February 14, 2005 BLACKSBURG 314. That's the number that may haunt Virginia Tech's basketball team when it has a chance to reflect on its surprising 2004-05 campaign. It's the main reason Tech doesn't have much of a chance of earning a spot in the NIT, much less the NCAA Tournament, barring a late-season stretch like the one it enjoyed in mid-to-late January, when it won four consecutive ACC games.
After losing Feb. 12 at Virginia, Tech's non-conference rating percentage index (RPI) was 314 against non-conference opponents. That was 314 out of 330 NCAA Division I programs. Tech was 134 overall in the RPI, worst in the ACC by 20 spots. One more loss will make the number appear even more dreadful and likely seal Tech's postseason-less fate.
In a game that was even more inexplicable than their shocking road upset of Georgia Tech, the Hokies lost 72-68 on Dec. 4 to Virginia Military Institute. That's the same VMI that was outplayed and struggled to beat Bluefield, an NAIA school, by seven points nine days after its win against Tech. The same VMI that lost 13 consecutive games at one point this season. The same VMI that was ranked 329 that's second-to-last on Feb. 13 in the RPI.
Though the RPI numbers are horrifying, and the loss to VMI probably ensured that Tech needs to get to 17 wins to at least sniff a postseason bid, it doesn't diminish what Tech has achieved. In its first season in the ACC, coach Seth Greenberg has established necessary ingredients for success, including toughness.
Check out guard Zabian Dowdell collapsing at the end of the Georgia Tech win with leg cramps, or guard Carlos Dixon trying to play through a hand and wrist injury late in the season for evidence of that toughness.
More evidence can be seen in the development of sophomore forward Coleman Collins. Before the season, there were questions about Tech's desire to bang under the basket. Sure, Tech had enough quality perimeter players to run with most ACC backcourts, but Tech was deemed soft.
Well, Tech is still too soft, as evidenced by its last-place standing in the conference in rebounding. But Collins, Tech's most imposing "big man" at just 6-8 and 228 pounds, was inspiring in wins against N.C. State, Georgia Tech and Virginia after returning from December foot surgery. He averaged 17.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in those victories.
It was a big step for a guy who some analysts thought should continue to develop his 12- to 15-foot jumper because he'd never be able to make his mark in the lane. He doesn't provide the same presence as North Carolina's Sean May or Duke's Shelden Williams, but he's also a different kind of player. Collins will never be a dominant, unyielding low post enforcer, but maybe his experience in the Big East, which is physical by reputation, last season provided some learning materials.
Then again, Greenberg doesn't buy into the theory that the Big East represents the brawn in college basketball while the ACC is more attuned to athleticism. He thinks the ACC has elements of both styles and is led by what he calls maybe the best overall guard play in the history of the college game. But he also believes it can be just as physical as the Big East.
"I think (the ACC's) game is extremely physical," Greenberg said. "I think that our game is extremely aggressive. I mean, you're talking about probably not another league in the country that takes the ball at you as fast and as aggressively as the ACC."
In that frenetic pace, Collins is the closest thing Tech has to a bruiser, excluding forward Jeff King, who was a starting tight end on Tech's football team. King has offensive skills suitable for the high school level, but not for ACC competition.
Meanwhile, freshman center Robert Krabbendam has shown good footwork around the basket, but he has the toughness of balsa wood. Developing a physical frontcourt presence freshman Deron Washington is a solid player, but still mostly finesse needs to be a priority in the offseason.
Greenberg Played Youthful Hand
Why so much talk about Collins? He's a perfect representation of the kind of player Greenberg had to evaluate last season before deciding how ambitious he could be with his non-conference schedule this year.
Greenberg had to still be wondering last summer exactly what kind of player he had in Collins. Would Collins shy away from contact in the ACC, giving Tech essentially a fourth guard on the floor? Or would he sharpen his elbows and try to gain rebounding position on occasion, something Tech desperately needed?
That's the problem with coaching a team as young as Tech's. Considering that the Hokies' starting lineup has featured three sophomores and a freshman for much of its first season in the ACC, Greenberg knew the learning curve was going to be steep.
It all brings us back to the issue of scheduling.
Without knowing how his team would react after it got drilled a few times in the ACC (see results against UNC, Duke and Wake Forest), the assumption has to be that Greenberg didn't expect this Tech team to be postseason tournament-worthy. That's not to say playing past the ACC Tournament wasn't a goal, but coaches have to be realistic.
Tech's non-conference slate, which included bottom-dwellers such as Loyola-Maryland, William & Mary, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Bethune-Cookman, Morgan State and, of course, VMI, reflected an effort to give a young team some confidence before it went into the meat of its schedule. Also, coaches are self-preservationists by nature. An inaugural season in a conference like the ACC usually means that only a conference win or two can be expected, so victories have to come from someplace.
Like any good card player, Greenberg was checking his hand before he played it. Before he started scheduling the likes of Kansas, Syracuse or Illinois for non-conference games, he had to make sure his young team could handle what it will be up against every season in the ACC.
So far, it looks like a promising hand. The NIT selection committee won't like the Hokies' schedule very much if it turns out to be a close call, but that's a potential problem Greenberg would be thrilled to have to deal with in March.