Struggles early in Erick Green’s career turned him into a gym rat. The result has been a season in which he’s leading the nation at 25.3 points per game, on an efficient 17.3 shots. But it’s been frustrating, as Virginia Tech is 2-10 in ACC play. (Don Petersen/Associated Press)

Just nine hours had passed since the nation’s leading scorer had made a midnight return from his team’s 13th loss of the season. His knees were aching. His body was sore. Part of his day would be spent in a cold tub. Nevertheless, Erick Green was headed back to Virginia Tech’s practice facility, a wool cap on his head and a Hokies varsity jacket on his back.

After staying up until 2:15 a.m. re-watching the carnage from the Hokies’ 73-55 loss at Virginia last week, Green was bothered by his 22-point performance. The 6-foot-3 senior point guard had made just four of his 17 shots. So in an otherwise empty gym, Green went to work with Virginia Tech strength and conditioning coach David Jackson.

“If I don’t get a workout in the morning, I feel weird. There were sometimes other years I did it, but I didn’t do it every day,” he noted. “Now, if I don’t get a sweat, if I don’t get shots up, someone’s getting better.”

Few have been better this season. A two-time All-Met from Winchester, Va., Green is averaging 25.3 points per game entering Thursday night’s matchup with No. 6 Duke, on pace to become the first major-conference player since Glenn Robinson in 1993-94 to lead the country in scoring, and the first from the ACC since 1956-57.

But it’s the manner in which he arrived at this point, on the verge of a feat nobody — not Green and not any of his coaches, past or present — expected that has transformed him into one of the more compelling stories in college basketball.

“Erick’s best asset is a lot of guys talk about working. He works,” former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “He doesn’t have a fear of failure.”

A ‘gym rat’ is born

Current Hokies Coach James Johnson often jokes that when he arrives at his office in the morning and hears a basketball bouncing on the practice court below, he doesn’t need to look down to confirm who’s out there. But it wasn’t always like this.

The game used to come easy for Green. Growing up in Winchester coached by his mother, Tamara, a former basketball player at Howard, and his father, a former Howard running back also named Erick, opposing parents would often ask that Green be taken off the floor because he was so much better than the other children.

As a junior at Millbrook High in 2008, when Green led the Pioneers to the first Virginia AA state title ever won by a Winchester school, Coach Scott Mankins had his star player wear a 20-pound vest during practice while dealing with constant double-teams to ensure he was being challenged.

When Green transferred to Paul VI Catholic as a senior to prepare for the rigors of the ACC, he promptly led the Fairfax school to its first Virginia Independent Schools title. “He helped build the program,” said Coach Glenn Farello, whose Panthers have become one of the best teams in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference.

But Green encountered a new reality once he arrived at Virginia Tech, enduring a nightmarish freshman season in which he went scoreless in 16 games, averaged 2.6 points per game and shot just 29.3 percent.

“That,” Green says now. “turned me into a gym rat.”

Green’s scoring average jumped to 11.6 points as a sophomore, but he was still a secondary option to former Hokies stars Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen. He emerged as Virginia Tech’s best player last season, averaging 15.6 points and earning second-team all-ACC honors.

Still, Johnson wanted him to become a more efficient shooter this season. So he challenged Green to make 20,000 jump shots during the summer, thinking it would be an impossible goal to reach. Green has since lost track of how many jumpers he hit this offseason, but the computer printouts from “The Gun” (a machine that sits under the basket and fires the ball back to him) confirmed it was more than 20,000.

The result has been a career-high 47.3-percent shooting this season, including 38 percent from three-point range, even though Hokies assistant Ramon Williams estimated that “85 to 90 percent” of Green’s attempts come with a defender right in his face.

“Never seen anybody work as hard as he did this summer,” Jackson said. “He’s a guy that has to see the ball go in the bucket. It’s a mental thing.”

Added Mankins, his old high school coach: “The way he’s shooting this year is what I was used to seeing. If it had come easier for him his first three years at Tech, I’m not sure he would’ve reached where he is now.”

‘It just happened’

These are confusing times for Green.

He has trouble reconciling all his success with last-place Virginia Tech (11-14, 2-10) mired in an eight-game losing streak. He has made it a point to stay positive amid all the setbacks, especially because his roommates, forward Jarell Eddie and guard Robert Brown, have endured their share of struggles this year. But Green can’t help but wonder what would happen if everyone on the team “got in the gym more.”

Recently, he asked a reporter why more national attention wasn’t coming his way, only to admit minutes later he would trade all the points if it meant making the NCAA tournament just once.

“Honestly, I had no plans to be the nation’s leading scorer. It just happened,” Green said. “My goal was to average 18 points per game. That was my goal, but now that I have it, I do want to keep it. I have a target everywhere I go, and I like the challenge.”

What makes Green’s season all the more impressive is that Johnson believes his star is still playing “with point guard instincts” and would be averaging more than 4.1 assists if his teammates were playing better.

The statistics bear that out. Green is on track to average the fewest shots per game (17.5) by the country’s leading scorer since Kevin Granger of Texas Southern in 1995-96. And yet he has been held to fewer than 20 points just twice.

His play has inspired a spirited debate within the ACC: Can the player of the year come from the worst team in the conference? It has also elevated him in the eyes of NBA scouts. Greenberg said half of the league’s teams have contacted him to ask about Green.

“He’s what college basketball . . . is supposed to be all about,” Georgia Tech Coach Brian Gregory said earlier this month after Green scored 28 points against the Yellow Jackets for the second time this season. “Here is a guy, every year, has made significant improvements.”

It all goes back to the time spent in empty gyms. To close last week’s workout, Jackson sipped on a Red Bull as he counted down from five and instructed Green to attempt a hypothetical game-winner.

The nation’s leading scorer then dribbled up the court, pulled up at the three-point line and hit nothing but net.

“I just come in the gym and just focus. Leave everything, the other stuff, behind,” Green said seconds later. “I have a great opportunity to make my dreams come true, so I gotta work hard.”