After Virginia Tech upset top-ranked Duke on Saturday night in what may have been the biggest win in the history of a program that hasn’t had many, Dick Vitale announced to the college hoops nation that the Hokies were officially in the NCAA tournament field, baby. Which brings up one question. Is he certifiably insane? Dickie V., you do know this is Virginia Tech we’re talking about, right?
In the midst of the court-storming chaos that night, Hokies coach Seth Greenberg showed up at the ESPN broadcast table for a postgame chat and Vitale tried to convince the coach that his team was now an NCAA tournament lock. Greenberg stared at Vitale as if he was trying to sell him a timeshare in Tripoli. Who could blame Greenberg? Is there any coach in America more painfully familiar with standing on the wrong side of the NCAA tourney’s velvet rope?
Greenberg was already concocting a message to bring his Hokies back to reality after slaying #1. He settled on “validation.” The coach understood that his Hokies needed to validate the Duke win with another one, or else. Explaining how he wanted to keep his team grounded in the moment, he even let slip, “The past is history, the future is a mystery.” Apparently, Greenberg draws from the same motivational quotebook as Master Oogway in Kung Fu Panda.
The day after the win over Duke, Greenberg gathered his players for a film session and asked them a leading question: “What was you goal at the beginning of the season?”
The Hokies all said it was to make the NCAA tournament.
“Yes,” Greenberg reminded them. “Our goal wasn’t to beat Duke, it was to play in the NCAA tournament.”
The last time Virginia Tech played in the NCAA tournament was in March of 2007. The following fall, freshmen Jeff Allen, Terrell Bell and Malcolm Delaney arrived on campus in Blacksburg. Four years later, those three seniors have a chance to become the winningest class in the history of Virginia Tech basketball, but that would be a mighty hollow record without an NCAA tournament appearance.
Star-crossed Virginia Tech fans recall that when those three players were freshmen in 2008, the Hokies nearly upset top-ranked North Carolina in the second round of the ACC Tournament, which would have put them one win from an NCAA bid. But no. Then after beating top-ranked Wake Forest in January of 2009, the Hokies won only four of their last 13 regular season games. Hello NIT. Last season Virginia Tech may have needed just one win in the ACC Tournament to reach the Big Dance, but the Hokies lost to 12th-seeded Miami in the first round. Yikes.
The doomsday scenario this season had the Hokies losing to Boston College on Tuesday and then at Clemson in the regular season finale and then again in the opening round of the ACC Tournament.
Well, one down. Two to go.
On Tuesday all of the fears of Greenberg and Hokie Nation came to roost. It was the Eagles against the Chokies. Instead of validating, Virginia Tech vanished. The Hokies fell behind Boston College 32-14 with seven minutes left in the first half and never recovered.
“An absolute embarrassment,” Greenberg said afterward. “We had some guys who absolutely, positively didn’t show up. We played horrendously. I didn’t see anything that resembled the Virginia Tech basketball team.” (Oh, really? Please see recent history above).
B.C. is the worst kind of loss, because it’s a team that could potentially take the place of the Hokies in the NCAA field, which would be hard to argue when Virginia Tech is 0-2 against the Eagles this season. On Saturday the Hokies visit Clemson, yet another team participating in this perilous game of NCAA tournament musical chairs.
Virginia Tech’s season now clearly rests on the shoulders of the team’s long-suffering seniors, all of who are familiar with the concept of redemption. Allen, a serial underachiever with a reputation for taking plays off during his first three seasons, has 15 double-doubles this season and is in the conversation for first team All-ACC. Bell, a guy who averaged just 12 minutes and two points a game as a sophomore, is the glue of this Hokies team and made a series of huge plays late in the second half to beat Duke. Delaney, who by his own admission has not always been clutch in crunch time during his career, threw the 3-point dagger that finally killed off the Blue Devils, and he might need to do it again to avoid becoming branded as one of the best players in recent ACC history never to play in the NCAA tournament.
The truth is, short of winning the ACC Tournament to earn an automatic bid; nobody knows exactly what Virginia Tech needs to do to get into the NCAA tournament. Not me, not Dick Vitale, not even ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, because so much of that depends on how other teams finish. It certainly helps that three more at-large spots have been added to the field this year, but it appears likely that when NCAA bids are doled out ten days from now on Selection Sunday, Greenberg will still have to worry about if before he can even begin to think about who, when and where.
Virginia Tech’s future is still very much a mystery, baby.
Tim Crothers is the author of "The Man Watching: A Biography of Anson Dorrance, the Unlikely Architect of the Greatest College Sports Dynasty Ever,” and he is the co-author of “Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court,” the autobiography of Roy Williams.