Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Roles defined, Tech clearly a team

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BLACKSBURG -- They come in waves now, like ants raiding a picnic.

One guy blocks a shot.

Another snags the loose ball.

Another sends it downcourt.

Another dunks it.

Then they all celebrate as one.

That's the difference this year. For Virginia Tech, Tuesday night's 87-83 victory over Wake Forest was just the latest example of team evolution.

How do these guys win? Together, that's how.

With Terrell Bell hustling back to block a shot after turning the ball over, then starting a fast break.

With freshman Cadarian Raines coming off the bench and snagging four offensive rebounds, providing an inside presence when the starters go out.

With J.T. Thompson continuing his resurgent play, scoring 16 points off the bench and helping slow one of the ACC's top post players.

Tech's basketball team still has a face, of course. Malcolm Delaney is the ACC's leading scorer. He poured in 31 points Tuesday. He's clearly the fulcrum here.

But he's got help -- plenty of it. And the Hokies are thriving as a result.

Combined with Dorenzo Hudson and Jeff Allen, the Hokies have the second-most prolific scoring trio behind conference-leading Duke. Perhaps more importantly, though, they have other players around them who know what they need to do to win.

"It feels great that we're supporting our leaders," said Bell, who snagged a career-high 14 rebounds Tuesday in perhaps his finest game in Blacksburg. "We know what we do best, and everybody embraces their roles."

That might sound simple, but teams can go entire seasons without achieving that kind of chemistry. You could argue the Hokies last year were one of them. In the most crucial moments, the 50-50 balls seemed to go the other way, the wrong players seemed to take the big shots and the game-saving box outs seemed to go unperformed.

Not this year. Tech improved to 7-1 in games decided by six points or fewer, and they did it with plenty of contributions outside the Big Three.

Allen played only 18 minutes Tuesday because of foul trouble. Another starting forward, Victor Davila, played just 10 minutes. Even Delaney got tagged with too many whistles; he fouled out in the final minute and had to watch the tense closing seconds from the bench.

The Hokies did not crumble without him. They hit enough free throws, played enough defense and escaped with their biggest win of the season.

Once the Hokies had rallied from an 11-point deficit, it never felt like they were going to lose. Tech coach Seth Greenberg shuffled players on and off the court, and unlike sometimes in years past, none of them seemed to be a clear liability.

Ever since the victory at UVa on Jan. 28, Thompson has been playing like he deserves to be a starter, yet he doesn't complain about his place as a reserve. Bell has shown he can knock down a jumper, but he knows others can do it better, so he focuses on challenging shots and attacking the glass. And Raines, who played a career-high 20 minutes Tuesday, is starting to show that he can be a viable option off the bench.

"That's the hardest thing in coaching -- getting guys to champion roles and feel good about it," Greenberg said.

The Hokies are all alone in second place in the ACC. They get to play at Duke on Sunday, possibly with first place on the line.

Competing in Durham is a formidable task. But the ants will march there anyway, with as much confidence and unity as ever.

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