Tuesday, February 23, 1999
Hokie Men Shooting for a #3 Seed
By winning 6 of their last nine A-10 conference games, the Hokie men's basketball team has raised its conference record to 6-8 and has positioned itself at #3 in the A-10 West, with a slim lead over La Salle.
Given how they started out, by losing their first five conference games, it's not a bad position for Tech to be in. The top two teams in each division receive byes in the first round, which means that as far as the first round goes, a #3 team draws the lowest seed, a #6 team. Certainly, for this Tech team, there are no gimmes, but I'd much rather see them starting out with a matchup they have a better chance of winning, as opposed to being a #5 or #6 seed playing a #3 or #4 seed.
On Monday's Hokie Hotline, Bill Roth went over all the possibilities between Tech and La Salle, the team the Hokies have to beat for the A-10 West #3 seed. Tech's next game is a dire threat to a possible third-place A-10 West finish, because it's a road game against GW in Tech's personal horror chamber, the Smith Center.
Better Hokie teams than this one have been utterly taken apart at GW, including the 95-96 NCAA team, which was hammered by the Colonials on the road. The score of that one was something like 30-9 at one point, if I remember correctly.
But after that road game, Tech returns home for a Senior Day clash with Duquesne, a team that Tech squeaked by, 59-58, back on February 3rd in Pittsburgh. If the Hokies split those two games, and La Salle splits their remaining two games, Tech will win the tiebreaker over the Explorers and will have the 3-seed in the tournament, by virtue of a superior in-division record. Of course, if both teams win both of their games this week, Tech will still have the 3-seed, for the same reason.
In any event, it's a far cry from being in last place in the A-10 West, as the Hokies were on January 16th, when they were 0-5 in conference and were sinking fast. In their next outing, Tech won an overtime road game at Dayton, and that was when things started to turn around, although no one noticed right away, because massacres at the hands of Xavier and UVa followed.
Regardless of what happens, it's not likely that the Hokies will win the A-10 tournament, because they would have to win four games in four days, and that's almost impossible for a team that hasn't won four games in a row all year, much less on the road and in four days.
Which immediately brings to mind the question of what will happen if the Hokies put together a late-season run without winning the A-10 tourney. Namely, will they have a shot at making the NIT?
Uh no. The devil will be wearing snow booties before this Tech team gets an NIT invitation. Sure, we won it in 1995, but I doubt that'll mean much when it comes to NIT selection time. Remember, the NIT committee is the same bunch that turned down an 18-10 Tech team that had an RPI rating in the 50's in 1994, so don't delude yourself for a second by thinking that they'll choose a Tech team that is scraping .500 and has an RPI rating somewhere in the high hundreds.
No, when push comes to shove, the NIT takes a decidedly northeastern flavor, and will hand out invitations to teams such as Canisius and Manhattan before selecting a down-south team like Tech.
None of which makes this season a bust, not by any means. In late January, Hokie fans weren't screaming for wins so much as they were screaming for signs of improvement, and in the last seven games, five of which Tech has won, the fans have gotten just that. Bobby Hussey has even cracked a few smiles recently, and now he actually gets callers on the Hokie Hotline, instead of having to pass time with Bill Roth talking about various subjects.
The Hokie women's team can now rest for a few days and enjoy their season-ending victory over GW before they have to pick up the basketballs again and play in the A-10 tourney.
Being a #1 seed, Tech gets a first-round bye, which means they'll sit and watch on Friday as other teams duke it out. On Saturday at noon, the Hokies will play the winner of Temple and Dayton, two teams that Tech beat rather handily on three occasions this year.
Temple was a 20-point victim at Cassell on January 24th, and was the team that served up the last win of Tech's 18-game season-opening win streak. Dayton didn't put up much of a fight on January 24th, losing in Cassell to Tech by 17 points, but on January 31st at Dayton, the Flyers almost hung the second straight loss on Tech, leading by eight points before falling to the Hokies, 68-60.
