Miles to Go
by Jim Alderson, 12/16/04

These are high times for Virginia Tech football. Deserved ACC and national accolades are showered on Frank Beamer and Bryan Randall, Tech revels in the demonstration that undisputed ACC football championships can be won in a somewhat shorter conference membership timeframe than the fifty-one years [and counting] it is taking the Hoos, and the Hokie Nation prepares to descend on New Orleans like the Red Army on Berlin. Good times, indeed. There is even more news at hand for Tech’s legions of followers: Virginia Tech’s basketball season opens Sunday.

Well, actually, as a handful of Tech fans are aware, Tech basketball began play almost three weeks ago, the night before Tech sent all of those Hoo football All-Americans home losers. It may come as a shock to a few thousand residents of Richmond, NOVA and Tidewater holding season tickets, but seven games have already been played. What could be even more of a revelation is that four have been played at home. I guess the Tech ticket office failed to include a copy of the schedule when they mailed out the season tickets.

Tech has compiled a 5-2 record against mostly low-level competition. The most conspicuous thing that juts out after the early-season contests is that the team doesn’t seem to be very good. They have no inside game whatsoever and the perceived strength of the team, its backcourt, would be considered a weakness on the top half-dozen or so teams in our new league, the ACC. Yep, that league. The one whose membership currently holds down half of the spots in the USA Today/ESPN ranking of the Top Ten and, for good measure, has two more teams thrown into the rest of the Top 25. The league that, despite some braying by our former conference, remains the gold standard for college basketball. The one where the bulk of the membership is far more concerned about how their basketball team performs in March than how its football team does in November. The one where Tech is very likely to stink up the joint this year.

Tech opens ACC play this Sunday. The first-ever league game is not against any run-of-the-mill ranked NC State or Maryland team, either. Coming to Cassell will be none other than the North Carolina Tar Heels, one of the heaviest of the ACC’s heavyweights. This is going to be a little different ‘Welcome to the ACC’ greeting than serving up Duke as our initial conference football opponent. Yikes! Well, the good news is we can expect a full house.

Tech’s first four home games have been played in virtual seclusion in a mostly-empty Cassell Coliseum. This has not, however, been due to general disinterest on the part of the fan base, which for years was attributed as the cause of Tech’s basketball attendance problems, On the contrary, as anyone who has desired to actually attend a game only to find the box office shuttered has discovered, Cassell is sold out for the season. There are no tickets available.

It seems a reasonable question to ask why, if all tickets have been bought, only 3k-4k are showing up for basketball games? The answer is that the bulk of the tickets reside with Tech fans in NOVA, Richmond and Tidewater who have no interest in watching Tech tangle with the likes of Maryland-Eastern Shore, Chattanooga or even in-state JMU. Their season tickets are being treated as two-game mini-packs for Sunday’s Carolina game and the one against the Hoos later in the year.

It is certainly understandable that those from the eastern parts of the state would find it very inconvenient if not impossible to travel to Blacksburg on a weeknight, but one has to wonder why they bought the tickets in the first place if they were unable or not interested in using them. The answer to that one, of course, is that these Hokies only wanted to see the Tar Heels and Hoos. So much for Frank Beamer’s repeated statements that Tech fans should come to watch Tech play.

A season ticket sales and distribution policy that has been designed to minimize home court advantage is not exactly how the rest of the ACC does it. It is par for the course for Tech basketball, however. It has suffered for years from a neglect from the university and athletic administration, so there is little reason for the fans to feel any differently. Those terminally-insecure Tech fans who spend such inordinate amounts of time parsing every comment made by sportscasters or written by sportswriters, or innocent comments made by former Tech football players honoring their high schools, to discover real or imagined instances of what they will then loudly proclaim to be profound ‘disrespect’ shown to the Hokies [does anybody seriously believe Willie Pile is somehow anti-Tech?] could save their energies by focusing on what has happened a little closer to home. It is hard to find a greater example of disrespect than the manner in which the Tech basketball team has been treated over the last decade or so by its own administration.

To be fair, there are very good reasons why the program was allowed to atrophy into its current state of disrepair. From the instant Tech was invited to join the fledgling Big East Football Conference, football was our meal ticket. The only way to develop enhanced conference opportunities and escape what was thought to be the eventually-doomed Big East was to create a football program that could get us there. Scarce athletic resources were devoted to funding a football program that would move Tech to another league. It worked, to say the least.

At the same time, it made little sense to pump cash into a basketball program that was not going to get us into the ACC no matter how much was spent, so Tech did not. After the Big East snub in 1994 that relegated Tech to the miserable A-10 for basketball, the program was virtually written off, descending into the nether world of bare-bones budgets that included former coach Ricky Stokes' $30,000 recruiting budget, one that found impossible to overcome [and most any other coach would have, too]. The idea was that if football ever improved our conference situation and revenue-sharing, then would be the time to devote the monies to improving our lot in men’s basketball.

