudson to pull up and take a short jumper and not charge over his defender. He wants Terrell Bell on the floor, diving for a loose ball. He wants Cheick Diakite driving his man under the goal and boxing out on free throws. He expects scoring from his big three of Allen, Delaney, and A.D. Vassallo and he’s gotten that for the most part.
“I’m not discouraged by those four losses,” Greenberg said. “Disappointed? Yes. But not discouraged. We’re going to be a good basketball team. Last year at this point, we were 7-5 after we won this tournament and left New York. This year, we can be 8-4 if we win it.”
Winning this tournament would be terrific for this basketball team and would give the Hokies a nice little boost going into the Christmas break. But just as important as winning the games is how the Hokies play:
Will they patiently execute their offense or will they rush shots?
Will they dive on the floor for loose balls?
Will they guard the opponent for 35 seconds or commit silly fouls by reaching and being out of position?
This weekend, how Tech plays is more important than who.
Some of the Hokies’ greatest wins have occurred on the Madison Square Garden court. Perhaps this weekend, the 2008-09 team can put things together here as well.
Radio coverage this weekend begins at 1:30 on Saturday for the Columbia game. Sunday’s game is either at 2:30 (if Tech wins Saturday) or noon (if Tech loses). (A note: for those of you in the Washington market, our broadcasts this weekend move to 570 AM because of Washington Redskins coverage. Back to WTEM 980 AM next week.)
For updates on Virginia Tech Athletics, follow the Hokies on Twitter (@hokiesports).