- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

The last time Virginia Tech played at Verizon Center it was a program on the rise.

The Hokies were finishing up an impressive inaugural season in the ACC heading into the 2005 conference tournament at what was then called MCI Center. They had shocked league and national powers Duke, Georgia Tech and Maryland en route to an 8-8 conference record.

The Hokies received a bye as the tournament’s fourth seed and knew a win or maybe two would help land them in the NCAA tournament.

“Everyone thought we had arrived,” said coach Seth Greenberg, who had worked magic in only his second season in Blacksburg.

It turned out to be a mere cameo among the ACC’s elite.

Georgia Tech dispatched those dreams with a 19-point win in the quarterfinal. Nonetheless, Virginia Tech was selected to the NIT — its first postseason appearance in nine seasons.

Two seasons later, after a disappointing and tragic season last year, the Hokies are back at Verizon Center today. They plan on making it a stop on their way to an NCAA tournament after a decade-long drought. Virginia Tech will meet George Washington in the second game of a tripleheader as part of the BB&T; Classic.

“There are no excuses why we shouldn’t win this year,” said shooting guard Zabian Dowdell, a 44.4-percent 3-point shooter, who averages 16.8 points a game. “Guys got bigger and faster over the summer. We are experienced. We should be able to close out games. We have our goals set on the NCAA tournament. Anything less would be a letdown.”

George Mason, which won an NCAA tournament regional at Verizon Center last March, begins the day against two-time Patriot League champion Bucknell, which won an NCAA tournament game the last two seasons. No. 23 Maryland puts its undefeated record on the line against Notre Dame in the nightcap.

Four third-year starters — senior guards Dowdell and Jamon Gordon, senior forward Coleman Collins and junior swingman Deron Washington — lead the Hokies (4-2). Gordon averages 4.7 assists and leads the ACC with 3.0 steals a contest.

Collins could be the key to the Hokies’ success. The 6-foot-9, 240-pounder was devastated last season when his father died of lung cancer and only recently has looked like the player that he was before the tragedy.

It was that kind of season for the Hokies, who saw real life take precedence over basketball. Forward Allen Calloway was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and left the team. Several players coped with deaths of parents and others close to them.

“It seemed like something would happen every week” Dowdell said. “It was just tough to focus on basketball. You almost felt guilty doing that.”

The on-court results were expected: four conference wins, a 14-16 overall record and no postseason. The most painful loss came when the Hokies appeared to have Duke beaten again until Sean Dockery heaved in a 40-footer at the buzzer to give the Blue Devils a 77-75 win at Cassell Coliseum.

With the excruciating season behind them, the Hokies expect to pick up where they left off the last time they visited Verizon Center.

The Hokies have experienced mixed results thus far. They lost in a tournament to mid-majors Western Michigan and Southern Illinois. Last week, they beat Iowa 69-65. Dowdell had 18 points, the Hokies turned the ball over just eight times and forced the Hawkeyes into 19 turnovers.

“Our identity has to be to defend and take care of the ball,” said Greenberg, who came from South Florida. “We have the guards and have to get contributions from up front.”

Greenberg, who had his contract extended until 2011 after being named ACC Coach of the Year in 2004-05, does not see this as a make-or-break season. Instead, the 50-year old coach views it as the next step on the Hokies’ way to consistently competing in what is regarded as the nation’s top basketball conference.

“We’re never going to catch up to the long-term tradition of some in the ACC, but we are catching up a little bit every day,” said Greenberg, who last took a team to the NCAA tournament when he coached Long Beach State in 1995. “You can look at our recruiting class and see that.”

Jeff Allen, a 6-foot-7 forward from DeMatha High School, is the star of this year’s freshmen. Greenberg said might be the best recruit ever to come to Virginia Tech. The Hokies also added another local in 6-8 power forward Gus Gilchrist. The two are considered top-100 recruits along with Dorenzo Hudson, a 6-4 guard from Charlotte. The highly rated five-member group is completed by Malcolm Delaney, a 6-3 guard from Baltimore and Terrell Bell, a 6-6 forward from Stone Mountain, Ga.

Allen will be the second DeMatha player to commit to Virginia Tech in two seasons as freshman Nigel Munson is being groomed as Gordon’s playmaking successor.

The Hokies hope that group is building on an NCAA tournament appearance. Virginia Tech has been involved in March Madness only once in two decades. The Hokies have been through two coaches since then with Ricky Stokes being the latest to get fired in 2003. They have also changed conferences twice.

“The school has been a vagabond in leagues,” Greenberg said. “When we got to the Big East, we had a good place to recruit. And now we are in the ACC, which is the right geographic footprint. There a lot of places we can recruit.”

And hoops is now an attraction in the sleepy southwestern Virginia town. They sell out the 9,847-seat Cassell Coliseum, a quaint arena with the feel of a smaller Cole Field House. The 46-year old venue was recently modernized and there are no plans for a new building. However, plans are in the works for a state-of-the-art practice facility.

Virginia Tech administrators don’t believe a modern, enlarged arena is necessary to compete in the ACC. Instead, athletic director Jim Weaver feels Greenberg can do for the basketball program what Frank Beamer did for football.

“You have to get the right bell cow in any [sport] to have sustained success over time,” Weaver said. “You have to try to get the best coach you can possibly get who can run a program and recruit like heck. And that is what we did.”

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