After tough personal year, Hokies look solid
BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Virginia Tech endured so much heartache and tragedy last season that winning basketball games didn't even seem that important.
In the span of seven months last year, senior forward Allen Calloway was diagnosed with a rare soft-tissue cancer that spread to his lungs, star player Coleman Collins' father battled lung cancer before dying late in the season, forward Wynton Witherspoon's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, guard Shawn Harris' grandmother died, and forward A.D. Vassallo lost his "host mother," the woman who cared for him while the Puerto Rico native attended high school in Virginia.
Even after a long summer of healing and mourning, Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg isn't sure how his team will respond mentally in its third season in the ACC.
"I don't think it's ever behind us," Greenberg said. "Life's not fair. The hardest thing we went through is we had to go through all of this in the public eye. There are kids on our campus who probably experienced the same tragedies. But they didn't do it in the spotlight of the ACC and on national TV games.
"Are we over it? I can't speak for other people. I think Christmas and birthdays and holidays are always going to be hard."
After getting to within one or two victories of reaching the NCAA Tournament and going 8-8 in ACC play in their first season in the league in 2004-05, the Hokies' performance last season (14-16, 4-12 ACC) was bitterly disappointing. But with so many off-court tragedies consuming them, that might have been expected.
"When your teammates are being diagnosed with cancer and your teammates are losing parents and guardians on a weekly basis, you lose that determination," Greenberg said. "It was hard to be demanding on our team last year. We took a step back because at times it wasn't important. I'd walk in one day and say, 'I'm going to be tough on them today.' Then I'd go home and tell my wife, 'I'm stupid.' "
But if winning can help mend heavy hearts, the Hokies have reason for optimism. They return one of the country's best backcourts in seniors Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon, and their starting frontcourt could potentially be one of the best in the ACC. A solid recruiting class will add more depth to a team that often used only six players.
"I like our basketball team," Greenberg said. "I think we're experienced. I like our toughness. I think we've got something to prove."
Collins, a senior from Stone Mountain, Ga., might be the key in whether the Hokies reach their full potential this season. A 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward, Collins has, at times, played like one of the country's best players. He had a career-high 18 rebounds and five blocked shots and scored 14 points in an upset of No. 7 Duke as a sophomore. Last season, Collins scored a career-high 25 points and had eight rebounds in a 77-75 loss at Duke, in which the Hokies were sunk on 40-foot shot at the buzzer by Blue Devils guard Sean Dockery.
But after Jackson Collins, his father, became terminally ill late in the 2005-06 season, Collins' production slipped markedly. He missed two games, making several trips to an Atlanta hospice facility to be with his father, who died Feb. 13.
"I really don't know if he's recovered from it," Greenberg said. "How do you evaluate that? I think he's going to have good days and bad days. He's a 20-year-old kid and he's going to miss his dad dearly. But I think he's got goals and wants to be good."
Collins, who averaged 14.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in 26 games at center last season, already has graduated with a bachelor's degree in communications and is studying for a master's degree this year. He still has hopes of playing in the NBA.
"I'm feeling pretty good," Collins said. "I'm pretty confident about this year. I think it's going to be a big year. I'm really looking forward to getting back out there. Last year was so disappointing. We just want to get back out there on the court and get in front of a crowd again. Last year, we underachieved."
"Coleman Collins has to be productive for us," Greenberg said. "If he's not productive, I can't play him."
A long player with a soft shooting touch and exceptionally soft hands, Collins should benefit from the return of 7-foot center Robert Krabbendam, a sophomore from the Netherlands who missed all of last season because of a knee injury. Krabbendam has gained about 50 pounds since enrolling at Virginia Tech in 2004 and played on the Netherlands national team in the summer. Krabbendam will start at center, and Collins will move to power forward.
Deron Washington, who had several family members in New Orleans who lost their homes to flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina, has moved from power forward to small forward. A 6-7 junior, Washington scored 15 points or more in eight games last season and improved his shooting range during the offseason.
"His ability to hit shots is really going to stun people," Greenberg said.
Vassallo, a 6-6 sophomore, flourished when Collins was absent last season. He had 29 points and 10 rebounds in a 76-70 win at Wake Forest, and scored 19 in an overtime loss at Virginia and 15 in a loss at Miami. He will start the season on the bench, but will still play several minutes.
The Hokies' biggest strength will continue to be their backcourt. Dowdell and Gordon have started each of the past three seasons and are nearly identical in their style of play. Each can run the point or play on the wing.
Gordon, a 6-3 native of Jacksonville, Fla., had an assist-turnover ratio of better than 2-1 and led the Hokies in rebounds and assists. He has twice been named to the ACC's all-defensive team.
The 6-3 Dowdell, from Pahokee, Fla., is a better outside shooter than Gordon and led the Hokies with 15.3 points per game. Dowdell has exceptionally quick hands and led the team with 70 assists. He also was named to the ACC's all-defensive team last season.
"They're totally different personalities, but they're very much on the same page," Greenberg said. "They've lived together for four years. They know each other as teammates and players. They're both prideful. I think last year hurt them. They felt for their teammates, but they wanted to win."
Winning should come easier for the Hokies this season. Greenberg wants his team to play a more up-tempo style, so he's counting on what he hopes is a deeper bench. Their depth was hurt when Witherspoon transferred to George Washington during the offseason, and freshman guard Tyrone Appleton failed to academically qualify.
But Greenberg knows he can't rely on his starters so much. Dowdell and Gordon have averaged more than 34 minutes per game apiece during their careers. Collins averaged 33.1 minutes when he played last season. Washington rarely got breaks as well, averaging 31.5 per game.
Freshman Nigel Munson, from famed DeMatha High near Washington, D.C., seems to be the heir apparent at point guard and will play a lot. Senior Markus Sailes can play all the perimeter positions, and senior Chris Tucker, sophomore Cheick Diakite and promising freshman Lewis Witcher will provide depth in the post.
Improving foul shooting and 3-point shooting -- the Hokies ranked 11th among 12 teams in the ACC in both categories last season -- are must improvements for a team that lost eight of its 10 games decided by four points or fewer. Virginia Tech also ranked last in the ACC in rebounding margin.
"Was there a human element that hurt us last year? No question," Greenberg said. "But if you don't shoot free throws and don't rebound, you're not going to win."
If the Hokies improve in those areas, and winning games becomes cathartic for a team that has endured so much, Virginia Tech could end up playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 seasons.
"We just want to prove to people that our sophomore season wasn't a fluke," Gordon said. "We went through so much last year that we couldn't win games at the end. I want to lead my team to the NCAA Tournament and do something that hasn't been done around here in a long time."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.