On February 6, Hunter Cattoor’s buzzer-beater at the end of regulation led to an improbable overtime victory on the road against Miami. 34 days later, No. 22 Virginia Tech will step back on the floor in Greensboro for the ACC quarterfinals having played just two games in over a month.
“It’s been difficult. I’ve been so impressed and appreciative of how our guys have handled it. They’ve bounced right back,” Head Coach Mike Young said. “It’s March, they want to play, and they want to coach. I’m thankful that we’re two days removed from playing again, and we’re ready to go and we’re fired up.”
Following a 17-day pause due to COVID-19, the Hokies returned to play for two late February matchups with Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. After splitting those games, looking like a completely different team in each, the Hokies were forced to pause again due to contact tracing within the program.
“We didn’t have a positive test, but working with our local health department, they thought that it would be in everyone’s best interest that we pause,” Young said. “It was all a contact tracing issue that so many of us have dealt with. We did have the opportunity to continue to practice, but that was what our team doctors and local health department suggested.”
Practice is the difference between the Hokies’ two COVID breaks over the last month. Tech came out flat against the Yellow Jackets after its first pause, but many players hadn’t practiced much prior to returning to competition. This time, the Hokies should be more prepared, and more importantly, no players will be held out due to contact tracing.
Tech will be missing one important piece for the ACC Tournament as Jalen Cone will almost certainly be unavailable in Greensboro. Cone’s ankle injury he suffered against the Hurricanes was clearly more severe than originally thought, and now the sophomore can only hope that he is healthy enough for the NCAA Tournament.
“I think the best I could give you is I think this weekend is doubtful,” Young said. “If we were fortunate enough to make it to the NCAA Tournament and advanced, maybe, but not anytime soon.”
Despite the adversity of the last month, the Hokies were able to back into the three-seed in the ACC Tournament and earn their first double-bye in program history. Tech awaits North Carolina, Notre Dame or Wake Forest in the quarterfinals, and the Hokies will be looking for their first semifinals appearance since 2011.
If the bracket breaks as expected, the Hokies would get the Tar Heels on Thursday, and with a win, Florida State in the semifinals on Friday. Despite having a combined three games scheduled against those two teams, Tech has yet to play against either due to COVID-19 issues throughout the year.
“It’s different. I’ve never done that. Having said that, we were scheduled to play Florida State twice and on at least one of those, we had done quite a bit of work with our scouting,” Young said. “We had also done quite a bit of work on North Carolina in that preparation. Notre Dame and Wake Forest, we played twice. That’s a new one for me, I’ll assure you of that.”
Another challenge for the Hokies is the late games that they will have to play in Greensboro. No matter what, Tech doesn’t have a game scheduled before 8 p.m. and in a tournament setting, who knows when tip-off will actually occur?
“It’s awful. I’ve had two NCAA Tournament games in my career that are scheduled to tip-off at 9:50, and those don’t usually start until 10:20 or so,” Young said. “What you don’t want to have happen is that you wear yourself out with the nervous energy. Then, you hit the floor and you’re less than what you expect to be.”
With all this adversity, it is tough to tell what kind of Hokies team will show up on Thursday night. Will it be the team that ran out of gas against Georgia Tech, or the buzzsaw that beat Wake Forest by 38 the last time they took the floor? Only time will tell, but with what has been an abnormally weak ACC this year, the Hokies have as good of a chance as ever to make a run at a conference championship.
The good news for Young and company is that the Hokies’ spot in the NCAA Tournament should be secure even with a one-and-done performance in Greensboro. The bad news is that over the last month, Tech has seen its standing in the bracket trickle further down the board. Once as high as a five-seed, Joe Lunardi of ESPN has dropped the Hokies to the lowest team on the nine-line entering conference tournament week.
“This is new to me now because I come from a league where I knew that I had to go to Asheville and win three games. I am not going to be one of those blathering, sounding like a petulant kid trying to prove his team’s worth,” Young said. “I’m not going to do it. It’s there on paper, we’ve had a really good year and we’ve got a really good team. I’ll leave it to the selection committee, they’ll get it right.”
Almost nothing is certain entering Thursday night’s return to the floor for the Hokies, but Tech has put itself in a position for success entering the postseason. Just one win in Greensboro would surely silence the doubts that have crept in while the Hokies have been on pause.