Basketball Thoughts
by Jim Alderson, 2/15/01

The men's basketball team staggers towards the end of the season and the first March without Hokie participation in a conferences tournament since the year before we joined the Metro Conference in 1978. There has been a little excitement and a couple of big wins, but for the most part the season has gone as most expected. We are now running with the basketball big dogs, and have certainly proven that hanging around the middle of the A-10 does not exactly prepare a program for life in the Big East. It could have been worse, as the 0-16 conference mark widely forecast for Tech has been bettered, and at least a couple of freshmen provide a glimmer of hope for the future. It has become apparent, however, that Tech simply lacks the talent to effectively compete in the basketball side of the Big East.

What this team needs are better players. Ten years ago, Frank Beamer recruited primarily against the Hoos, East Carolina and Maryland. Today, he owns the state and the competition is Penn State and Tennessee. If Ricky Stokes is still around in a decade it will be because he elevated his recruiting above the current jousting for players with schools of the Big South and Southern conferences. While we are not candidates for Big Monday anytime soon, BE membership is bringing increased exposure to the program and Ricky should be able to at least get his foot past the front door of a better class of prospect. And, it will need to be done fairly soon.

There are bright spots. Bryant Matthews and Carlos Dixon are two kids with a degree of athleticism not seen recently around Cassell Coliseum, at least wearing Tech uniforms. They have the potential to develop into decent Big East players, and the future of this program will revolve around them. The trick is going to be finding quality help. Very little seems to be coming to Tech next season, meaning they will be juniors (at least) before reinforcements arrive. That makes next yearís recruiting effort a vital one. Along with the quest for a better class of athlete, the front court will have to be re-stocked (contrary to the company line, this is not a particularly young team. There are others in the BE just as young with better records). If Bryant and Carlos become seniors before the level of talent around them increases by an appreciable level, we will not have ventured far from where we are now, propping up the rest of the oddly named Big East East (BEE?). If another recruiting season gets away, Ricky Stokes will be in trouble.

The most pressing need of this team is at point guard. Quite simply, we donít have one. It is the most important position in basketball. Boston College and Troy Bell has certainly shown how far a quality guard can carry a team, and UConnís problems can be traced to the replacement of veteran Khalid el-Amin with freshman Talik Brown. A rank inability to control the ball and run a coherent offense, particularly in critical late-game situations, along with their proclivity to turn the ball over seemingly hundreds of times per game, has cost this Tech team dearly. Perhaps half the defeats could have been averted with solid point guard play.

Brian Chase does not seem to be the answer. A step slow, a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later, and huge defensive weaknesses are not qualities one normally looks for in a point guard. He is a shooting guard in a point guardís body, but at the four is a serious defensive liability. His best role would seem to be coming off the bench to provide relief at both guard positions, much as similar player Robert OíKelly has recently been used by Stokesí mentor Dave Odom at Wake Forest. But this Tech team does not have that luxury. After watching Chris Exilus duel Dukeís Chris Duhon in a high school all-star game last summer, I had hoped Coach Stokes would be able to hand Chris the ball with instructions to return it in four years, but that hasnít quite happened, to say the least. With no immediate point guard help on the recruiting horizon, Exilus is going to have to develop at a pace somewhat faster than his current leisurely one, or Chase is going to have to display some heretofore well-hidden skills. Guard play has to improve.

The situation inside also needs a talent infusion. Carlton Carter and Mbindo Dongo are enthusiastic players, certainly a refreshing departure from what we were witnessing in the middle last year at this time, but are too often physically overmatched in the Big East paint, where play is only slightly less physical than it is along BE football lines. Dongo has shown positive signs, but is still a work in progress, as spending much of his youth unfortunately dodging bullets rather than picks provided scant opportunity to learn the game. His junior status indicates that his development into a BE-type inside player will likely be in Europe rather than Tech. Carter is also a junior, class membership that does not bode well for the future. It is going to be very difficult to advance from the BEE cellar without a couple of guys who not only can bang with what most of our opponents routinely put on the floor, but will be around for a while.

The coaching ability of Ricky Stokes has been discussed at length. Last year, my reaction was one of horror at the thought of how far he would be in over his head facing guys named Calhoun and Boeheim, as Ricky too often looked like a guy whose biggest recommendation for the Tech job was that he would work relatively cheap (most BE schools pay their basketball coach a bit more than their football team's defensive coordinator -- not so at Tech). While some of his tactical decisions still mystify, Ricky does seem to be improving. Tech generally seems strategically well-prepared for games, and plays solid defense at times, the foundation of any successful program.

Stokes has also established control over this program, even if it means tossing his best player, which it did. Unlike his immediate predecessor, there is no question who runs this team. While he is still discovering the difference between giving advice as a trusted assistant and making the hard calls himself, he does seem to be growing into the job of head coach. He deserves the time to turn the program around (after all, he didnít make this mess, he just inherited it), and will be given it, as our current basketball budgetary constraints, the price of full BE membership, means that we simply cannot afford another coach.

The ultimate success or failure of Ricky Stokes at Virginia Tech will be judged by recruiting. The players necessary to win in the Big East are not currently on the roster. Recruiting must be upgraded, and done fairly quickly.

Jim Alderson, who first made his mark with his biting political commentary on the A-Line email newsletter, also brings a unique, sarcastic, and well-informed perspective on college sports, particularly (1) Virginia Tech sports and (2) ACC sports.  While Hokie fans currently have very little use for subject number 2, Alderson is an entertaining and informative columnist on subject number 1.  For even more fun, visit Jim's A-Line home page.


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