The Mountain Ahead
by Jim Alderson
TSL Extra, Issue #5

It has been the dreariest of seasons for the Tech menís basketball program. It began with some embarrassing losses to lower-tier programs that Tech simply has no business losing to, then moved into our inaugural Big East schedule and saw a couple of surprising wins and a few good efforts, but mostly consisted of the Hokies being overmatched against a caliber of competition we havenít seen in a good long time. And, quite frankly, the future does not appear especially bright.

For all of the talk about our freshmen, none got within hailing distance of the BE rookie team. In what can charitably be described as a down year in the BE, that can be excused as a cyclical phenomena due to the fact that it was a very young league, with an abundance of young talent that will only get better, and our frosh are not at the level of that the BE teems with. And it is hard to see how it will get better. Bryant Matthews and Carlos Dixon will improve, but so will Omar Cook (St. John's), Eddie Griffin (Seton Hall), Marcus Toney-El (Seton Hall), Andre Barrett (Seton Hall), Taliek Brown (UConn) and the others. Precious little in BE-quality help is on the way.

Despite the optimism voiced by head coach Ricky Stokes, recruiting has not gone well, and it appears that the talent gap is widening between us and the top of the conference, where they are most definitely not engaged in pitched recruiting battles with George Mason for JUCO point guards (there are reasons players go to junior colleges, few of them good). This basketball program has serious problems and the task of fielding even a decent team seems monumental.

The most pressing problem is one of money. We donít have enough. We have done fairly well with our ĎFootball Firstí athletic priority, to say the least, and given our situation, it was the only sensible course to follow, but it has left us with an under-funded basketball program now residing in a power conference. The results in this, our first season, were predictable.

This will be at least partially solved in time as we will eventually pay the exorbitant entrance fee extorted by the basketball schools and get our cut of the huge conference television package. I definitely have some issues with jimmy, but one of them is not his budgetary oversight. He is an excellent bookkeeper, and we can assume that as more funds become available for menís basketball, they will be invested wisely and not used merely to provide a Temple-football-style bare-bones basketball existence.

Increased funding will provide Ricky with the cash necessary to widen his recruiting net beyond the limited area from which he is now drawing players (I get the feeling that the ready cash Frank Beamer had on hand to keep a chartered jet idling at the Roanoke airport to hop to Pennsylvania and New Jersey to corral top talent is not currently available to Ricky). But even with the widened recruiting scope offered by Big East visibility, recruiting generally begins at home.

Exactly what do we want from our basketball program? The short answer is obvious: better than this. The next, trickier question becomes: How do we do it, and, more importantly, can we?

It is interesting to take a look around at what I like to regard as our athletic peers, land-grant universities in locations as remote and far from the bright lights as Blacksburg. There are a number around with, like us, pretty darn good football programs. How are they doing in basketball?

We can start with Clemson. Since the founding of the ACC five decades ago, the Tigers main basketball role seems to be to provide a foundation in the standings for the rest of the conference to rest. A quick look at Clemsonís ACC history shows pretty much fifty years of futility, with losing season piled upon losing season, only occasionally broken by a decent run, which then usually leads to the coach immediately bolting for greener pastures. It is a matter of faith in ACC circles that the easiest way to obtain prized ACC Tournament tickets is to stand outside the arena at the conclusion of Clemsonís first game. There's not much inspiration for Hokie fans there.

Also in the ACC is Florida State. They left association with us in the old Metro and hit the ACC running with a roster slam full of Prop 48ís, and did achieve some early success. They then began dealing with the ACCís academic requirements, which take a dim view of such recruits, and the Seminoles quickly dropped to the bottom of the conference and have been there ever since. Basketball is little more than an afterthought in Tallahassee (while Clemson fans have had virtually no reason to attend the ACC Tournament, they do buy the tickets, if only for speculative purposes. Not so at FSU, where their share not given to alumni friends of other schools are often given away to anybody that will take them), and it often seems the only reason FSU even fields a team is because the ACC requires it in order for the Noles to annually plunder the conference in football and provide quick and easy access to the BCS.

The basketball situation is slightly better at Penn State, but not much. Nine years of Big 11 residency have done little for Lions basketball (and it can be argued that, considering the number of Rose Bowl appearances copped by JoePa, it hasnít done an awful lot for their football team, either. Welcome to Blacksburg, Kevin). The last decade or so of Penn State basketball has seen a couple of NIT visits and the rare achievement, such as this year, of becoming an NCAA bubble team, and while we would kill to even be considered for March Madness, I doubt grinding basketball mediocrity was what the Lions had in mind when they moved to the Midwest.

One cannot overlook Texas A&M, and while I freely admit I am not well-versed in Big XII basketball, it does seem that studying that conferenceís standings year after year shows that the Aggies have turned the twenty-loss season into an art form.

There certainly is not a lot of hope to be found in those examples of teams that have been in power conferences a lot longer than we.

There is, however, a school whose situation is fairly similar to ours that is doing pretty well in basketball. That school is defending NCAA champion Michigan State. To say they have prospered is to engage in some serious understatement. They have also done it, as we have in football, with a heavy reliance on in-state players. Their current roster has seven of their fourteen listed players as hailing from Michigan.

