March 14, 2005 BLACKSBURG When a coach can reflect on a season and at least feign genuine shock in the positive results, it's a sign that times are good on campus. Nobody will be burning your likeness in effigy. Nobody will be egging your car in the parking lot. Nobody will be calling for your job. Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg had questions about his team before the season started, just as most observers did. Would he get any scoring contribution from his post players? Could Tech survive in the ACC without any kind of effective bench? Would more than a win or two in the conference be possible?
The answer to all the questions was "yes."
"If somebody told me at the beginning of the season we'd win eight games in the ACC and not be playing on Thursday (in the first round of the ACC tournament)," Greenberg said, "I'd say that would be a pretty good thing, and that guy would have a pretty good imagination."
Here is a Tech postseason Q&A, addressing a few items you may have pondered, and scratching the surface on a couple of issues that may not have crossed your mind:
On a team full of players who provided efforts many observers didn't think they were capable of giving, who stunned Greenberg the most this season? Without hesitation, Greenberg will answer forward Coleman Collins.
In December, Greenberg had to be wondering if he had another situation like the one Tech guard Carlos Dixon endured last season. Dixon believed late last summer that he'd be able to recover from a fractured left foot in time to play in 2003-04. He didn't, so he was forced to redshirt.
Collins started this season with a cyst on his left foot, the same foot that caused him to miss the first seven games last season because of a fracture. The cyst went all the way down to the bone, and it required surgery in mid-December. He missed two games but returned a transformed player.
In his first seven games playing with the cyst, Collins averaged 8.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game. After surgery, he averaged 12.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 19 games. A 6-8 sophomore, Collins was a unique player on Tech's roster, its only consistent offensive presence in the post.
"If you look at his stats when he was injured with the cyst, and his stats now," Greenberg said, "we're a different basketball team."
Greenberg also cited Dixon's emergence as a better all-around player, as opposed to a mere spot-up shooter, plus the ability of guards Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon to hang with some of the best backcourt combos in the nation as additional pleasant surprises.
New Barometer: NCAA Invitation
What was the most painful loss of the season? That one is easy, too.
On March 1, Tech found itself in a situation Greenberg has said over and over again that he wants to see his team in, playing with the lead with less than two minutes remaining. This time, Tech couldn't make it last, losing 66-64. Tech lost a three-point lead in the final 10 seconds, and Clemson's Sharrod Ford capped the game with a dunk at the buzzer.
"After every game, we've tried to wipe the slate clean," Greenberg said. "Quite honestly, that one against Clemson was pretty hard to wipe clean."
The loss might have kept Tech out of the NCAA Tournament. Tech went on to defeat Maryland to finish up the regular season. A win against Clemson would've given Tech a 9-7 record in the ACC. Since the creation of the 64-team field in 1985, only one ACC team (Virginia in 2000) with a conference record over .500 has ever been left out of the NCAA Tournament.
Who was Tech's most valuable player this season? It's hard to say, because so many players made varying contributions.
Collins fought through his injury to become a significant force in the low post. Dowdell made numerous big shots down the stretch and was selected honorable mention All-ACC. Dixon was steady on both ends throughout the season.
In what may come as an odd selection to some, some at Tech believe it was Gordon. He wasn't a primary offensive weapon, but he was one of the team's leaders in every major category and one of the ACC's best defensive players.
Gordon averaged 10.9 points per game (fourth on the team), 4.6 rebounds (second), 4.2 assists (first), 2.2 steals (first) and one block (second). He was named to the ACC's all-defensive team, and for good reason. He was asked to guard players of all sizes, from Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack (28 points in two games) to N.C. State's Julius Hodge. Gordon held Hodge to eight points on two-of-eight shooting in Tech's second game against NCSU.
Was this year's team better than the 2003-04 version? Maybe, but it's not a clear-cut shoo-in.
Tech played a more difficult non-conference slate on its way to a 15-14 mark last season, with games against solid opponents such as Old Dominion, Ohio State and Virginia. The Hokies also had one extraordinary individual star in forward Bryant Matthews, who propelled Tech to victories in several Big East games, including Rutgers twice, West Virginia twice, St. John's and Georgetown.
It's hard to imagine how this season's Tech team, with an overall RPI of 112 and a non-conference RPI of 228, deserved an NIT bid any more than last season's team, which was snubbed by the NIT. Of course, that's not taking anything away from what Tech has achieved this season.
Tech finished 7-9 in its last season in the Big East, and it made a smooth transition with a respectable 8-8 mark in the ACC this season. Charles Moir, who took over as Tech's head coach in 1976, was the last coach to have more victories (38) than Greenberg in his first two seasons at Tech. Greenberg's start has more than justified Tech's place in the ACC.
"It has been a football decision (to join the ACC), and that's great," Greenberg said. "I want to personally thank coach (Frank) Beamer for winning all those games so we'd be attractive to the ACC."
How about next season? What should we look for from Tech?
Tech may begin 2005-06 in the upper half of the preseason ACC predictions. Collins, Dowdell and Gordon will be juniors, entering their third seasons as starters. Deron Washington and Marquie Cooke, rookies this year, should be more mature. Tech will add a couple of promising big men in Terrance Vinson and Hyman Taylor.
Meanwhile, it's fair to say that Tech fans have jumped on board with this ACC thing (as if there was ever any doubt they would). Attendance in the 10,052-seat Cassell Coliseum jumped from an average of 6,342 fans last season to 9,538 this season. The 143,074 fans Tech jammed into Cassell for 15 games (12-3 record) were a single-season school record.
So, the expectations will be there next season. Anything short of an NCAA Tournament bid will be a disappointment. Tech clearly will have the potential to get there, for the first time since 1996.