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November 12, 2009

Hokies know NCAA quest starts with defense

After receiving disappointing news on Selection Sunday each of the past two seasons, Virginia Tech is feeling a little defensive.

The Hokies' inability to stop opposing offenses last season eventually halted their drive to the NCAA tournament. They're counting on a change in philosophy to alter their postseason destination. Virginia Tech opens the season Sunday against Brown.

"Last year we just tried to outscore people," junior guard Malcolm Delaney said. "I know the attitude of last year's team wasn't to stop people."

Not anymore.

Virginia Tech upgraded its defensive intensity in practice. They knew a change was necessary after they ranked eighth out of 12 Atlantic Coast Conference teams in scoring defense (70.7) and steals (6.5) and ninth in turnover margin (minus-0.6) last season.

One year earlier, Virginia Tech had allowed just 64.7 points per game to lead the ACC in scoring defense. The Hokies had never finished lower than fourth in the league in scoring defense in their first four seasons as an ACC member.

"Last year I felt we got away from our culture of getting stops and playing with a little bit of a chip," Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said.

The Hokies spent the offseason trying to recapture their identity as a defense-oriented program. They started drawing more charges and diving for more loose balls. If they didn't follow those orders, they inevitably would have to run extra laps.

"We have a totally different work ethic toward defense now," junior forward Jeff Allen said. "Everyone's kind of digging down deep and going outside themselves to get where they need."

They're counting on that extra effort to make the difference in close games.

Virginia Tech went 19-15 last season but went 4-8 in games decided by four or fewer points. The Hokies dropped six of their last seven regular-season games, and the margin of defeat in all but one of those losses was 10 points or less.

The Hokies' inability to get those late stops down the stretch eventually landed them in the NIT instead of the NCAA tournament.

Two years ago, Virginia Tech was heartbroken after being one of the last schools left out of the 65-team field. Last year, the Hokies didn't even bother gathering to watch the announcement of the NCAA brackets. They knew they hadn't done enough to qualify.

"This year we're actually going to finish more close games," Allen said. "The games we lost last year, like to Georgia [67-66], Wisconsin [74-72], the first game against Florida State [67-65], Xavier [63-62 in overtime], those are the times when we really needed to lock down on defense. When we have a one-point lead, we need to keep it. I think this year, with our defense, we're going to need it."

Virginia Tech will need better defense because it might not have quite as much offense.

Delaney averaged 18.1 points per game last season and gives the Hokies one of the ACC's top point guards, while Allen averaged 13.7 points and a team-high 8.4 rebounds per game. But the Hokies must find a way to replace A.D. Vassallo, who ended his college career as the Hokies' fifth-leading scorer and all-time leader in 3-point baskets.

The Hokies are counting on improved performances from complementary players such as junior forward J.T. Thompson and junior guard Dorenzo Hudson, but they don't have anyone who can replace Vassallo's production.

"We're going to have to find a third and fourth scoring option," Greenberg said. "We're not going to replace A.D. with one person. We've got to do it by committee."

Virginia Tech might not provide as much offense without Vassallo. Then again, maybe that won't be necessary. If the Hokies can play their usual brand of defense instead of reverting to their 2008-09 form, they just might earn that elusive NCAA tournament bid.

The Hokies reached the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2007, but they have made only one other NCAA appearance - a second-round loss in 1996 - since 1987. Virginia Tech has averaged 20 wins per season over the past three seasons but has only the one NCAA bid to show for it.

"None of us came to college to go to the NIT," Allen said. "We all came to college to make it to the Big Dance - the big tournament. The last two years, we came pretty close. We had it right there. This year, I think we're going to actually hold on to it."


Much of the preseason speculation involving North Carolina focused on how the Tar Heels would replace Ty Lawson or Tyler Hansbrough.

But at least in the early going, the guy the Heels could miss the most is Wayne Ellington.

Deon Thompson, Ed Davis, Tyler Zeller and freshman John Henson give the Tar Heels one of the nation's deepest frontcourts even after losing Hansbrough, the all-time leading scorer in ACC history.

Although Larry Drew II is no Lawson, the 6-foot-2 sophomore did a solid job running the offense Monday by dishing out six assists with only two turnovers in an 88-72 rout of Florida International.

But the Heels don't have an experienced outside shooter to fill the void created by Ellington's departure, and it showed in the season opener. UNC went 4-for-13 from 3-point range after averaging seven 3-pointers per game last season.

The Tar Heels attempted 12 3-pointers in the first half. Don't expect them to repeat that strategy anytime soon.

"The first half we shot 12 3s, which is probably a little too much for this team. Just because they play zone does not mean we have to take the first outside shot," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.

North Carolina also must do an overall better job of taking care of the ball. While Drew had a nice assist-to-turnover ratio against Florida International, the Tar Heels still finished the game with 26 turnovers.


The arrival of a heralded freshman class has created plenty of expectations for Georgia Tech, which is ranked 22nd in The Associated Press preseason poll despite going 12-19 last season. But their performance in an exhibition game Sunday offered at least some reason for caution. Georgia Tech needed overtime to win 84-76 over Division II program Indiana (Pa.), which received 31 points and 12 rebounds from former Boston College forward Akida McLain.

Evan Turner's 14-point, 17-rebound, 10-assist performance Monday in a 100-60 victory over Alcorn State was just the second triple-double in Ohio State history. Dennis Hopson had recorded 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in a 1986 win over Ohio. Turner's 17 rebounds represented a career high.

Syracuse's 75-43 rout of Albany in its season opener suggests we shouldn't focus too much on preseason results. Syracuse handed Orange coach Jim Boeheim his 800th career win in convincing fashion just a week after a heavily publicized exhibition loss to Division II program Le Moyne. The Orange followed that up Wednesday with a 100-60 victory over Robert Morris. Syracuse forward/center Arinze Onuaku, who made two-thirds of his shots last year, shot 1-for-6 and scored three points against Le Moyne. Onuaku scored 14 points in each of his first two regular-season games while shooting a combined 13-of-15.

Arkansas finally has announced the penalties stemming from a rape complaint that didn't result in any charges being filed. Arkansas guards Courtney Fortson and Stefan Welsh have been suspended indefinitely, guard Marcus Britt received a six-game suspension, forward Glenn Bryant will sit out two games and walk-on guard Nick Mason won't dress for any games during the fall semester.

The next chapter of Seton Hall guard Keon Lawrence's college basketball career has gotten off to a rocky start. The Missouri transfer was suspended indefinitely this week after being charged with driving under the influence during a crash on the Garden State Parkway. Lawrence was treated for severe facial cuts after the collision.

This should be a time of great optimism in Minnesota, which opens the season in the national rankings for the first time since 2003. But a series of off-court problems could test the Gophers' exceptional depth while casting the entire program in a negative light. Freshman forward Royce White - the No. 19 prospect in the nation - has been suspended along with senior Devron Bostick for violations of team rules. White was arrested last month on shoplifting and fifth-degree assault charges, and he now is being investigated in connection with the theft of a laptop computer from a campus dorm room. Joining White and Bostick on the Gophers' inactive list is Trevor Mbakwe, who won't play until his felony aggravated battery charge is resolved. Mbakwe has a December trial date.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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