Buzzer-Beater Gets Hokie Nation’s Attention

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For most of the day Wednesday, it was business as usual on TSL, which is to
say, football ruled the roost. A basketball showdown in Charlottesville was
looming last night, but as of 6:00 p.m., posts on the football board outnumbered
posts on the basketball board 670 to 196, a ratio of 3.4 to 1.

Such
is life in Virginia Tech athletics. Last summer, I met Radford University Coach
Brad Greenberg, Seth’s brother, and in the course of a half-hour conversation,
one thing Brad said really stood out to me: “The thing that bugs
Seth,” he said, “is that most people don’t realize how hard that
[Virginia Tech] job is.”

Brad Greenberg’s statement was all-encompassing. From support facilities to
tradition to media coverage to a million other facets of basketball, the Hokies
are far behind their ACC brethren.

The post counts on a basketball message board and a football message board
reflect just one aspect of a program: fan support. I’m not talking positive
support versus negative criticism, I’m talking fan attention. A post count that
exceeds a 3 to 1 ratio — when one sport is in its offseason, and the other is
getting ready to play a big rival — says one simple thing: Tech fans pay a lot
more attention to football than they do basketball.

Well, brilliant, Sherlock, move to the head of the class. New to Virginia
Tech sports, are you?

I know, there are no revelations in those opening paragraphs, and I even
participate in a little gratuitous name-dropping. Back to the point, though:
Tech fans, outside of the core group that follows hoops all the time, have the
attention span of a gnat when it comes to basketball. Bred on football success,
they struggle to follow basketball, where last year, in Tech’s most successful
season in over a decade, Hokie hoops lost more games (12) than Frank Beamer’s
team has lost in the last four seasons (11).

Basketball is different. It requires patience, it requires the ability to
swallow losses and not get caught up in the moment, and it requires the
understanding that 40-minute games often come down to just one shot, one moment
in time, fair or unfair. Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the
bug. Like last night’s game.

Basketball and football share one thing in common, though: It takes wins to
goose the fan base and get them locked in. It’s no shocking revelation that
Virginia Tech didn’t start packing Lane Stadium consistently and didn’t start
selling out season tickets every year until the Hokies started winning … a
lot. For the record, it wasn’t until the 1999 season that VT first sold out
their allotment of season tickets and started posting consistent sellouts.

Last year, Virginia Tech basketball captured the fickle fan base’s attention
with a 13-4 start that included wins at #5 Duke and over #1 UNC. It was a strong
year for the Hokies that ended with a 22-12 record, a third-place ACC finish,
and an NCAA tournament victory.

The architects of that season, beloved seniors Jamon Gordon, Zabian Dowdell,
and Coleman Collins, departed, and the Hokie fan base, still new to this ACC
basketball thing, is understandably guarded about this season. Seth Greenberg
has warned the fan base over and over that this team is young, and they’re like
Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

Painful losses at Wake Forest (an eight point lead with 1:22 left vanished)
and Richmond (the slowdown Spiders lulled Tech into a three-point loss) bore out
Greenberg’s comments, even while the Hokies were fashioning a respectable 9-6
record heading into last Saturday’s home game against Maryland.

The Hokies notched a nice win over the Terps, who were obviously missing
point guard Eric Hayes, but last night’s win over the Cavaliers should finally
spark many fans to tear themselves away from football and start paying attention
to roundball.

Here’s the quick and dirty: With last night’s buzzer-beater over the Hoos, VT
has now won three in a row, five out of six, and nine out of 12. Tech is 11-6
overall, 2-1 in the ACC, good enough for a fourth-place tie in the
ACC standings
. Memo to the fan base: The ACC isn’t particularly strong this
year, outside of Duke, UNC, Clemson, and maybe BC. Wins are there to be had, and
2-1 is a strong start, when expectations (mine, anyway) centered around 5-11 or
6-10.

