Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Inspired Green fires up Hokies fans at Cassell

BLACKSBURG — Erick Green spent a lot of time looking at the Cassell Coliseum crowd Tuesday night. After fast-break buckets, he'd pump his fist, wave his arms and soak in the noise. "Fun," he called it, and that's the goal around here these days.

But the most important crowd interaction came early in the second half, when the game was still close. Green looked up in the stands and found his mother.

"My mom gave me this face," Green said. "She was like, 'Take over.'"

So he did. A 3-point play. A midrange jumper. A transition, step-back jumper. A pair of free throws. Nine straight points for Virginia Tech's brilliant point guard, sending the Hokies toward a rousing 95-79 victory over Iowa in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Tech fans are pumped about this win. They should be. Their team is 6-0. This was Tech's first opponent from a big conference. This was the initial test, facing an opponent with flaws but an opponent with size, and the Hokies aced it.

But we have to remember that it happened on Nov. 27, and it's a long season. Tech has eight scholarship guys. Some of what we saw Tuesday — a walk-on draining a 3-pointer in the first half, for example — may be fool's gold.

Green, though, is not. He is the sure thing, the biggest reason for optimism for a fan base ready to believe.

His 24-point, five-rebound, five-assist performance against Iowa was almost identical to the five that came before it this season. He's the first Tech player since Bimbo Coles in 1989 to score 20 points or more in each of the season's first six games.

And it doesn't look like that's going to stop.

"Every time the ball leaves my hand, I feel like it's going to go in, to be honest with you," said Green, who shot 8 of 15 from the field and 8 of 9 from the free-throw line. "I worked on my game hard this summer. One-on-one-wise, I just feel really confident. Coach is letting me play."

Green entered the night with a 24.4-point scoring average — nearly five points better than anyone else in the ACC. The senior point guard didn't make the preseason All-ACC team, but he did draw some attention in October when he told The Roanoke Times that "I'm honestly one of the best guards in the country."

"Oh, yeah," Green said Tuesday. "A whole bunch of people said I was crazy for saying that, that I don't belong up there. And that's fine. That's what I wanted. It brought a fire to me.

"I hope that people can start seeing now that I'm one of the best in the country. I feel like that. I honestly do. I've just got to keep it up against good competition and see what I can do."

Green has learned that penetrating and dishing to teammates can actually open up scoring opportunities for himself. He's learned to be patient, too. He didn't score his first basket Tuesday until almost 10 minutes into the game, but he knew the chances would come.

Part of that is just being older and wiser. But a huge part of it is the system of new coach James Johnson, which encourages transition baskets and creating your own shots.

Of all the players who've said they love the system, Green has to be the happiest. Those happen to be his greatest strengths.

"Just a lot of freedom," Green said. "I understand the game a lot more than I did before. â? Coach Johnson's giving me the ball and letting me do what I do best. I honestly feel like I'm in a great situation."

An even greater situation? Getting Tech into the national rankings, which almost certainly would happen if the Hokies upset No. 15 Oklahoma State in Blacksburg on Saturday.

No easy task. To do it, somebody might have to take over.

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