Thursday, February 19, 2009
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Watching is punishment enough

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Maybe they brought him just so he could watch, be a part of the huddles.

A part of the anguish.

Suspended Virginia Tech post player Jeff Allen viewed this debacle not from Blacksburg but from the end of the bench. He wore a hooded Hokies sweatshirt, jeans and white sneakers.

And he looked miserable.

They all did Wednesday night, really, and that makes sense. Their rival -- the only team in the ACC without double-digit victories -- was embarrassing them. Their NCAA tournament hopes were shriveling.

Virginia's lead reached 13, then 17, then 19, and the Hokies could do nothing.

That's literally true for Allen, the conference's third-best rebounder who was confined to the pine.

So what did we learn from UVa's 75-61 victory at John Paul Jones Arena? Simple: You can't flip people off. Not early in the season, not in the middle of the season, and certainly not late in the season. You may feel an overwhelming urge to. But you can't.

Look. I've seen what Allen saw on Saturday. I've heard the kinds of things he apparently heard. I spent three years as an usher at Cole Field House while a student at Maryland 10 years ago. I heard vitriolic language in the student section. I broke up fights. The hard-edge reputation there is earned, much as an alum would rather not admit it. College Park can be a nasty, nasty place.

But you can't respond to it.

Allen's bird may have cost Tech a bid. We'll never know if the Hokies would have won this game with him -- the Cavaliers put in an inspired performance after their upset of Clemson over the weekend -- but we can ask questions.

Does UVa's Jeff Jones slither in for that reverse layup if Allen's waiting on the baseline? Does Mike Scott get such a good look at that little jump hook if Allen's manning the paint? Does Sylven Landesberg snag that offensive rebound, all alone?

Tech's uneasiness began almost immediately. The Cavaliers grabbed offensive rebounds on their first three missed shots of the game. Allen's territory.

Remember, this is a Tech team that bills itself as fueled by "The Big 3." It's right there in the game notes, "The Big 3." A.D. Vassallo. Malcolm Delaney. Jeff Allen. The first two of those make their living on the perimeter. The third does a lot of the dirty work -- the boxing out, the altering of shots, the battling.

"A lot," Delaney said, when asked how much it hurt the team not having Allen. "A whole lot. We needed a low-post presence."

Especially when Delaney is struggling. Wednesday marked the fourth straight game Tech's brilliant combo guard couldn't find his shot. Delaney attempted just two shots in the first half, and in the second half we all saw why.

He finished the game 3-for-13 from the field and is shooting just 31 percent since the loss at Boston College.

But maybe he gets a few better looks Wednesday if Allen's in the game providing an inside threat. Tech coach Seth Greenberg suggested that as a possibility but didn't address Allen further, saying "we coached the guys that we have on our roster that were able to play."

Greenberg shares some culpability here. Allen's actions at Maryland were his and his alone, but the coach has had his share of tirades, too. He calls them "out-of-body experiences."

Sometimes they're funny. Sometimes they're embarrassing. But bottom line: Is it reasonable to expect the players to show composure at all times when the coach doesn't?

Greenberg was mostly reserved in this one. He spent much of the night squatting on the sidelines with his hands clasped in front of him, occasionally bringing them to his face when the Hokies made another lousy play.

Behind him sat Allen, presumably just as discouraged. It was good that he was here. Watching this mess was a better lesson than any lecture.

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