Most successful programs in most any sport are built on a foundation of solid in-state recruiting. Our recent in-state recruiting has not been good, to say the least. At the moment we have nobody. I have seen and heard the expectation that the same prowess can be obtained at Tech in basketball using the same method as it was in football, relying heavily on players from Virginia. Can it? Granted, we have not been in a conference position to appeal to the stateís top talent, but was the talent available to move us up the BE standings had we not been stabbed in the back in 95 and had spent the last few years in the conference, and assuming we were able to recruit some local kids?

It is interesting and illuminating to take a look at where the local kids went (I would point out that they didnít go to Virginia, either, as few in-state products have contributed to their recent up tick in fortunes - only Travis Watson, not home-grown but whose family, luckily for the Hoos, dropped anchor in the Lynchburg area just in time for him to be scooped up by Pete Gillen). Looking at the big men, there are seniors Josh Shoemaker from coal country, Damon Thornton and Kenny Inge from Tidewater, and junior Chris Moss from Richmond.

Shoemaker considered Tech before heading to Wake Forest, where he has turned in a solid if unspectacular career. His playing time increased from year to year until he finally cracked the starting lineup this year. His primary asset was rebounding prowess, something sorely missing from this yearís Tech team, but he had serious problems every time he went up against one of the ACCís premier big men, such as Brendan Haywood, Lonny Baxter or Carlos Boozer.

Thornton and Inge both cast their lot with NC State. Thornton was a fairly solid player, but never achieved stardom, and provided perhaps the most overt example of Herb Sendekís rank inability to develop players. He was basically the same player at the conclusion of his Wolfpack career as he was at its beginning, with an arrest and suspension thrown in for good measure. The last thing we would have needed at Tech was further additions to our athletic rap sheet. Inge was the more talented of the two, but, like Thornton, never blossomed into a high-quality contributor. He also was often cited for attitude problems, and his on-court demeanor was at times positively Dennis Mims-like.

West Virginiaís Moss is the best of this bunch, having turned into a solid inside presence for Gale Catlett, but there has also been much emotional and academic baggage attached to his career. There was also Tidewaterís Brian Bersticker at North Carolina, but he rarely plays, observing most Tar Heel games from the end of the bench.

While any of these guys would have been an upgrade over what Stokes had on the floor, none have demonstrated the ability to have consistently held their own with Jake Voskul, Troy Murphy or Michael Bradley. I would point out that Rolan Roberts was recruited at Tech, and while he was a solid player in the A-10, we never got to see how he would have performed at the BE level. My guess is that his 6í6 size would have made it difficult to effectively compete with larger and more physical Big East frontcourt players.

Moving to the wings, about the only good ones I can find are Roanokeís Brooks Berry and Tony Stanley from NOVA. The junior Berry has been a solid player at West Virginia, but hardly a star. Stanley, who once committed to Bobby Hussey before landing in Dayton, is a very good player, but the suspicion remains if he could have achieved the same quality play against tougher BE competition.

And that is about it. What is noticeably missing from this group of state players is a point guard, also Techís principal weakness. I suppose Ronald Curry could be counted, but so far his indulging in both football and basketball has guaranteed that he would not realize his full potential in either.

There donít seem to be any basketball equivalents to the Vicks and Suggs and Engelbergers that have propelled us to the football heights we enjoy. Even if we dominated in-state basketball recruiting like we have football over the last few years, there appear to be players that would only raise us to the middle of the BE pack, at best. There are, of course, the academies, Hargrave, Fork Union and the mother ship at Oak Hill. This has to be an integral part of any recruiting strategy, but we are going to have to do better than getting players who rarely play.

If Ricky Stokes is going to recruit the players necessary to make us competitive, or at least qualifying for the Big East Tournament, which would be a step in the right direction, where are the players going to come from? The obvious answer would seem to be the Washington to New York corridor, since what few television opportunities we received this year did get us into those households. The area abounds with quality high school basketball players and competition.

The Big East has five schools in that corridor, and they are mining it heavily. They are luring recruits with the advantageous offering of playing in front of their friends and family. That is going to be tough to combat. While they didnít exactly jell, Seton Hall's Tommy Amaker rounded up what was considered the nationís top recruiting class last year without having to drive much further than an hour from campus. With seven players from the New York City area, the recruiting budget for St. Johnís Mike Jarvis consists mostly of subway tokens.

I would point out that while Will allows me to submit regular TSL columns basically whenever I feel like it, the Xtra ones do carry a deadline (March 12 in this case) and, in keeping with a lifelong habit begun in elementary school with the very first book report I ever had to compose and turn in, I have waited to just about the last possible minute and much of this is being written following that terrific Duke-Maryland ACC semifinal, with occasional glances at the television displaying the annual Temple-UMass A-10 final, which is doing little more than adding to the joy felt by most Hokies when we finally got out of that miserable league. Even more is being written following Dukeís ACC championship game dismantling of North Carolina. It occurs to me that there are two and perhaps three ACC teams better than any I saw in the ten of the eleven Big East Tournament games I watched on the tube. Most of these BE teams were routinely beating us by twenty, and the youth of the conference means that our competition is going to be tougher.

If we are going to do anything in basketball other than serve as the league's punching bag, better players will be the first requirement, and it seems to me a legitimate question as to where they will come from. Ricky Stokes has a very tough task ahead of him.

 

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