Zabian Dowdell was a pivotal member of Virginia Tech’s first ACC men’s basketball team. He helped the Hokies surprise many in the league during their transition from the Big East and led Tech to the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
The ‘Hokie from Pahokee’ as Bill Roth liked to call him, Dowdell starred at Pahokee High School in Pahokee, Fla. He was named all-state his junior and senior seasons and earned multiple player of the year honors from The Palm Beach Post.
He averaged 23 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds per game as a senior and drew the attention of Seth Greenberg, then the head coach of South Florida.
When Greenberg was hired at Tech in the spring of 2003, he brought Dowdell along as his first signee. He joined guard Jamon Gordon and forward Coleman Collins in a recruiting class that proved to be one of the most important in Tech history.
Dowdell broke into the starting lineup immediately and started 28 games as a true freshman. During his first season in Blacksburg, he averaged 10.8 points and 3.2 assists. That was good for second on the team in both categories.
He helped Tech qualify for the Big East Tournament for the first and last time ever. The team finished with a 15-14 overall record in Greenberg’s first season in charge.
The 2004-05 season was Virginia Tech’s first competing in the ACC. In the preseason, almost every pundit picked the Hokies to finish at the bottom of the standings in basketball.
Tech surprised just about everyone by scratching out an 8-8 record in conference play and a 16-14 overall record. The highlight was unquestionably a raucous home upset over the No. 7 Duke Blue Devils in which Dowdell hit the game-winning shot.
Dowdell finished the season with 14.4 points per game on 44.9 percent shooting from the field. He helped lead Tech to an NIT berth and a first round win over Temple in Cassell Coliseum.
Things were looking up for the program, but the Hokies were in for an unprecedented run of bad luck.
The 2005-06 season could once again be encapsulated by one game against Duke. This time, the Blue Devils were ranked No. 1 and the Hokies led near the end of regulation at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
After a stoppage in play, officials reviewed the clock and added just a bit of time to give Duke 1.6 seconds to make something happen. Sean Dockery then drained a shot from just inside half-court and Duke won 77-75.
The team never fully recovered from that on the court, but far worse was happening away from basketball.
Coleman Collins’ father was battling cancer as was reserve forward Allen Calloway. Jackson Collins died in February and Coleman’s head was understandably elsewhere. Calloway managed to play sparingly when he felt good enough between treatments.
Tech dropped seven games decided by one possession including two games against a top-15 Boston College squad, one against No. 20 North Carolina, and of course the Duke buzzer-beater.
Dowdell posted a career-high 15.3 PPG, but Tech simply couldn’t move past the pall that hung over the program that season. The next year turned those fortunes around in a big way.
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For his senior season, Dowdell once again raised his game to another level. He posted career-highs in scoring (17.4 PPG), rebounding (3.6 RPG), shooting percentage (46.2%), and free throw percentage (80.6%).
After a tough start that included a couple of tough losses, the Hokies pulled together to achieve some major victories. During one week in mid-January, Tech knocked off No. 5 Duke at Cameron 69-67 in overtime. The following Saturday, Dowdell and Co. knocked off No. 1 North Carolina 94-88 in Cassell Coliseum.
It arguably remains the high-water mark of the Virginia Tech men’s basketball program, but there was another cherry to be added on top.
A few weeks later, the Hokies traveled to Chapel Hill to face the No. 4 Tar Heels. Dowdell put on an absolute show with a career-high 33 points that included making 17-of-19 free throw attempts.
Tech pulled off the win 81-80 in overtime. It marked just the fourth time in ACC history that a team defeated both Duke and North Carolina on the road in the same season.
Tech would struggle at times down the stretch with a few head-scratching losses. Nonetheless, the Hokies qualified for the NCAA Tournament as a 5-seed and earned a first round victory over Illinois. It was the program’s first win in the tournament since 1995-96 and just the second since 1979-80.
Despite a disappointing second round loss to Southern Illinois —the second loss to the Salukis that season— Tech finished 22-11 with a 10-6 record in ACC play. Dowdell was named first-team All-ACC, and was named to the ACC All-Defensive team.
Dowdell finished his Tech career with 1,785 points, 395 rebounds, 380 assists, and 240 steals. He ranks eighth on Tech’s all-time scoring list, one spot behind Allan Bristow. Dowdell is third in all-time steals, just behind his backcourt mate Jamon Gordon.
Despite going undrafted into the NBA out of college, Dowdell signed two 10-day contracts with the Phoenix Suns in 2011 before being signed for the remainder of that season. Before and since that cup of coffee, he’s played with numerous pro teams in Europe.
Zabian Dowdell is unquestionably one of the best guards in Tech history and his role on the 2006-07 team will always be his defining accomplishment. He was a vital part of Tech’s successful transition into the ACC and helped surprise quite a few people along the way.
His induction this year into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame is well-earned, and he likely isn’t the last of his teammates who will earn the same distinction.