Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia Tech's Bell sinks his teeth into defensive role

BLACKSBURG -- Maybe it's the mouthpiece.

That orange hunk of plastic kept popping in and out of Terrell Bell's face Wednesday night. When he fought through a screen. When he came down with a rebound. When he challenged a shot, lunged for a pass, corralled a loose ball.

The mouthpiece is new, and so is this tougher, more active version of Bell. The Virginia Tech sophomore -- the heir apparent to former lockdown defender Deron Washington -- finally seems to be developing into a key member of this team.

He followed up Sunday's strong performance against N.C. State with another gritty effort Wednesday night, snagging seven rebounds in 16 minutes during the Hokies' 76-71 victory over Georgia Tech.

"Honestly, I think it's psychological," Bell said of the mouthpiece. "I feel like if I'm in a tough situation, I can bite down on it. I've got something to grit on."

He ordered the mouthpiece early in the season and kept it in his locker until a couple of weeks ago. He accidentally head-butted a Clemson player during the Jan. 29 game, missed Tech's next outing at Boston College, then broke it out against State.

"I was like, 'I'll try it out see how it works,' " Bell said.

He smiled.

"It's been working pretty well," he said.

Bell's two best games with the Hokies have followed. He snared the key rebound in the waning seconds of regulation against the Wolfpack and scored a basket in overtime. Then Wednesday, in another critical matchup, he stayed right with Georgia Tech's big men on the glass and was a disruptive perimeter force in the Hokies' 2-3 zone.

"He can be good if he's active and quick and involved," Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "And that's where we've got to keep him. I was really pleased with his minutes."

Greenberg gave Bell an enthusiastic high five late in the game after the 6-foot-6 swingman forced a turnover on a deflection. Later, Bell chased down a ball that was heading out of bounds and got it to Cheick Diakite, who drilled a mid-range jumper.

With less than a minute remaining, the Yellow Jackets had one last chance to get back in it. Maurice Miller let a deep 3-pointer fly that missed badly, probably because there was a hand in his face.

Bell's hand.

And that's what the Hokies have wanted out of Bell: Defense. He's built much like Washington -- long, lean and extremely athletic -- and the Hokies have struggled to find a player who can match what the former standout delivered.

Bell has heard the comparisons before and doesn't mind them. But he has his own goals.

"No insult to Deron, but I want to be better than that," Bell said. "I think I've got the potential to do a lot more, if I work on ball-handling and shooting. Defense comes natural, so I feel like I can play with anybody."

Bell isn't much of a scoring threat yet. He entered Wednesday's game averaging 2.5 points and shot 1-for-4 from the field.

"I feel like scoring is not that important," Bell said. "I like to get stops. It makes me feel good to get stops, get rebounds, and maybe I can get garbage points to help the team out."

This team is still defined by the Big 3 of Malcolm Delaney, A.D. Vassallo and Jeff Allen, who've combined for more than 70 percent of the Hokies' points this season. But more efforts like this one from Bell -- along with solid nights from Diakite and Dorenzo Hudson -- will make them much more dangerous.

Bell has a tattoo on his right arm. It's a picture of a basketball player sitting on an outdoor court, with the skyline of Bell's hometown of Atlanta behind him.

Above the picture are these words: "To whom much is given, much is expected."

Just give Bell his mouthpiece and expect away.

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