By Mike Harris
Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch
November 17, 2003 BLACKSBURG In a few years, Virginia Tech might be the answer to a trivia question: Name the only team in the history of the Big East Conference that never lost a game in that league's men's basketball tournament? Uh, there is a catch.
The Hokies have never won a game in that tournament, either. They've never been there. For the past three years, all they've had to do is not finish last in their division to qualify, and they didn't do it once.
This year Tech's last in the Big East in all sports the divisions are gone, but the Hokies don't figure to be one of the 12 teams to make the conference tournament. So they'll likely get in and get out of the league without a single sniff of the postseason event.
Tech moves into the ACC next year, and it will come in a long, long way from being any kind of contender in men's basketball. Seth Greenberg, who is entering his first season as Tech's coach, inherited a monster-sized rebuilding job. Tech basketball is to the Big East what Rutgers football is to the league.
It hasn't always been that way.
Though not a program steeped in tradition, the Hokies do have a little success in their history. They've never really been one of the big boys. They have played with them. Among the most recognizable players who wore Tech's colors were Dell Curry, Bimbo Coles and Allan Bristow.
Tech's brightest basketball moment came in the 1973 National Invitation Tournament, an event it won back when the NIT meant a heck of a lot more than it does today. The Hokies beat Notre Dame in overtime in the final on a shot by Bobby Stevens. It was Tech's third straight one-point victory. The Hokies won their NIT opener by twice that. Tech also won the 1995 NIT, beating Marquette in the final (also in OT) when Shawn Smith made two free throws with less than a second remaining.
Overall, Tech has been to the NCAA Tournament seven times and the NIT seven times. In 1967, the Hokies were a victory away from the Final Four, but they lost to Dayton 71-66 in overtime in Evanston, Ill. Eight of the 14 postseason appearances came between 1976 and 1986. From 1982-86, Tech played in the postseason every year. The Hokies competed with the likes of Louisville and Memphis in the now-defunct Metro Conference. They beat Memphis once when the Tigers were ranked No. 1. Tech didn't get to the postseason again until its victorious run through the 1995 NIT. The next season, the Hokies played in the NCAA Tournament.
Since then? The program has been on a very steady slide in the very wrong direction. A 16-15 record in 1999-2000 represented Tech's only winning record since the 1995-96 team went 23-6. Tech's Big East record going into this season is 10-38.
Into this mess steps Greenberg, a 47-year-old, well-dressed, fast-talking salesman who said, I've never had an easy job, when he was named Tech's head coach in April. That record remains intact.
In 13 seasons, Greenberg's teams have posted only two losing records. Those came in his first season at each of his previous stops, Long Beach State and South Florida. His second teams at each place showed considerable improvement.
South Florida never really made the next step. The Bulls did make the NIT twice under Greenberg, but the timing was right for him to move when Tech's job came open. In six seasons at Long Beach, Greenberg's teams twice played in the NCAA Tournament and made one NIT appearance.
He's attacked the Virginia Tech job with an impressive aggressiveness, determined to either turn things around or wear himself out trying. Early returns on the recruiting trail are encouraging. Tech recently signed point guard Marquie Cooke of Nansemond River High in Suffolk, Va., and well-regarded swingman Justin Holt of Tacoma (Wash.) Community College.
Unfortunately for Tech, they can't play for the Hokies this year. Tech will go into the current season with a thin, inexperienced roster. Greenberg's weapons are one exceptionally talented senior, one very good senior who may not play because of injury, a quintet of sophomores who probably were recruited above their talent level, three freshmen who will log a ton of minutes and a trio of walk-ons.
Bryant Matthews, a 6-7 senior, was a preseason second-team All-Big East selection. After two years of spotty play, he turned it on last year and became a standout. He's capable of averaging a double-double, and Greenberg's intense coaching can only help him improve more. When would-be junior Dimari Thompkins didn't return to school for unexplained personal reasons, more of a rebounding load fell on Matthews.
His fellow senior, 6-7 Carlos Dixon, had offseason foot surgery and may not play this year. It probably would be to his benefit to sit out and have a final season with the likes of Cooke and Holt.
Freshman guards Jamon Gordon and Zabian Dowdell and freshman forward Coleman Collins all could end up starting. Gordon and Collins were recruited by Ricky Stokes' staff. Dowdell signed after Greenberg was hired. Collins, Greenberg said, has a big upside. But upside won't help when he's battling the likes of Connecticut's Emeka Okafor.
Two of the sophomores, 6-8 Allen Calloway and 6-9 Philip McCandies, will play up front. McCandies in particular showed promise on the boards last season and may end up being a valuable contributor before he's finished. But both are going to be playing more minutes than their experience or skills dictate they should this season.
Two of the other three sophomores, 6-4 Shawn Harris and 6-6 Fabian Davis, recently joined Dixon in the injured foot department. Harris could miss as much as six weeks of the season, which makes him another potential redshirt. The fifth sophomore is 6-5 guard Markus Sailes, whose role could increase considerably with Harris out.
It is not a Big East (or ACC) roster, but it must play in the Big East.
We'll coach these guys as hard as we can every single day, Greenberg said. We're not going to sit here and make a lot of excuses.
Greenberg is a captivating speaker, and he took some not-so-subtle digs at Tech's previous staff in one October talk. He was talking about Outback Steakhouse, one of his favorite restaurants. No matter where in the world you find one, the product will be the same. His basketball team, Greenberg said, will be the same way no matter if the opponent is Virginia or Wofford. Tech beat Virginia (and Connecticut) at home last season but lost on its own court to Wofford.
Tech will play hard this season. It could win as many as 10 games. But the Hokies are going into a gunfight armed only with pocket knives, and that's never easy.