Hours after the NBA Players Association announced it would be de-certifying and going to court to try and end the league’s lockout, it was quite strange to watch former New York Knicks General Manager Isiah Thomas in southwest Virginia roaming the sideline in front of maybe 500 fans.
But after Florida International pulled off the biggest win since Thomas became coach there before last season, defeating George Mason, 76-73, in overtime, the Hall of Famer stood outside his team’s cramped locker room in the bowels of Cassell Coliseum and flashed that trademark smile of his.
“Normally you don’t really know what to expect,” said Thomas, because Monday night was the Panthers’ season opener. “You have some great practices, but coming into that first game, you don’t know when the lights go on, who’s going to show up.”
For Florida International, the answer was guards DeJuan Wright (23 points, 15 rebounds) and Jeremy Allen (20 points). Wright tied the game in regulation on a putback layup, and Allen provided the dagger in overtime, hitting a three-pointer with just under two minutes that put Florida International up by eight.
So instead of facing George Mason for the first time since February 1992 in an intriguing battle of Virginia state schools, perhaps it’s only fitting that, if Virginia Tech wants to earn a potential semifinal matchup with No. 5 Syracuse at Madison Square Garden as part of this NIT Season Tip-Off tournament, it will need to get past Thomas and his surprising Panthers on Tuesday.
But coming off an encouraging 91-46 blowout of Monmouth, a game in which guard Erick Green returned to the starting lineup after missing the team’s season-opening win over East Tennessee State with a strained Achilles’, it seems these Hokies are anxious to prove themselves against some better competition.
“We’re gonna find out a lot about ourselves tomorrow night,” Coach Seth Greenberg said during his postgame news conference Monday.
The good news for the Hokies is that Florida International is a better matchup on paper than facing George Mason. The Panthers play a four-guard starting lineup as opposed to the Patriots, who have an abundance of big men. Florida International was able to overcome that size advantage with a feisty zone defense, and on the other end the Panthers’ four guards were able to penetrate at will being guarded by bigger and slower players.
George Mason also committed 21 turnovers, a stat that helped Florida International overcome a night in which it shot just 43.1 percent. The Panthers did, however, hit eight three-pointers.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, showed a different dimension with Green on the court Monday. The Hokies outscored Monmouth 27-4 on the fast break and guard Dorenzo Hudson was the main beneficiary, getting several easy layups as Green (11 points, 5 assists) tried to increase the tempo whenever he could.
“We’re able to push the ball more. We’re able to penetrate more. We’re not standing as much,” forward Jarell Eddie said of having Green on the floor. “It’s just a faster pace for us and that’s when I feel we’re a better team, when we’re going fast and on the run.”
Virginia Tech also showed off the shooting touch Greenberg has been raving about throughout the preseason. Eddie (13 points) was one of four players that hit at least two three-pointers as the Hokies made 10 of their 15 shots from beyond the arc.
The freshmen got a chance to play extended minutes during the second half Monday, and guard Robert Brown responded with a 19-point effort. Saddled by foul trouble, forward Dorian Finney-Smith wasn’t nearly as effective in his second college game, finishing with just four points and seven rebounds.
Now, though, the question is how they’ll respond Tuesday when the competition level ramps. Because while Florida International is coming off an 11-win season and George Mason hardly resembled the squad that made it to the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament, the Panthers will certainly provide a better barometer for just how good this Virginia Tech basketball team can be.
“Both these teams are really gonna challenge us tomorrow to see where we’re at, where we stand,” Green said Monday night, before the George Mason-Florida International game had started. “I’ve always wanted to play in the Garden. The best players have played there and I would love to show my talent out there in the Garden in front of everybody.”