Saturday, January 12, 2008

BLACKSBURG, Va. — It was already a good night for Jeff Allen. The Virginia Tech forward had enjoyed a splashy debut, scoring 19 points and grabbing 11 rebounds against Elon.

Soon he was out with his fellow freshmen to celebrate what the large group believed would be the first of many Hokies victories. And he was quickly spotted by fans who hoped the same thing.

“We went out to a party and we saw a couple people,” Allen said. “They were like ‘Agent Donut’ or ‘Number Zero.’ I was like ‘OK.’ I thought that was funny.”

Allen is going by more than a few names these days. It’s a byproduct of wearing the simplest of numbers (0) and a superb first impression with the Hokies (9-6, 0-1 ACC), who play host to Maryland (10-6, 0-1) this afternoon at Cassell Coliseum.

The D.C. native has a certain affinity for “Agent Zero,” for obvious reasons. Seth Greenberg prefers “The Big Donut,” though the Hokies coach insists it is a numerical rather than a culinary reference.

No matter the moniker, Allen represents the Hokies’ future. Not that the present — 12.6 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds — is all that shabby, especially after Allen took a winding path to college.

He played a couple seasons at DeMatha in Hyattsville, then made one-year stops at Oak Hill Academy and Hargrave Military Academy as part of a plan to get his academics in order.

Along the way, he played with North Carolina’s Ty Lawson, Duke’s Nolan Smith, Kansas State’s Michael Beasley and Georgetown’s Austin Freeman. But it is still hard to overlook a 6-foot-7, 258-pounder with the ball-handling skills of a point guard and the ability to run the floor like a much smaller man.

“He’s a very special talent,” Greenberg said. “He impacts the game in so many different ways. He can rebound the ball. He can put the ball on the floor. He can really pass the ball. But this is the first time in his career he’s been the go-to guy.”

And that’s meant some adjustments, namely in his conditioning. Allen said he was 268 pounds when he arrived in Blacksburg. He slimmed down to 248 pounds by the time the Hokies took a preseason trip to September, but the weight has fluctuated since then.

Allen doesn’t hide his displeasure with the weightlifting sessions foisted upon him, and strength and conditioning coach Dave Jackson has set an eventual target weight of 240 pounds.

“But I don’t think so,” Allen said mischievously. “It’s probably 250.”

Whatever the final number, it will make Allen an even more dangerous player. He was always intrigued by dribbling, and dabbled in honing his ball-handling skills even when he was 11 years old. He learned some tricks from former DeMatha teammate Nigel Munson, and studied And 1 mix tapes and pro players to continue to improve.

Toss in a sure set of hands and quick feet and what is the result? A versatile forward who can do things on the floor few have seen from a man his size.

“I’ve seen 6-7 guys dribble before, but not that big,” freshman guard Hank Thorns said. “I was like ‘All right, he can dribble like a guard.’ When he gets a rebound, I’ll be the first to tell Jeff to just push it. I’ll just run the floor because he can handle the ball.”

It’s tough to draw comparisons for Allen. Greenberg envisions him as a better conditioned version of Mario Boggan, the well-traveled former Oklahoma State star.

Weight, as well as a propensity for fouls (he has picked up at least four in seven games this season), are among Allen’s few possible stumbling blocks.

“If he works, he’s going to make a lot of money playing basketball,” Greenberg said. “There’s no doubt about it. But he’s got to make a commitment. He’s got to be in world-class condition, and he’s got to continue to develop his skill set and understand how to use his skill set. He has the potential.”

So do the Hokies, who have six freshmen averaging at least seven minutes. Allen, Thorns and Malcolm Delaney all play more than 20 minutes a night and have received early on-the-job training that should help in the second half of this season — and beyond.

“It’s looking pretty good right now,” Allen said. “We have a pretty good freshman class, and if we keep working, I’m pretty sure we can do great things in the future.”

And that would be pretty sweet for the Big Donut.

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