A Winning Edge
by Jim Alderson, 3/28/01

The Final Four, that annual culmination of the March madness that is the NCAA Tournament, is again upon us. The first thing that jumps out at me is that for the first time in decades of entering tournament pools, I have somehow stumbled into picking all four of the final teams.

It has been a good Tournament for my selection skills, as among my correct choices were Gonzaga over the Hoos (try the hypnosis, Pete), Penn State over North Carolina, then Temple over the Lions after the Owls over Texas and Florida (they do pretty well against football schools in basketball), St. Joe’s over Georgia Tech (remember how the Hokies had their hands full every time they played the Hawks?) and Charlotte over Tennessee (at this time I will not go into other picks, such as those same 49ers over Illinois, that did not work out so hot).

The second thing that jumps out at me is that for the rash of upsets that popped up with refreshing regularity is that by Final Four time, the pretenders had all been swatted down and it is a collection of traditional powers that are descending on Minneapolis, three with significant Final Four experience (Tom Izzo is bringing Michigan State to its third straight, a coaching feat that is placing him into rarefied atmosphere occupied by guys named Krzyzewski and Wooden), and the fourth, Maryland, a longtime power that only through the best efforts of Lefty Drisell and Gary Williams had not made it long before now.

This past weekend, for reasons that involved personal rooting interest and my Tournament draw sheet, I paid very close attention to the Duke-Southern Cal and Michigan State-Temple games (As Temple disappears already from our basketball schedule and soon our football, I am going to miss the Owls. Whether it is John Cheney’s condemned-prisoner-like sideline demeanor, the Bill Cosby sighting once along the Lane Stadium visitor’s sideline or the general train-wreck quality of Temple’s football efforts, I like them).

It became apparent as I watched two very good games featuring excellent game plans and gallant efforts by the losers that the winners would be the more traditional powers. You could see it in the faces of the combatants of all teams. Both the Blue Devils and Spartans knew they were the better teams and had the confidence (the legion of Duke haters call it arrogance) that they would prevail. To be sure, both teams are very, very good, dripping with a level of talent of which Ricky Stokes can only dream.

But they also had coaching staffs that had convinced them they were indeed that good and should win. There was none of the horror-stricken looks on the faces of the Iowa State players as they came to the realization that Hampton had done something other than just show up for the Tournament, or the side-splitting comedy of a Carolina team quitting with a four-point lead, two examples of good teams lacking the poise and self-assurance of Duke and Michigan State, qualities that very good teams are taught by very good coaching staffs. It often provides the edge in tough games against good and motivated opponents. Duke and Michigan State are not the only ones.

Sunday night, between the ending of the Arizona-Illinois game and the start of the Sopranos, I rummaged through the collection of video tapes scattered around my VCR, choosing an unlabeled one, owing to my habit of often not identifying the contents of what I have taped; I like the surprise element.

It was last year’s Tech-Pitt(sburgh) football game. Although I have no plans to relinquish my football season tickets anytime soon (my first reaction last Saturday upon receiving my ticket application was to contemplate my various Visa billing cut-off dates to determine the most financially-judicious time to renew), one thing I have missed from my seat high atop the West Stands is the expressions on the faces of players and coaches during critical game situations (although the video board is changing that. If that thing has HBO I could easily move into Lane Stadium) that is offered on television. I was at that game, and remember a wounded Tech team making a winning drive at the end while being seemingly willed down the field by a deafening crowd. I noticed something else on the tape.

If there was ever a team ripe for the plucking, it was Virginia Tech that afternoon. The quarterback and best wide receiver were out, and they were up against a well-coached and motivated bunch of Panthers who continue to inch closer to making the top of the BE a threesome, and it almost, and perhaps should have, happened that day.

Many comparisons were made among my group to the 1998 Temple loss, as well as some of the more embarrassing defeats suffered by earlier Frank Beamer teams. It didn’t happen this time. It is fascinating to watch the various facial expressions of players and coaches on both sides as that Fourth Quarter drama unfolded. Plainly evident, at least to me, is that the Panthers hoped they would win, while those Hokies on the field and sideline knew they would, and they did.

There was a determination to win a game they knew they should because, regardless of injury or anything else, they were the better team. It was the same edge demonstrated by Duke and Michigan State in a game, considering the enormous stakes in play during any game in college football’s playoff-less regular season game, where a loss would carry the same consequences, and did the very next week.

The Virginia Tech football program has moved beyond 1998. When faced with adversity, they played like a team that has now won 23 of its last 25 games. No, they did not win them all, and chances are they won’t this year either (the odds are against any team going undefeated, which is why it rarely happens). But, both of the losses have been to very good teams, one that also knows a thing or two about winning, and the other a group that is in the process of re-learning as a program.

It is amusing to read the news accounts as algroh flits around the state providing me fodder by shrilly proclaiming how good the Hoos are going to be. One does wonder whom he is most trying to convince, his fans, his team, his Tribe (and you can bet I will have much fun with that) or, given his head-coaching resume, himself. It is quite unnecessary for Frank Beamer to brag in that manner, as unlike the boasting algroh, he has a record that speaks volumes. He has won a ton, knows how to, is confident he will, and infuses that confidence into his team.

Those of us who have been around since the beginnings of the Beamer era have had the rare treat of observing a program put together piece by piece. Evidence that we are approaching the final stages of fielding a true national power can be found in the increasing talent level flocking to Tech, and in the attitudes prevalent in the program. This team knows how to win and expects to. That is good coaching.

Jim Alderson, who first made his mark with his biting political commentary on the A-Line email newsletter, also brings a unique, sarcastic, and well-informed perspective on college sports, particularly (1) Virginia Tech sports and (2) ACC sports.  While Hokie fans currently have very little use for subject number 2, Alderson is an entertaining and informative columnist on subject number 1.  For even more fun, visit Jim's A-Line home page.


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