Friday, February 03, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Time for Hokies to focus on the future

BLACKSBURG - One night after national signing day for football, we were reminded that the coaching doesn't stop once the top-notch talent puts pen to paper.

This lesson played out at Cassell Coliseum, where one of the most decorated basketball recruits in Virginia Tech history continued to suffer through a horrific slump that threatens to shatter his confidence - assuming it hasn't already.

Dorian Finney-Smith entered Thursday's game on an 0-for-21 shooting streak from the field. When Duke's 75-60 victory over the Hokies was over, the freshman's slump had reached 25 straight misses.

It's gotten to the point where you can't help but root for the guy just to make one. A trash putback. A short jumper. A breakaway. Something. You can see him hustling out there, trying to make it work.

It just isn't.

This season is all about player development now. The Hokies won't be in the NCAA tournament. They won't finish in the top half of the ACC. From here on, Tech needs to treat these games like a minor league baseball team would: Strive to win, of course, but concentrate most on making the young players better.

Nowhere is that more important than with Finney-Smith, who represents so much hope for this program. USA Today named him a third-team high school All-American. The Hokies, you may have noticed over the years, don't get many high school All-Americans.

Twice, the 6-foot-8 forward was named VHSL Group AAA Player of the Year at I.C. Norcom High School. He could score. He could rebound. He could defend. He could set teammates up with slick passes.

For a while this season, he was doing that for Tech. Finney-Smith posted double-doubles in two of his first three college games. He scored at least 10 points in seven of his first 12 games - nice production from a guy making that adjustment.

Finney-Smith's early success, though, delayed what coach Seth Greenberg described as much-needed mechanical adjustments to his shooting form. The two are working one-on-one to correct it in practice. Meantime, though, he's suffering through the trials in games.

"It's 100 percent my fault," Greenberg said. "He was making some shots early. Tim Tebow won a lot of games at Florida, so nobody really changed his release. So when he went up to another level, from preseason games to [the NFL], it was exposed.

"It's going to take us a long time for us to [change the mechanics]. That one's on me, because I knew better. It was fool's gold."

Please don't misunderstand. Nobody - not Greenberg, not me, not any of the other Tech players - is blaming Finney-Smith for Tech's 12-10 record and 1-6 ACC mark. There is collective responsibility in this, from the coach on down.

But Finney-Smith has the highest ceiling of any of these young players. If we're looking toward the future - and at this point, what else is there? - he's the focal point.

Point guard Erick Green knows what Finney-Smith is experiencing. As a freshman, he shot 29 percent from the field. He struggled terribly throughout the year.

"Man, I think mine might have been worse," Green said, adding that he constantly encourages Finney-Smith and admires his work ethic. "I went through a slump where I don't think I scored for a long time. He'll get over it."

Green did, bumping up his scoring average by nine points to 11.6 as a sophomore. He's now one of the ACC's best scorers as a junior.

The Hokies will need a similar career path from Finney-Smith, even if it doesn't happen this year.

"I'm just telling you right now: No. 1, the kid is one of the best kids I've ever coached," Greenberg said of Finney-Smith. "Ever, in 35 years. And No. 2, he's going to be really, really special. I have no doubts in my mind about that.

"We've just got to help him through it, got to be there. That's part of coaching."

Just as recruiting him in the first place was. Probably even more so.

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