- Mark Schlabach, College Football Reporter
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BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Virginia Tech basketball coach Seth Greenberg knew this coming season would be a rebuilding year for the Hokies, who are coming off their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 11 seasons.
Gone are guards Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon, the heart and soul of the Virginia Tech program the past two seasons, and forward Coleman Collins, who was at times a dominating inside presence.
But Greenberg also believed he had the necessary pieces in place to build another team that could compete in the rugged ACC. Wing players Deron Washington and A.D. Vassallo, who each averaged more than 10 points last season, were coming back.
So was backup point guard Nigel Munson, who would be capable of handling the basketball. Incoming freshman Augustus "Gus" Gilchrist, a 6-foot-10, 235-pound center, was considered a major recruiting coup and was potentially the best player the Hokies had signed during Greenberg's five-year tenure.
But then the horrific April 16 shooting happened at Virginia Tech, and Greenberg's plans fell apart.
A few weeks after a lone gunman killed 32 Virginia Tech students and faculty in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, Gilchrist informed Greenberg that he was anxious about attending the school in Blacksburg, Va.
Gilchrist wanted to sit out this season, attend a prep school and then enroll at Virginia Tech next year when things settled down. Greenberg told Gilchrist he wanted the big man on campus this fall, so the player asked to be released from his scholarship.
Gilchrist, who played at Progressive Christian Academy in Camp Springs, Md., is expected to enroll at Maryland in January.
As if losing his top recruit wasn't bad enough, Greenberg then lost his team's most promising returning player. Munson, a left-handed sophomore from the famed DeMatha High School program in suburban Washington, D.C., informed Greenberg he was thinking about leaving, too.
Munson left Virginia Tech in mid-July and sought to transfer to George Washington. But Greenberg wouldn't release Munson from his scholarship to join the Colonials. Munson was expected to enroll at a junior college, then enroll at George Washington next summer. Munson isn't enrolled in any school this fall.
"Obviously, it's been an extremely tough eight months emotionally, and there's no doubt our program has had some things happen that were out of our control," Greenberg said. "We can't get caught up in the past. We have to stay in the present. "
Without an heir apparent at point guard and with no legitimate big man on the roster, Greenberg has to reinvent the way his team plays basketball.
"We're going to be young," Greenberg said. "We're a work in progress. We had some things happen that obviously affected our depth. We had some players that we expected to be with us. We've had to overcome that, but we have a solid foundation."
The Hokies' foundation begins with Vassallo and Washington, but even they'll have to change the way they play. Vassallo, a 6-6 junior from Puerto Rico, was nothing more than a perimeter shooter last season. He led the Hokies with 66 3-pointers in 2006-07, but he rarely handled the basketball because Dowdell and Gordon brought it up the floor so much.
This season, freshman Hank Thorns of Las Vegas is expected to start at point guard, but Vassallo and even Washington still will have to handle the basketball a lot more.
"It's something I really worked on this summer," Vassallo said. "I'm trying to get used to having the ball in my hands now."
Washington, a 6-7 senior from New Orleans, was more of a post player last season because the Hokies needed his presence in the paint. He has improved as a shooter and will play on the wing this season.
"It's a concern," Greenberg said. "But he's worked extremely hard, and we made a commitment to him when he came in that we would develop him into a small forward."
Thorns, only 5-9 and 140 pounds, is the cousin of former Tennessee and current San Antonio Spurs guard C.J. Watson. Thorns averaged 27.8 points and 12.5 rebounds as a senior at Las Vegas Valley High.
"He's got great leadership skills," Greenberg said. "He's a scoring point guard. He scored a lot of points in high school and played high school football, so he has a toughness about him."
But Greenberg is more concerned about Thorns being mature enough to operate the Hokies' offense and direct traffic on the floor.
"We made a living by not turning the ball over," Greenberg said. "Now we're replacing two point guards with two wing players. Obviously, we're going to have to put a premium on taking care of the basketball."
Most of the Hokies' offense went through its guards last season. Dowdell and Gordon combined to score 52 percent of the team's points and had 58 percent of the assists and 58 percent of the steals. They also generated open shots for Vassallo and Washington by driving to the basket, then kicking the ball outside to the perimeter.
"We return two double-figure scorers," Greenberg said. "Those guys played off of an extremely competitive and attacking guard and a scoring point guard. They didn't get the opponent's best defender, and they didn't get the same attention defensively they're going to get this year. They're going to have to adjust. They're going to have to work harder to get that same offensive production."
More than that, Greenberg said, the guards were the unquestioned leaders on the court last season.
"We lost two strong personalities in Jamon and Zabian," Greenberg said. "Maybe not in words, but in actions. Redefining playing hard and working hard takes time with young players."
Virginia Tech will probably start two freshmen: Thorns and Jeff Allen of DeMatha High (via Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia), a 6-7, 258-pound power forward. Guard Malcolm Delaney of Towson Catholic should see time at point guard and off guard. Freshmen Terrell Bell, a rangy guard, and J.T. Thompson, another late addition from Monroe, N.C., figure to play a lot off the bench.
Cheick Diakite, a 6-9 junior from Bamako, Mali, will start at center. He averaged 2.9 points and 2.9 rebounds in 33 games last season and has limited offensive skills.
"I think we're going to have to play a different style of basketball," Washington said. "Last year, the guards penetrated and kicked out. This year, we're going to have to create our own shots a lot more. I'll have to step out and play the perimeter. Everybody will handle the basketball this year."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seth Greenberg felt good about his team this season. But the mass killings at the school, followed by the defections of two recruits and one likely starter, has left the Hokies reeling, writes Mark Schlabach.