End of This Year's Hokie Hoops Renaissance? 

by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 1/27/03

Wednesday night, the Hokie men's basketball team will face off with Boston College in the last game of a critical four-game home stand, and I find myself wondering: how many people will show up?

There's a story that plays itself out every year since 1996-1997 for Virginia Tech men's basketball. The book goes like this:

  • Chapter 1: Team enters season with optimism.
  • Chapter 2: Team loses an early-season game to ETSU or Wofford or Radford or Liberty or William and Marry or VMI, bursting the bubble.
  • Chapter 3: Team muddles its way through the early part of the schedule to a .500 record.
  • Chapter 4: Reality sets in.
  • Chapter 5:  Team gathers itself and pulls off a big, unexpected win, and hope springs forth ....

The next step? Chapter 6: Team plays a home game before a hopeful, larger-than-average crowd ... and loses it, usually in ugly fashion. Then comes Chapter 7, in which the fans write the season off and look forward to next year. Attendance dips back down, and the team plays out the string, either bowing out early in the conference tournament (in the A-10 days) or not even playing in it (in the Big East).

That scenario is playing itself out again this year. We've just reached Chapter Six, the part where a pivotal home game is played out in front of a larger-than-average crowd, and the Hokies lose. It happened last Saturday, when 5,628, the second-largest crowd of the season, came out to see the Hokies, fresh off a win over UVa, against St. John's.

The nationally-televised 73-55 runaway victory over Virginia a week ago created a buzz around the Hokie program that hasn't existed in quite a while, and buoyed by special promotions and a hyped football recruiting weekend, Tech hoped to capitalize on the momentum of a two-game winning streak and impress a good-sized crowd -- and perhaps lock some of them in for a good ride, maybe all the way to a berth in the Big East tournament in Madison Square Garden.

Sadly, Tech lost, 62-59, and to say that the first 13 minutes of the game were ugly is an understatement of Terry Taylor proportions. The Hokies got a dunk from Taylor on their first possession, and then proceeded to score just six points over the next 13+ minutes, falling behind 24-8.

The Hokies laid egg after egg in that thirteen-minute span, and the crowd grew restless. They finally found something to cheer about, exploding when Tech strung together six straight points to close the gap to 24-14 with 5:01 to go in the first half.

The Cassell Coliseum crowd got back into it, and the shift in momentum was as palpable as anything you've ever witnessed. Tech suddenly played like a house on fire, and the St. John's Red Storm instantly became nervous and indecisive, rattled by the vocal Tech crowd and the surging Hokies.

We know intuitively that Cassell Coliseum is a completely different place not just with a big crowd -- these days, anything over 5,000 feels "big" -- but with a large contingent of students, which were present for the Virginia game and again for the St. John's contest. Students bring energy and noise that is completely different than that of the jaded "paying" crowd, many of whom have seen decades of Tech basketball and aren't easily jazzed by the type of swing in momentum that you see frequently in a game.

But heck, give students a 6-0 run, and they go bananas. And the team feeds off of it.

Tech ripped off ten straight to tie it at 32-all early in the second half, and it appeared the Hokies were on their way. Alas, St. John's rode out the rough spots and went on to down Tech 62-59, on the strength of three second-half three-pointers by freshman Elijah Ingram.

So here we sit, ready to enter chapter 7: fans write off the season and look forward to next year. Okay, it's a little early for that. The Hokies can still make the big bash at MSG with a few key home wins. They're fifth in their seven-team division, a half-game ahead of Boston College and Miami, who still have to make trips to Blacksburg. If the Hokies can win over BC Tuesday night and/or Miami on March 5th, plus pull off a win here or there along the way (Villanova at home on March 1st is a ripe candidate), they will punch their ticket to New York for the first time in their short tenure in the Big East.

But you can't escape the unmistakable feeling that a great opportunity was missed Saturday. An opportunity to win three games in a row in January for only the second time since 1997 (yes, it's true), an opportunity to put some distance between themselves and BC and Miami, and an opportunity to keep the fans, particularly the students, coming to the games. Saturday was fun -- it got pretty vocal once the Hokies came back -- but it was a loss nonetheless, and losses don't sell.

What happens now? This long-suffering fan base, which has seen just two postseason appearances since 1986, very quickly retreats when momentum appears to be lost. Instead of sensing that the fan support is making a difference and turning it up a notch, the peripheral Hokie basketball fans who have come out to check out the last couple of games will probably return to the lives they led before the last couple of games, lives which didn't include taking time out to attend a Hokie basketball game. Attendance will probably dip back below 5,000 and stay there for the remainder of the season.

It would be nice if that didn't happen. It would be nice if Wednesday's crowd was 5,000 or more and spurred Tech on to a win, building momentum that the team could take on the road to try to lead them to victories at Providence and St. John's in the next couple of weeks.

Against Boston College, the Hokies will be facing the type of team that gives them trouble, a team similar to St. John's: a team led by a high-scoring guard who can also penetrate and create opportunities for his teammates. In the case of St. John's, it was Marcus Hatten, and in the case of BC, it's Troy Bell, who now leads the league in scoring, because the Hokies' Carlos Dixon knocked Hatten off that perch Saturday when he held him to just 9 points.

The season is in the balance for this Tech team, and they can delay Chapter 7, or put it off entirely, with a win over BC Wednesday. Otherwise, this mini-renaissance in Tech hoops, that began with the win over Providence, is probably over.

Because momentum is a fleeting thing.


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