New Kids on the Block

By Will Stewart,, 12/21/00

With three new players to move around like chess pieces, Tech men's basketball Ricky Stokes is feeling a lot better about his team. But they've still got some holes to fill, and it will be a long while before the team plays at peak efficiency.

On Monday, three new players joined the team: 6-6 junior Joe Hamilton, 6-4 freshman Danny Gathings, and 6-11 junior Carlton Carter. The trio provided instant relief for Stokes when his young charges came out flat against ETSU on Monday, falling behind 19-4, and Stokes immediately inserted Carter and Hamilton into the lineup.

Carter in particular sparked the Hokies, scoring 11 first half points, and Hamilton added 7 in the half. It was good enough to put Tech up 38-33 at half time, and the Hokies, who struggled in the second half, held on and then won in overtime, 81-75.

So where does this leave the team? As mentioned, the cavalry is welcomed. The very fact that Coach Stokes had three more guys he could go to made the difference Monday night. Just one game earlier, there would have been no other options, and the same starting five that sleep-walked their way to a huge early deficit would have been left in the game, probably with a disastrous outcome. After all, this is the same ETSU team that whipped Tech lackluster Tech teams 57-48 in Blacksburg two years ago and 58-43 on the road last year.

And on Wednesday night, the Hokies won their third in a row, narrowly escaping a Mt. St. Mary's team that was playing without former UVa recruit Melvin Whitaker, who was ineligible for academics. Good thing, because although he's got a history of trouble (Whitaker, who never played a game for UVa, was convicted of assault and sent to jail after slashing a UVa football player with a boxcutter in a much-publicized incident in Charlottesville years ago), Whitaker can play ball. Without him, the game was close, but the Hokies won, 59-56.

This Hokie basketball team still has some glaring weaknesses. Defensively, they're soft, as the 11 new players learn how to play together, where to position themselves defensively, and when to switch off. Time and again, ETSU penetrated into the middle and got a good look at the basket, scoring 40 points in the paint, despite being smaller than Tech.

Offensively, although the Hokies have good height in 6-9 Mobindo Dongo and the 6-11 Carter, their scoring sheet is, as they say, like a donut: it has a big hole in the middle. On Monday, Tech scored just 16 points in the paint, and against Mt. St. Mary's, Carter, Dongo, and starting center Jon Smith totaled 6 points in 44 minutes.

If suspended forward Dennis Mims returns to the team, that may help the interior scoring, but don't count on it. This team has trouble getting the ball to its big men in the half-court offense. They don't pass well into the paint, and they don't have a skilled point guard who can break down the defense off the dribble.

Most of the good looks that this team gets at the basket come on the perimeter, where, thankfully, they have been shining in the last two games. Against ETSU, six players hit three-pointers, and the team shot 9-20 from behind the arc. In the follow-up at Mt. St. Mary's, they went 8-18, giving them a sterling two-game total of 17-38, or 44.7%.

And they have torn it up from the free throw line in the last two games, as well. In the first 7 games, the Hokies were 99-165 from the stripe, an inadequate %60. In the last two games, they have knocked down 37-47 attempts (78.7%).

And they have needed every one of those free throws, too. If they had shot just 60% in both games, they would have lost the ETSU game in regulation and would have either gone into OT against St. Mary's or lost it outright. We've seen Hokie basketball teams lose games from the line, and this one has won two in a row at the line.

Another pleasant surprise has been rebounding. Poor board work cost Tech a game against William and Mary, when the Hokies gave up 16 offensive rebounds, including a second-chance basket that was the game-winner for the Tribe.

But other than that, the news is mostly good. The Hokies have outrebounded their opponents 328-293 on the season, for an average margin of 36.4 to 32.5, or almost 4 per game. Unfortunately, this record has been run up against a fairly weak schedule. The best teams Tech has played are UVa and Syracuse. The Hoos, not known for their rebounding, edged the Hokies 37-35, while the Orangemen destroyed Tech 42-25 on the boards. The Syracuse rebounding totals could be a harbinger of things to come, as Tech gets ready to enter the Big East portion of their schedule.

In addition to poor defense, lack of half-court interior scoring, and rebounding that could haunt them in conference play, the Hokies have not developed a running game. Stokes has recruited a stable of reed-thin gazelles who stand 6-4 to 6-7, and he has pledged to run the ball more. The problem is, the Hokies lack a truly skilled ball-handler in the mold of Al Young, Bimbo Coles, or Jenis Grindstaff, players who could go coast-to-coast and break down the defense with the dribble.

Chris Exilus has not shown that ability with the ball at this point, though he came into the program billed as a penetrate-and-dish artist. In short, the team simply doesn't attack the basket on offense, be it on the fast break or in the half court. At this point, it looks as if their main threat of scoring comes from behind the three-point line and at the free throw line, and success in both those areas is fleeting and inconsistent for any team.

As the season wears on, the leaders are emerging. Carlos Dixon and Brian Chase have established themselves as the best three-point shooters on the team, with Dixon hitting 17-50 (34%) and Chase dropping in a remarkable 21-42 (50%). In addition to carrying the team to victory by scoring 7 of their first 8 points in overtime against ETSU, Chase scored 18 points against Mt. St. Mary's, the only Hokie to score in double figures. In that same game, Exilus scored 7 points in the waning minutes and went 6-6 from the free-throw line for the night.

So for now, this team will apparently live by the three-point shot and try not to hurt themselves from the free throw line, as they work on their defense and interior scoring, and wait for a point guard to emerge.

One thing that is encouraging is that the chemistry of the team appears strong at this point, and the players want to enjoy themselves. Carter and Dongo love playing the game, and Hamilton smiled and kidded with the refs during Monday's ETSU game. Stokes said that they were not happy after the Mt. St. Mary's game, even with the win, but you get the impression that they're in it together now. Whether Mims will return from his suspension or not, and how his presence will affect the team dynamics, is still unknown.

They'd better try to have fun, because once the Big East schedule starts, the losses are going to pile up. Ricky's team needs experience, and they need to fill in the gaps, before a consistent winning team will return to Blacksburg.

Will Stewart is the founder and General Manager of  He writes the News and Notes section, game previews, and game reports for TSL, and generally runs the place with his prodigious and productive brain.


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