Friday, January 20, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies' dreadful halfcourt offense is at a standstill

BLACKSBURG - Virginia Tech really needed a bucket. Like, "the-run's-up-to-18-to-zip-and-somebody-had-better-find-a-way-to-end-it" needed a bucket.

So shortly after a timeout in the second half, Tech point guard Erick Green dribbled the ball about four feet behind the 3-point line. His teammates weaved around the paint and on the perimeter. Green kept dribbling.

Finally, he passed the ball to freshman C.J. Barksdale, the 6-foot-8 forward. Barksdale was outside the 3-point line. He was being guarded by the reigning ACC defensive player of the year, North Carolina's John Henson.

Barksdale decided this was the time he'd try to make something happen.

He dribbled toward the paint, spun and put up a brutally difficult shot from about 17 feet away - one that was blocked easily by Henson.

It was just one play in Tech's 82-68 loss to the No. 8 Tar Heels on Thursday, but it was indicative of the Hokies' biggest problem on this night and throughout their 0-4 start in the ACC: Their halfcourt offense is brutal.

It seems to have no flow. Often, the Hokies look like they're just trotting - or worse, standing - around, waiting for that cue from the crowd: "Five! Four! Three! ..."

It's the signal that the shot clock's about to go off and, well, you'd better try something.

What they're trying isn't working. Crazy runners. Long jumpers with defenders close by. Layups in traffic.

Good offenses shouldn't hear that shot clock countdown more than once or twice a game. Tech hears it all the time.

The Hokies rode a Dorenzo Hudson explosion to a great first half and led the Tar Heels by five at the break. They were pushing the tempo. They were hitting their 3s - several of the pull-up-on-the-fast-break variety. They were hanging in on the boards against the team with the best rebounding margin in the ACC.

They were winning without much of a halfcourt offense, in other words. And that turned out to be unsustainable.

In the second half, when UNC started making shots and limiting Tech's transition opportunities, the Hokies had no response. They reverted to their form against Boston College and Wake Forest and the first half of the Florida State game.

There was, however, one undeniable positive for Tech from Thursday, and it had nothing to do with winning the rebounding battle or dictating the pace of the game.

It had to do with the stands.

Tech fans have done a great job over the past few years of limiting the amount of Duke and UNC blue that can infiltrate Cassell Coliseum. But that loyalty run seemed to be in jeopardy this week, when tickets were still available to the public the day before the game.

Tech even ran an ad in this newspaper trying to drum up sales. For eighth-ranked UNC, which has hordes of fans in the area? Uh-oh.

But visions of Blacksburg being overrun by Tar Heels did not materialize. The spattering of blue was here, but Tech brought the masses and the noise, which is critical.

Coach Seth Greenberg talks a lot about fans taking "ownership" of the program. Just when it looked like many were beginning to sell their stock, the electric atmosphere - one of the best in the ACC - returned.

That tells you people still want to believe in this team. Still, how long can that last with the Hokies playing like this offensively? The second half of Thursday's game was almost comically bad, except few here were in much of a mood for laughing.

With about eight minutes left and the Tar Heels up by 18 - they trailed by five at the half, remember - a good chunk of the crowd started leaving.

They didn't miss much. The Hokies were in the halfcourt offense. That meant the fun was over.

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