In the immediate aftermath of Virginia Tech’s 65-49 loss at Miami Thursday night, Coach Seth Greenberg used words like “ridiculous” and “inept” to describe his team’s play. Even three days later, minutes after a dramatic, bounce-back victory over Boston College Sunday, he reflected back on the Hokies’ performance in South Florida and called it “comical” at times.
The mind-boggling loss earlier in the week, which came after a set of practices Greenberg thought were Virginia Tech’s best all season, sent the coach in search of answers once again, a common theme during a season that hasn’t gone as planned since the calendar turned to 2012.
Greenberg said he spent an hour on the phone with good friend and Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo Friday night. The two commiserated about how Greenberg’s team had talent but was just playing young (Greenberg also said Izzo sagely predicted his Spartans would go into Columbus and beat No. 3 Ohio State Saturday, but that’s another story).
Perhaps more important, Greenberg went back to basics to a certain degree, announcing to his players in practice this week that the five hardest workers would get the start against Boston College. So senior Dorenzo Hudson returned to the starting lineup and freshman C.J. Barksdale got his first career start, while forward Jarell Eddie came off the bench for the first time all season.
For the second half, Greenberg left Hudson and freshman Marquis Rankin on the bench, instead using freshmen Robert Brown and Dorian Finney-Smith. It was the fourth time in less than a month the coach has switched up his starting lineup.
“The culture of this program was built on being tough and I was not happy with how competitive we were,” said Greenberg, who indicated his lineup will now be decided on a day-by-day basis. “We’re just trying to find one thing that we can redefine ourselves [with], quite honestly.”
Make no mistake, the Hokies’ problems were not solved after they escaped with a narrow victory over a team many predicted before the season would be the worst in the ACC. In fact, with Florida State’s experienced front line looming Thursday and Barksdale now nursing an ankle injury, this may simply be a break from misery for Virginia Tech.
After all, the Hokies led for all of two minutes, 19 seconds total Sunday, trailed by six with 1:44 remaining and allowed the Eagles to shoot 55.8 percent from the field. But after missing potential game-winning or game-tying shots in losses to Minnesota, Wake Forest, Florida State and BYU, there was no mistaking the relief Dorian Finney-Smith’s last-second tip in brought to the locker room.
“I’m just finally glad we handled adversity when we were down,” junior Erick Green said. “I’m just proud of the team, how we came back and responded. When we get down, we usually don’t handle it the right way. But I think today we finally put 40 minutes together and didn’t give up and kept battling.”
Finney-Smith, who came off the bench to deliver his finest game of the season, was a revelation, showing off the multi-faceted skills that made him such a highly-touted recruit. He scored a career-high 17 points, including seven of the Hokies’ final nine points, and grabbed eight rebounds.
It was only two weeks ago that Finney-Smith was mired in an 0-for-25 shooting slump, and Greenberg was taking the blame for not correcting bad habits in his form more quickly. Now he has two impressive performances in the past three games, and Virginia Tech is 9-0 when he scores in double figures.
“His nickname is Doe-Doe and I think his name should be Bambi. He’s just getting his legs,” Greenberg said. “He’s got a gift. He’s just not physically capable of using that gift all the time.”
During his postgame news conference, Greenberg compared the Hokies’ plight this season to Boston College, which is now 8-17 after Sunday’s defeat. The coach said if not for the raised expectations that have come with recent success at Virginia Tech, fans would be willing to chalk up his team’s barrage of losses to building for the future like they have in regard to the Eagles.
But Greenberg’s comparison is wrong, and it’s why Sunday’s victory was particularly important. These Hokies have much more in the cupboard than Boston College, which trotted out a starting lineup featuring four freshmen and a transfer from Oregon.
Though Greenberg is fond of saying he’s using six players that have never played in the ACC, his re-jiggered starting lineup Sunday night also featured two seniors (Hudson and Victor Davila) with 177 career starts between them and Green, who has now scored in double figures in an ACC-high 26-straight games.
For a change, though, Greenberg could worry about all that with a victory in hand. Troubles still may loom ahead for this young group, who now gets to play spoiler with three of its next four games against teams vying for spots in the NCAA tournament. But at least they responded to the changes their coach initiated.
“We’ve got good kids. Are there things that disturb me about them? No doubt about it,” Greenberg said. “Can they be more competitive? No doubt about it. But a lot of that is the young guys don’t really know . . . they don’t know what competitive is yet.”