Wednesday, January 21, 2009
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Revamped gym and outlook at Radford

RADFORD -- The place smelled like a home-improvement store Tuesday afternoon, fresh paint and lumber and you-can-do-this spirit all merging beneath a high ceiling.

A worker pushed a broom across the shiny wood floor. A couple of men put some rock music on the sound system to test the speakers. Other staff members double-checked the signage -- RU logos everywhere you looked, perfectly positioned above the rows of empty seats.

The arena is ready. And the fans should be, too.

Tonight, Radford University's Dedmon Center opens its doors for the first time this season. Ten months of renovation are finished, and the Highlanders are eager to get out of 575-seat Peters Hall and back into their 5,000-seat bubble.

If you can find an empty seat, take it. Because for the first time in a long time, an RU game has enormous stakes. The opponent is VMI, the most prolific scoring team in the nation. The winner takes over sole possession of first place in the Big South.

And the Highlanders who left this floor last March, battered by another long season? They're nowhere to be found.

n n n

Weird.

That's Joey Lynch-Flohr's word for it, and it's a good one. Weird. The RU junior was sitting on the bench last week, looking up at the scoreboard. Roughly eight minutes remained in the game. One team was beating the other by 30. One team was about to win its fifth straight conference game.

His team.

"Usually that's us looking up at the scoreboard, then putting our head back under a towel or something," Lynch-Flohr said with a self-effacing grin. "That's how we ended our last two years. Winthrop last year beat us by like 25 in the postseason. My freshman year, High Point killed us at High Point. It wouldn't be unusual to lose two or three games like that, in that kind of fashion, at home or away."

No longer. What second-year coach Brad Greenberg now steers is the hottest team in the Big South. Lynch-Flohr watched the subs finish off that Charleston Southern win, 82-53. Then RU won at High Point on Saturday, improving to 6-1 in the conference.

In the 6-foot-8 Lynch-Flohr and 6-11 juco transfer Artsiom Parakhouski, RU has the most imposing frontcourt in the league. Together, they're averaging better than 28 points and 16 rebounds a game.

The Highlanders have the best field-goal-percentage defense in the league. They have the best rebounder in the league (Parakhouski). They have the top assist man in the league (Amir Johnson).

All this after going 10-20 a year ago, 8-22 the year before that.

Weird.

But in the end, explicable.

n n n

Five things. That's what Greenberg decided on. His first year had been a get-to-know-you season for him and his players. But with that out of the way, they needed to establish an identity. And he and his staff chose five areas by which the Highlanders would judge themselves.

n They would defend fundamentally. Proper stances, footwork, communication, rotations. They would drill it all until they got it right.

n They would play hard -- every night.

n They would get the ball inside, no matter the defense. The addition of Parakhouski, a Belarussian by way of the College of Southern Idaho, gave them the ability to own the paint if they committed.

n They would cut down turnovers. This remains a work in progress.

n They would play as a team, sacrificing individual accolades. Judging by the record, this is not a problem.

"I'm glad that we're making progress," Greenberg said. "I want these kids to feel good about themselves and feel like they're for real."

They do. As Lynch-Flohr put it, "I don't feel like we should lose anymore."

And for the first time this season, this basketball-crazed campus will get to see for itself if that's true.

"I'm anxious to see what happens when we open these doors," Greenberg said. "Our players are anxious to see. They know that 575 people can come watch us play, because that's what's been there."

He laughed.

"But we're hoping there's more."

Count on it.

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