The Washington Times - February 13, 2009, 07:50PM

Time for some more out-of-town Q&A, this time concerning a team that isn’t that far out of town.

Well, four-plus hours, but it’s probably time to start paying a little bit more attention to Virginia Tech.

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After all, the Hokies have a chance to reach the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years, and certainly have the stars (Jeff Allen, A.D. Vassallo, Malcolm Delaney) to be tough to tangle with in a postseason setting.

So as is usually the case when I have Virginia Tech-related questions, I’ve enlisted the help of noted raconteur and Hokies beat writer Darryl Slater of the Richmond Times-Dispatch to help out. Much thanks to Slater for helping out, and be sure to check out his blog for more Virginia Tech coverage.

1. A simple starting point here: How much more impressive is Malcolm Delaney this season, especially when Hank Thorns comes in to lend the option of moving Delaney off the ball?

DS: Delaney has taken on a much larger role in Tech’s offense — something the Hokies needed with the departure of forward Deron Washington. Delaney’s scoring average is up from 9.6 points last season to 18.7 this season.

One big reason: He’s driving to the basket more. It’s a skill he said he’s always had, but he said he was hesitant last season to take such an assertive role in the offense. Growing up in Baltimore, he earned the nickname The Hammer from his youth-league coach because of how aggressively he went after defenders.

And Delaney still remembers how, during high school, his older brother, Vincent, told him that the easiest way to score points is on free throws. Delaney has gotten 36 percent of his points this season from the charity stripe — a product of him driving to the basket more. Consider that last season, Delaney shot 85 of 108 on free throws (78.7 percent) and this season he is 155 of 178 (87.1 percent).

As for Thorns, the 5-9 sophomore from Las Vegas isn’t good enough to be a starting point guard in this league. But players say that when he comes off the bench and Delaney moves to the two, the Hokies do a better job of pushing the pace in transition. Here’s an interesting stat: In nine conference games, Thorns is averaging 16.8 minutes and has 26 assists, compared to six turnovers.

2. North Carolina might be the only team in the conference capable of matching the Delaney-A.D. Vassallo-Jeff Allen combination. But is there anyone else capable of contributing consistently, and how much is Virginia Tech’s upside limited by having so few steady contributors?

DS: At this point, the Hokies still rely heavily on their Big Three (which will have to be the nickname for Delaney/Vassallo/Allen until we hacks down here come up with something better). Allen is the team’s third-leading scorer (14.7 points per game). J.T. Thompson is a distance fourth (4.8).

The Hokies clearly are better when their supporting-cast players contribute. In Wednesday’s win over Georgia Tech, they got 10 points and seven rebounds from center Cheick Diakite, who played a career-high 31 points. They also got seven rebounds and disruptive defense from Terrell Bell, who played 16 minutes.

So while a fourth scorer might not materialize, the Hokies still need other things — grunt work, if you will — from guys outside the Big Three. They need Diakite’s post defense (he helped hold Georgia Tech’s Gani Lawal to one rebound in the second half). They need Bell’s lankiness to deflect passes. They need Thompson to win 50/50 balls.

3. Nobody does absurd, last-second losses like the Hokies, but they’ve won seven of nine with six victories by less than 10 points. Is there any noticeable difference in Virginia Tech in late-game situations, or are those wins more a reflection of fending off inferior competition (Virginia, Boston College, N.C. State, Georgia Tech) in a favorable environment?

DS: Probably a little of both. Tech coach Seth Greenberg talked this week about how he urges his team to embrace overtime. But also remember that the Hokies have lost their fair share of last-moment games. They lost to Wisconsin on a shot with 0.9 of a second left, to Boston College with 0.4 of a second left, to Xavier on a half-court buzzer-beater in overtime.

Still, I think this team is getting better at closing out should-win games (like the four you mentioned) because the players are a year older. Think back to Tech’s ACC opener last season at Wake Forest. Three Tech freshmen played at least 27 minutes each in that game. It was clear the Hokies weren’t comfortable playing together in a late-game situation when they blew an eight-point lead with 1:22 remaining and lost 77-75 in regulation.

Had they won that game, they probably would have made the NCAA tournament — no 10-6 ACC team has ever been shut out. But it was a live-and-learn moment for a young team, and I think this group certainly is learning how to better handle those tense situations.

Patrick Stevens