That time is now. Virginia Tech is woefully unprepared to compete in ACC basketball. It will be impossible to be any worse than the Georgia Tech basketball team that began play following the conference expansion in 1978, a Yellow Jackets team that went winless in league play and never even came close in its games, but our Tech won’t be far off. If Tech wins more than two conference games this year, Seth Greenberg should receive serious consideration for ACC Coach of the Year. Tech will likely be as bad as any team seen in the ACC in a while. Those searching for disrespect towards our school should wait and see what happens if a lousy Tech team drags down the conference SOS enough to deny a seventh ACC team a bid to the NCAA Tournament. The grief we will catch would be such as to make Temple seem a valued member of the Big East in comparison. I suspect few if any of the columns and stories lambasting and lamenting Tech in the basketball ACC will mention our football championship.

To be anything more than a laughingstock of our new league, a Clemson without the basketball commitment, Tech has to get a lot better. The only way to get a lot better is to acquire ACC-caliber players; few are on the current roster. To achieve any basketball success recruits must be swayed away from competitor conference schools. That might prove just a bit tricky. While Tech’s budget has been increased with ACC membership to an ACC-representative $3 mil or so, that is only the tip of the iceberg. A limited university commitment to basketball meant Ricky Stokes never had a fair chance to win at Tech, and the task facing Seth Greenberg seems only slightly less daunting.

When the Hoos open their new basketball palace in a couple of years, Virginia Tech will have the worst basketball facilities in the ACC. Even Clemson, where basketball has generally been relegated to somewhere distant behind football, spring football, football recruiting and coach-firing in the Tigers athletics pecking order, will have better basketball digs.

Tech’s basketball facility problems begin with Cassell Coliseum. I always find it amusing to read message board posts pointing out what a great basketball environment Cassell ‘USED’ to have. Twenty years ago when it was a fine facility instead of the obsolete relic it is today, that was true. That twenty years also exceeds the life experiences of today’s recruits, who are unlikely to be particularly impressed with tales of how Cassell used to rock. They instead will see a facility that compares badly with the gleaming basketball palaces available to our competitors. Cassell is going to have to be replaced in what will be a tremendous financial undertaken for a university whose past lack of conference revenue-sharing, taken for granted by existing ACC membership, will have us playing serious catch-up for some time to come. Cassell is only part of the equation, however.

I well remember roaming around Merryman a few years ago and hearing a basketball recruit asking a gentleman who was then an assistant, “Where is the basketball building?” The answer to that question seemed to play a role in convincing that young man to take his talents elsewhere. I imagine that question has been asked a lot by potential basketball recruits, and Seth and his staff have heard it a few times. Basketball recruits are not likely to be impressed when told they will occasionally be allowed in the football-centric Merryman to observe the lavish attention focused on the football players.

Most ACC schools have separate training facilities for their basketball teams, those that still do not are planning them [Georgia Tech], and some even have a second one on the drawing board [Duke - it would seem Coach K wants a separate building for each of his players]. Virginia Tech does not, and until we do, the lack of one will impede recruiting.

Then there is the little matter of the practice court. When Tech students playing intramural basketball in McComas Hall have a better facility than the Cassell back-gym practice court available to those students representing the university on its basketball team, it sends a loud and clear message to potential recruits as to how they will rate if they come to Virginia Tech. Facilities matter in basketball just as much if not more than they do in football. Due to budgetary considerations, Tech has been a dove in the basketball facilities arms race and has a lot of catching up to do to have any hopes of success in an ACC bristling with facility firepower.

While the basketball budget has been bulked up a bit, there are still glaring examples that it is not enough. One such happened at St. John’s a week ago, where the team endured an eight-hour bus trip each way, including an all-nighter back to Tech after the Wednesday night game. No other ACC school would treat its basketball players so shabbily. Limited flight arrangements at the Roanoke airport contributed to this, but that the Athletic Director would not spring for a charter flight says much about Tech’s current commitment to basketball. You can bet your Sugar Bowl tickets that rival coaches have contacted every single member of Seth’s A-List of recruits to let them know that travel would be quite a bit more comfortable at their schools. Throw in some difficult travel to the spartan accommodations of the Tech basketball team, and you have something other than an optimum recruiting environment.

Tech fans bask in the ACC football championship and make plans to attend or view the Sugar Bowl. The Tech basketball team prepares to begin what is likely to be a very difficult first season in the ACC. A repeat of last year’s satisfying finish to our Big East basketball membership is highly unlikely, although the staff and team are perfectly welcome to prove me wrong. The ACC does not contain the basketball dogs that populated the depths of the Big East last year and that assisted Tech in finally making some basketball noise. A comparable conference finish this year will be much harder.

Virginia Tech is now in the ACC for all sports, not just football, and including basketball. Over the next few years it is time for the administration and fans of the university to start acting like it.

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