Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Seldom-used Virginia Tech reserve Paul Debnam is the happiest player in college basketball

ACC Tournament | Today-Sunday | Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, N.C.

He has something special planned for tonight, but he will not rehearse it, and it probably won't look anything like what he envisions.

Paul Debnam just lets it come to him. Lets the moment take over, allows the pent-up energy to control the puppet strings. They'll announce the starting lineups, he'll do all those special handshakes, and then the Virginia Tech guard will be off -- gyratin', bouncin', hip-groovin' in the center of the Hokie huddle.

Pure joy is what it looks like, and pure joy is what it is.

"Paul," Tech coach Seth Greenberg said with a smile, "is uninhibited to say the least."

Yes. That's the word: uninhibited. And as the Hokies enter the ACC Tournament tonight, the last thing they need are inhibitions. They ought to be leaning on Debnam -- and all the positive energy he personifies -- now more than ever.

For Tech, the saddest part about last week wasn't seeing the team whiff on two chances to lock up an NCAA tournament bid. No, the saddest part was watching Debnam trot to the scorer's table in those final seconds of the 69-60 loss to Clemson.

Gone was the smile. Gone were the springy legs. The happiest player in college basketball actually looked ... well, bummed.

"When I got in the game, I was just trying to not do anything silly," Debnam explained. "Just play the rest of the minute, seconds, whatever it was."

And that's simply not Paul. This is a guy who, on the day of the Duke game, was out tossing bean bags with tailgaters in the early morning hours. This is a walk-on who's played a grand total of 61 minutes in his four-year career yet still has managed to become a fan favorite. This is a guy who, after throwing down a dunk against N.C. Central last season, practically floated around the Cassell Coliseum court, popping his jersey and flapping his arms.

To Debnam, there's no such thing as a bad day when you're playing basketball.

"I get my energy from being part of a family," said Debnam, a fifth-year graduate student. "I like the team camaraderie. I like the team concept, and Coach Greenberg emphasizes that a lot. I think my role on the team is to be the emotional leader."

And the Hokies could use some emotional leading these days.

"Any team that loses two in a row after creating the possibilities that we created would have some anxiety and a letdown," Greenberg said. "But these guys should feel good about themselves. That's what I've been trying to get them to understand."

Debnam has too. While the recent losses have caused him to scale back his most playful antics, he's still at the center of the locker room, trying to spur his buddies to greatness. He's embraced that duty ever since he left the football team (he was a walk-on wideout) and joined the hoops squad in the summer of 2007.

"I couldn't have asked for a better situation," he said. "A lot of people ask me questions like, 'Do you wish you had gone to a smaller school and played more minutes? Do you wish you would have stuck with football?' But honestly, I don't think I'd want it any other way. This role I have on this team means a lot to me.

"I'm just trying to live it up. You only do this once. A lot of people have told me that -- you only get to do this once, and I'm just trying to make the most of it."

He typically makes the most of his sparse minutes. Debnam is a 54-percent career shooter from the field, including 3-for-6 on 3-pointers.

"Coach Greenberg usually does this pacing thing when we have a comfortable lead and he's ready to put people in," Debnam said with a smile. "I usually count. I think it usually takes him 6 ½ paces before he puts me in. ... But I'd be lying if I said I didn't get those jitters like, 'All right, it might be my time.' "

Debnam's proudest moment as a player came Jan. 15 against Wake Forest, when his baseline bounce pass set up Prince Parker's first career field goal. The two have been roommates and best friends since their freshman year.

There's another moment, too, although he technically never got on the court. It happened two Saturdays ago, as Debnam hopped on the sidelines right before the Duke game began.

"I almost can't even put it into words," Debnam said. "Prior to tipoff, there were just so many feelings. Excitement. Anxiety. Really, there were so many feelings. And then they play 'Enter Sandman,' and it just goes crazy in Cassell Coliseum.

"I knew it would be a moment to remember. I could tell by everybody's body language that we were going to do something special. I could tell. I think a lot of the other guys could sense it, too. We were there for each other."

He paused. The smile came back, and his eyes grew wide, like something important had just occurred to him.

"And that," he said, "is what we need to do in this ACC Tournament, as well."

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