Sunday, March 12th, 2017 was a Mobius Strip of a day. It was a day of beginnings, a day of endings, and a day where things came to a close and then started anew.
First, on a personal note, TechSideline.com became old enough to buy alcohol Sunday. That’s my quirky way of saying that the web site turned 21 on Sunday, counting back to March 12, 1996, the day that I scratched together enough HTML code and figured out a way to FTP it up to a server, and “Will Stewart’s Personal Hokie Sports Web Page” — boy is that a mouthful — was born.
That “personal web page” grew and turned into HokieCentral.com one year later — you might say it started to walk that day — and four and a half years later, HokieCentral.com became TechSideline.com.
In that way, Sunday March 12th hearkened back to a beginning. But it was also an ending, the day that Buzz Williams and his players officially put an end to Virginia Tech’s decade-long absence from the NCAA Tournament. That end came when the CBS Selection Show, broadcast in Cassell Coliseum on Hokie Vision at each end of the court and on a temporary screen on the Cassell floor, displayed the East Region 8-9 matchup of Wisconsin vs. Virginia Tech.
The sizable gathering of Hokie fans erupted.
It was three years ago — March 25th, 2014 — that the Hokies introduced Buzz Williams as Virginia Tech’s new head coach in a gathering that very much mimicked Sunday’s announcement celebration, right down to the chairs on the floor and the roughly 2,500-3,000 fans gathered in the stands in sections 7-13 of Cassell Coliseum.
Buzz himself recalled that day, at the very beginning of his comments Sunday. “It was about right here,” he said, standing near Cassell’s midcourt, “and there was a podium here. And, um …” he paused and pointed back in the direction of the tunnel, where his wife Corey stood.
His voice broke. “My wife and I walked through there … ” he said quietly, before gathering himself and starting to move again.
“And the cheerleaders were where they are [now],” he pointed. “We had never been to Blacksburg. We had never, obviously, been on Virginia Tech’s campus. We had four children at that time. They were twelve and under.”
Here he stepped back a little bit, closer to his players. “The only player at the conclusion of that press conference, that’s here now, that was here then … is Devin.” He pointed to Devin Wilson, and the crowd applauded.
There’s that Mobius Strip effect again. Endings meeting beginnings, and things ending and starting, all at the same time.
Things Wrap Back Around
Back to the beginning we go: On March 12th, 1996, I wrote, ” Okay, I’m going to get the whining out of the way early … What I’m talking about, of course, is the farce of seeding Tech 9th in the tournament.”
The 1995-96 Hokies, despite a 22-5 overall record and being ranked all season long (peaking at #8 at one point), were seeded 9th in the NCAA Tournament and had to survive the opening-round 8/9 matchup, only to face #1 seed and eventual national champion Kentucky in the second round. That 1995-96 Kentucky team had nine future NBA players on it, and in the book “ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia: The Complete History of the Men’s Game,” is named as Kentucky’s best team ever.
I was steamed about the #9 seed, and the second-round matchup. In my diatribe, titled “The Hokies Get Screwed … Again,” I vented about the injustice of it all.
Forgive me. I was young, and prone to fits of rage when I thought my beloved Hokies were being disrespected.
21 years later, the Mobius Strip does indeed wrap back around on itself, with Virginia Tech’s #9 seed and a possible second-round matchup with Villanova, the #1 overall seed in this year’s tournament.
But somewhere along the winding expanse of that two-decade-plus long journey, my anger was left behind. Back on March 12th, 1996, I should have written, “Enjoy this NCAA Tournament invitation, Tech fans. The Hokies might make just one more tournament in the next 20 years. Sounds crazy, but you never know. So take time to smell the roses.”
In March of 1996, Virginia Tech’s basketball history was arguably more decorated than its football history. The 1996 NCAA invitation was Tech’s seventh NCAA appearance, including an Elite 8 appearance — back before they called it that — in 1967. Add in seven NIT appearances, including two championships, and that’s 14 postseason basketball tournaments.
Meanwhile, the Virginia Tech football program had only been to nine bowls through the 1995 season, not exactly a juggernaut of a program historically.
It’s clear that while the Mobius Strip was winding back upon itself over the course of 21 years, a lot was changing. In one way, we have ended up right back where we started, but in another way … not really. Not even close. In the 21 years after that March 1996 invitation, the Hokies went to 21 bowl games, but just one NCAA tournament. Until today.
That’s why Sunday’s unveiling drew raucous cheers from several thousand fans at Cassell Coliseum, and nearly brought tears from the head coach who remembers walking through that tunnel three years ago, not knowing what to expect.
And the guy who wrote those angry words on the computer in his spare bedroom 21 years ago is long gone, replaced by a guy who understands what an achievement it is for Virginia Tech basketball to be back in the NCAA Tournament again. The matchup with 8-seed Wisconsin brings butterflies to my stomach this time around, not the irritation that the matchup with 8-seed Wisconsin-Green Bay brought 21 years ago.
As for that potential second-round matchup with #1 seed and defending national champion Villanova … where the 31-year-old me smelled a screw job, the 52-year-old me smells opportunity. I’m channeling my inner Ric Flair: To be The Man, you gotta beat The Man.
Endings and Beginnings
I had no idea that the 1996 NCAA invitation would mark the end of an era of relative prosperity — 6 NCAA tournaments in 21 years (1976-1996) — and the beginning of an era of frustration — 1 appearance in the next 20 years (1997-2016).
What will the next 20 years hold? While I doubt Buzz Williams will be in Blacksburg 20 years from now, he did answer how he views this season emphatically during his comments.
Buzz Williams: "This is only the beginning. I don't say that to be arrogant. We didn't come here to be mediocre."
— TechSideline.com (@TechSideline) March 12, 2017
The players made it clear Sunday that while the NCAA tournament invitation was their goal, it doesn’t mean they have reached the end of what they were trying to accomplish this season.
“A couple weeks ago, Buzz was talking to us about the tournament,” Seth Allen said afterwards, “and [how] we were thinking about the tournament the wrong way. We were thinking about just making the tournament, but we need to think about winning in the tournament, winning games in the tournament.
“When he said that, it really opened my eyes. When they called our name, I was happy, but, I didn’t want to celebrate until we win a game or keep going.”
Was Sunday evening the beginning of a new era of Virginia Tech basketball? Conventional wisdom holds that Virginia Tech is a tough place to win consistently, and that even the best VT basketball teams face an upstream journey without a paddle in the ultra-tough ACC. Maybe. Maybe not. This year’s Tech team suffered serious attrition in an ACC that was peaking in difficulty, yet nonetheless made the NCAA tournament anyway, and comfortably at that.
21 years ago, I should have stopped and looked around, and appreciated what was happening, but instead, I complained. I should have advised you differently. But on Sunday, Buzz Williams put it much more eloquently.
“All of this is fragile,” he said. “And we’re all grateful. And we’re all thankful.”