Even before he left for New York, Virginia Tech men’s basketball freshman Dorian Finney-Smith was calling his first trip to Madison Square Garden “a dream.” For junior Erick Green, this is his first time in the Big Apple, and he spoke of wanting to see Times Square and shop along Fifth Avenue.
Heck, Coach Seth Greenberg, a Long Island native, seems to have a glint in his eye when he discusses what a “magical place” New York can be around the holidays.
But when Virginia Tech’s men’s basketball team takes the floor for its first real test of the season against No. 5 Syracuse in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off Wednesday night, the grandeur of it all won’t be the issue for this Hokies team that includes just one senior.
“I think Syracuse makes it frightening, not the stage,” Greenberg said.
Not many expect the Hokies to beat the Orange, especially with the Garden likely to be filled with Syracuse fans. But the opportunity is there for Virginia Tech to author a season-altering victory over Coach Jim Boeheim’s crew.
Fans aren’t sure what to make of the Hokies (3-0), and a win against Syracuse would announce to the country that expectations for this Virginia Tech squad should be raised. In that regard, Finney-Smith has shown flashes of the versatile skillset that Hokies fans heard about before the season when he was a top recruit, and guard Dorenzo Hudson emphatically announced his return from a foot injury by averaging 24.5 points during Virginia Tech’s two preliminary games of this NIT Season Tip-Off against Monmouth and Florida International.
But this will be a whole new level of competition. Though the Orange don’t have a true superstar this year, they’ve got a whole bunch of really good experienced players who aren’t going through their first big game Wednesday. Through four games this season, Syracuse has been using a 10-player rotation.
Reserves James Sutherland and Dion Waiters lead the Orange averaging 13.8 points per game, but the starting five of Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, Kris Joseph, Rakeem Christmas and Fab Melo can match up with just about any team in the country.
As Greenberg put it when discussing the long-armed 6-foot-8 Finney-Smith last week, “He ain’t gonna be the freak out there. He’s just gonna be part of the show.”
First and foremost on the Hokies’ agenda is figuring out Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense. They have a little insight because of former assistant Adrian Autry, who helped Virginia Tech implement its own 2-3 zone last year before taking a job under Boeheim this offseason.
But it’s not the scheme that makes Syracuse’s zone so effective, Greenberg said. It’s the commitment and aggressiveness Boeheim’s players show in it.
“They have great belief in it, but their length and how active they are . . . it’s remarkable how long they are and how high their forwards come out,” Greenberg said. “I’m not sure there’s a lot in common between the FIU zone and the Syracuse zone, unless we stack those FIU guards on top of each other.”
This is why Green’s health Wednesday is paramount. He left Virginia Tech’s win over Florida International after re-aggravating an Achilles injury, but Greenberg has indicated on his Twitter account that the Hokies point guard will start in this game after getting eight days off.
Green is the ignition for the Hokies’ fast break, and he knows that “as long as we can beat them up the court, not letting them settle in their 2-3 zone will help us a lot.”
To go along with some easy baskets, the Hokies will also need some outside shooting. Greenberg has talked for a month now about how many good shooters he has — in particular Green, Hudson, forward Jarell Eddie and guard Robert Brown — but this will be the ultimate indicator of whether they can hit shots with a hand in their face. Virginia Tech likely won’t get a lot of open looks from its halfcourt offense and must be able to hit contested jumpers to beat this zone.
“It’s gonna be a big eye-opener for them but after the first two or three minutes of the game they’re gonna have to put that behind them and play ball,” Hudson said. “It’s gonna be a lot of people in the crowd, it’s gonna be like a home game for Syracuse, but we gotta go out there and do our best to try and get the win.”
Just a programming note, tipoff is set for 9:30 on ESPN2. I won’t be in attendance, but if the Hokies pull off something stunning, check back here for some postgame reaction.