Movement in the ACC standings occurs in spans of three to four games. Tech is
currently in the middle of the pack. Three or four losses in the next four games
will push them to the bottom. Three or four wins will move them closer to the
top. 2-2 will keep them holding steady, mid-pack. Then comes another three-game
or four-game stretch. View it that way, and don’t get hung up on individual
games, which are often decided arbitrarily by the whims of the basketball gods.

Deron Washington’s buzzer-beater (right) got everyone’s attention
last night and ended a frustrating string of poor performance against the Hoos.
VT had lost five out of six to the Cavaliers until last night. To put that in
perspective, the Hokies have fared better in the last six games against ACC
stalwarts UNC (2-4), Duke (2-4), Georgia Tech (5-1), Maryland (3-3), and Wake
Forest (3-3). Among the ACC’s tradition-laden old guard, only NC State (1-5) had
Tech’s number in similar fashion to UVa. (Tech has also gone 1-5 against BC and
FSU in the last six meetings, plus 3-3 against Clemson and 4-2 against Miami.)

What you saw last night was the Hokies in microcosm. Here’s a series of
random thoughts on this team:

They’re scrappy and resilient, failing to give up even when down by nine with
9:47 to and by eight with 7:13 remaining. A.D. Vassallo (22 points, 5-of-11
three-pointers) can be a deadly equalizer when left open. Deron Washington
(4-of-11) struggles with the leadership and playmaking role in the half court,
but he can still make plays that get you over the hump, like a game-tying three
pointer and of course, the winner.

In the backcourt, the Hokies are thin defensively. When Malcolm Delaney
injured his ankle, had to leave the game, and wasn’t a hundred percent upon his
return, Sean Singletary detonated on Tech, scoring 23 points in the first 20
minutes and 30 points in the first 33 minutes. He muscled Hank Thorns into the
paint and simply blew past everyone else.

But Tech plays remarkably good team defense for such a young team. Singletary
ran out of gas, was confronted by multiple players down the stretch, and scored
just four points in the last 12 minutes. Virginia crumbled without him. By the
way, if you think Seth Greenberg doesn’t know his Xs and Os (I’m not sure what
Tech is doing on offense a lot of the time), you’ve got to admit that he knows
how to adjust at half time. Greenberg’s manipulation of matchups last night kept
the Hokies hanging around until they could finally make their move.

These young Tech guards, unlike their predecessors, commit hideous turnovers
that lead not just to points at the other end, but breakaway layups. They
survive this better than last year’s team, though, because for one, the Hokies
are better rebounders. Coming into last night’s game, the Cavaliers held a +11.4
per game rebounding edge, a staggering number good for third in the nation.
Yet VT outrebounded Virginia 47-39. For the season, Tech has turned last year’s
-0.1 per game rebounding deficit into a +4.8 this year. That’s a lot of extra
possessions, and they make the different in one-point games.

Which
brings us to the topic of Jeff Allen. Whereas the trade of Dowdell/Gordon to
Thorns/Delaney was a step down for the time being, the loss of Coleman Collins
for Jeff Allen is a definite upgrade. Allen didn’t have a particularly
impressive game last night (11 points, 8 rebounds), but when he’s in the paint
for the Hokies, the character of the game changes. Even when Allen is askew, he
is a force to be reckoned with. Call him Agent Zero, call him the Big Donut,
call him what you want, he’s the real deal.

Virginia had no answer for Allen, and in the second half, the Hokies did the
best job they have done all year of feeding Allen the ball in the paint.
“We don’t get him the ball enough,” was a familiar and correct refrain
on the boards, but last night, Allen got the ball enough, and Virginia struggled
to deal with him.

Greenberg cautioned after the game that each of the 16 ACC games is a
separate entity. Anything can happen. He’s right. Having said that, stealing a
conference win on the road, when you trailed most of the game, is one to be
savored. 2-1 looks a lot better than 1-2 or 0-3.

From 6:00 p.m. to midnight last night, posts on the basketball board outnumbered the
football board 698 to 215, flipping the ratio in basketball’s favor, 3.24 to
1.

That’s more like it. Stick around.

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