Who Wants it More?

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It’s the morning of Virginia Tech’s matchup with Connecticut, a legendary
program with a legendary coach. Of the 347 teams currently playing Division 1
basketball, Connecticut is one of just 14 to win multiple NCAA championships
(two, in 1999 and 2004), and coach Jim Calhoun is the seventh-winningest coach
all-time in NCAA men’s basketball. The buzz around Virginia Tech’s matchup with
UConn is … well, not very buzzy.

That’s life in the NIT. Two years ago, the Hokies and their fans were excited
about the NIT and produced some passionate matchups in Cassell, last year they
had a memorable first round game with Duquesne, and this year … this year,
it’s been difficult to embrace.

Virginia Tech dispatched of outmanned Qunnipiac in the first round with ease,
and now the big, bad UConn Huskies come to town. Except, while still pretty big,
they’re not very "bad." They’re just bad, by UConn standards, with a
record of just 18-15, including a 7-11 Big East record, well below the Mendoza
line.

I’ll readily admit that I’m not as well-versed on college basketball in
general as many of you are, so I can’t expound upon the UConn Huskies in any
sort of educated detail. But I expect that they’ll look good getting off the
plane, as the old saying goes. UConn’s roster boasts three five-star recruits,
per Scout.com, exactly three more than the Hokies have on their team.

While there is a huge mish-mash of three-star and four-star recruits each
year, five-stars are the cream of the crop. Scout.com lists just 28 in the class
of 2010, 25 in the class of 2009, 25 in the class of 2008, 25 in the class of
2007, and so on.

UConn gets their share of the best of the best, and they regularly populate
the top 20 in recruiting, so I suspect that if they are motivated and they get
off to a good start, they are capable of an impressive showing in Cassell
tonight. This is a case where if UConn puts forth anything close to their best
effort, and the Hokies don’t, then the 2009-10 season is over for Virginia Tech.

The Huskies have lost 15 games this year, including some to the likes of
fellow NIT participant Cincinnati (19-15 overall), Michigan (15-17), Providence
(12-19), and St. John’s (17-16, and this was a 21-point thrashing in the Big
East Tournament).

But UConn has also knocked off Villanova and West Virginia, and they lost by
just three to Kentucky. So the Huskies can ball, if they want to. The question
is, which UConn team are the Hokies going to get? The team that beat Nova by 9
and WVU by 11 in a three-game stretch, or the one that lost six of its last nine
before squeaking by Northeastern by two points in the NIT’s opening round?

Before you think the Huskies will mail it in on the road tonight in Cassell,
where the Hokies are 16-1, don’t be so sure. Home sweet home wasn’t the salve
the Hokies needed in the last two NIT’s. Ole Miss bounced the Hokies by nine
points in the quarterfinals two years ago, and Baylor demolished Tech by 18 in
the second round last year. That’s an average margin of defeat of 13.5, not even
close.

I wish I was as confident as this
guy
, a betting site columnist who writes, among other rosy
things:

The Hokies are going to come out firing at home, feeling like they have
something to prove against the Huskies. UConn is likely to be flat, as they
have been for weeks, and will not be able to recover against a motivated
Virginia Tech squad.

Take the home team playing with something to prove over the disinterested
road team. The Hokies win this game in a rout.

I hope he’s right, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s right. His whole
premise is that the Hokies will want it more than UConn, a lot more, and that
will lead to a humiliating season-ending loss for the Huskies. We shall see.

I do agree that the victory will probably go to whichever team wants it more.
The Hokies are saying all the right things, and they played well in the
Quinnipiac romp. UConn, by contrast, was not impressive against Northeastern
(59-57).

All signs point to a Hokie win, despite the Huskies having so much talent on
the roster, talent which seems to have snoozed for most of the season. But as
the NCAA tournament teaches us year after year, expected results often don’t
occur. (At what point do we stop being amazed by lower seeds upsetting higher
seeds, when it happens multiple times every year?) When ten guys hit the floor
and the ball is tossed up in the air, anything can happen.

I’m having trouble getting into the NIT. I suspect a win tonight would cure
that problem, because it will tie the Hokie record for wins in a season (25).
But I’m putting my cart before my horse. As a fan, I’m waiting for one more win
before I fully buy into the NIT, but the players have to do it the other way
around. To win, they have to buy in first.

You can crunch matchups and stats all you want, but I’m with the betting-site
guy. I think this one goes to whoever wants it the most at seven o’clock
tonight, on ESPN. If that’s the Hokies, then we’ll gather back here Wednesday
night, for an ESPN2 matchup with either sixth-seeded Nevada or second-seeded
Rhode Island.

Series History

  • If not for the Big East, these two teams never would have met on the
    court. They played seven games from 2000-01 to 2003-04, with UConn winning
    six of them, and those are the only games UConn and VT have ever played,
    until tonight.
  • Unlike Syracuse, which never visited Cassell in four years of Big East
    membership, UConn came to Blacksburg four times in four seasons.
  • The Huskies’ six victories over VT were by an average margin of 21.5
    points. The closest UConn win was 86-74 in January 2002 in Blacksburg. UConn
    beat the Hokies by 30+ two times, in 2001-02 (95-60 in Hartford, CT) and in
    2003-04 (96-60 in Blacksburg).
  • The 2003-04
    whipping
    that eventual national champion UConn laid on the
    Hokies is Tech’s worst-ever home loss, and the only time Seth Greenberg
    coached the Hokies against the Huskies. The other five losses to UConn were
    absorbed by Ricky Stokes.
  • Stokes also coached the only Tech win over UConn, a
    95-74 romp
    over an 18th-ranked Connecticut team that was
    playing its first game after coach Jim Calhoun was diagnosed with prostate
    cancer. Calhoun did not make the trip to Blacksburg. The game broke a
    23-game losing streak to ranked teams and at the time was Tech’s biggest
    margin of victory in a Big East game. (The Hokies later beat Villanova
    88-63.) The 95 points were the most Tech ever scored in a Big East game.
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