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 fifth-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.
Back to the topic: 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 simple 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. on last night, posts on the basketball board outnumbered the football board 698 to 215, flipping the ratio in basketball's direction, 3.24 to 1.
That's more like it. Stick around.