A first-round bye can be a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that your road to the championship is shorter, but the curse is that you have to play your first game against a team that already has a game under their belt and might be in the groove by the time you take the court against them.
If Tech can get past that matchup, a possible third-round rematch with Xavier looms, and I don't mind telling you that Xavier is one team I don't want to play again. The Musketeers present all kinds of matchup problems for the Hokies, and much like Tech seems to have GW's number, Xavier seems to own Tech, the Hokies' recent victory notwithstanding.
But on the Hotline Monday night, Bonnie said words to the effect of, "You never know, maybe the next time we step on the floor with them, we'll beat them by thirty points." One can only hope.
Here's a gloomy thought to mull over: if the Tech women have seemed vulnerable lately, despite the seven game winning streak, you're not imagining things. In their seven victories prior to the Xavier loss, the Hokies won by an average margin of 15 points. None of those wins were closer than 9 points.
In the seven victories since the Xavier loss, Tech has won by an average margin of 10 points. Throw out the 27-point blowout of La Salle, and that average margin shrinks to 7 points. During that stretch, Tech has won one game by 1 point, and two other games by just 2 points.
All of which indicates either a team that is limping to the finish line, or one that has taken every opponent's best shot and has come through it clean. Much like Frank Beamer's football team, this Hokie team is trying to learn to adjust to life as the favorite, the top team that everyone else is gunning for.
When you're the underdog, you catch many teams napping against you, and sometimes, you can beat them, even if you don't put forth your best effort. But when you're ranked and favored every night, you can't let up for a second, because you get every opponent's A-game. For a team like Tech that is new to this role, it is tough, tough, tough to deal with it. Look what almost happened when Tech took a game off against Rhode Island.
As you build a successful program that is predicated on hard work and teamwork, like Frank Beamer and Bonnie Henrickson have done, there comes a time where you're winning and you're "the hunted," but you dont yet have the sheer talent to loaf your way through games, or you'll lose.
Tech's recent football history is littered with embarrassing home losses to pedestrian teams, while over the same time period, they have racked impressive wins against top programs from around the country, often on the road.
Bonnie and her Hokies have gotten a whiff of that this year, tallying up notable wins over Duke, Virginia, and Mississippi State, but often struggling against "lesser" teams.
As time goes by, both Frank and Bonnie will stuff the pipeline with more and better talent, and there will come a point where perhaps their teams can "take a game off" yet still win. Frank already has his two most highly-touted recruiting classes ever ready to suit up, and only the Homecoming games of the future will tell us if we're approaching a new level in football, one that doesn't include barf-bag losses to Temple and Miami of Ohio.
For Bonnie, assuming she stays at Tech, the success of the last two years will start to pay big-time recruiting dividends in the coming years. What high school basketball player wouldn't want to come play in front of crowds that number 5000-8000 fans, for a coach that has winning down to an art form?
But back to the subject, which was tournament play. I think that in order to host some NCAA tournament games, the Hokies may have to win at least one A-10 tournament game, perhaps two. Sportswriters around the region are saying it's already a done deal for the Hokies, regardless of what happens in the A-10 tournament, but I don't trust the women's NCAA selection committee anymore than I trust the men's NIT selection committee.
So I'd like to see at least a 27-2 record from the Hokies, maybe even 28-1, before I start to feel "comfortable" about us being given a top-16 seed (or top 4, if you go by region), and the accompanying home games that come with it.
Questions and Answers:
Many of you are familiar with Hokie Jim's vanity plate project, having been accosted by Jim during tailgates so he can take a picture of your Hokie license plate. Well, after almost two years in the making, Jim's project is complete, and rather than me mucking up the sales pitch, you can head to Jim's web site and take a look at the finished print, which is for sale on the site. Click on over to Vanity Plate Images (that's a "VPI" takeoff) to see something really cool!