Monday, December 6, 1999

Brace Yourself -- Here it Comes

Now that Tech's invitation to the national championship game is in the books, we can finally talk about what it means to actually be a part of that game.

And the first thought that comes to mind for me is, Man the hype is going to be incredible.

We've all lived this scenario for years: bowl bids are announced in late November/early December, and for the following 5-6 weeks, until the championship game is played, college football fans are bombarded with hype, hype, and more hype about the championship game.

Since the advent of the Bowl Alliance, which later morphed into the BCS, and since ABC and ESPN took nearly total control of televising college football bowl games and started promoting them with a cohesive effort, the hype has cranked up to unbelievable levels.

Let's say you're an ECU fan, and your team is playing in this year's inaugural Mobile Alabama Bowl on December 22nd on ESPN2. During half time of your game, do you think the ESPN talking heads will talk about Tech's Sugar Bowl matchup with Florida State? You bet. Same for the Motor City Bowl, the Holiday Bowl, and the Peach Bowl. All of 'em.

Fess up -- over the last few years, as the Hokies have participated in the Sugar, Orange, Gator and Music City bowls, you as a Hokie fan have done a slow burn over the month-long championship game hype, hoping against all hope that some day the Hokies would be in that game and would be the object of constant attention.

Even when the Hokies were in the Sugar and Orange Bowls, their games received almost no attention from the powerful, two-headed ESPN/ABC monster. The reasons why were multi-faceted, but one big reason was because although those games were Alliance Bowls, they weren't the national championship game.

We discovered something interesting in 1995 and 1996 -- Alliance/BCS bowls are nice, but the lion's share of the hype is reserved for the game that decides the national champion.

Well, guess what: this year, it's the Hokies who get to live in that magical kingdom of hype. Virginia Tech will play in the national championship game! Pinch me, I must be dreaming.

Certainly, this year in Tech football has generated untold mountains of publicity and hype, but you ain't seen nothin' yet. Stay tuned, and prepare to get deluged with Hokie hype, and I don't mean on a local level, which went bananas weeks ago. I mean on the national level.

Remember when you used to watch all the bowl games and college football studio shows, hanging on them for any mention of Tech and their bowl game? Maybe you missed one, and the next day, a Hokie buddy of yours at work would say, "Hey, Jim Nance said during the Sun Bowl that he thought we might win our bowl game. Did you see it?" And if you didn't, you would be disappointed.

Well, there's no way you'll be able to keep up with all the articles and talking heads that will be chatting up the Hokies for the next month. Pity poor Bill Camp, who goes by "HokiefromWV" and puts together the VT Hokie News web links for HokieCentral. By the end of this month, he'll be a worn-out shell of a man, exhausted from trying to chase down all the Sugar Bowl stories.

Enjoy it, Hokie fans. The team, the coaching staff, and the athletic department has earned it. I'm not going to give you that old line about "this may never happen" again, because, well, I thought the same thing after the 1995 Sugar Bowl, and look how wrong I was.

But one thing is true: it will never happen again for the first time. So live it up.

Men's Hoops Much Improved

Let's take a break from the Sugar Bowl hysteria to talk Hokie men's basketball. I went to see Tech play UNC-Charlotte on Saturday and came away satisfied.

Sure, Tech won, 60-52, over a solid UNCC team that has gone to three straight NCAA tournaments. So of course I was satisfied.

But I was looking for more than just a W. I wanted to observe the team's level of effort, its focus, and its intensity, all of which had been severely lacking in their previous game, an embarrassing road loss to ETSU.

More so than that, I was there to cast the microscope on the behavior of Dennis Mims and Rolan Roberts. Mims, a talented sophomore, had picked up two technical fouls in the Hokies' first two games and has generally displayed a wild side since arriving at Tech last year.

As for Rolan, even as a junior, he was spending way too much time glaring at the refs and complaining about calls and no-calls, as opposed to focusing on the game he was supposed to be playing. Roberts is a great physical talent, but on the court, he lacks discipline -- and a good free-throw shooting percentage. It was getting frustrating watching Tech's star player spend his energy in the wrong direction, projecting it at the striped shirts.

Tech's frontcourt duo of Mims and Roberts destroyed UNCC all by themselves, scoring 42 of Tech's 60 points (Roberts had 25, Mims 17) and snaring 15 of Tech's 34 rebounds (Mims had 11). Between the two of them, they shot 16-25 from the field and 9-13 from the free throw line. But what was more impressive than their statistics was the way they went about gathering those statistics. Both young men channeled themselves and played at the top of their games.

I didn't see Roberts glare at the refs a single time all game long, despite picking up three fouls, and Mims similarly played under control. Roberts had four monster dunks worthy of celebration (including one jam over a UNCC player that nearly brought the house down), but not once did he play up to the crowd or talk trash to the opposition. He celebrated with his teammates and pumped his fists, but that was it.

As for Mims, he too played under control. For the first time since I've started watching Dennis Mims, I actually left Cassell Coliseum thinking about his development as a basketball player (he's got a baseline move that he can't hit with regularity yet, but you can tell he likes it and is working on it) as opposed to his tendency to wear his shirt untucked and play without discipline.

All this sounds critical of Dennis and Rolan, and I suppose it is. But the simple fact is that this is a team without many standouts -- the guard positions are still suffering from the losses of Jenis Grindstaff and Kenny Harrell. But Roberts and Mims are ACC-caliber players, and for this team to be successful, they need to be on top of their games, and unless you play with discipline and focus, you can't be.

Ricky Stokes understands this, and it's too early to tell if this game was just an aberration, or if he's getting the message through to Rolan and Dennis that they need to play with poise. But on Saturday, I saw two star players maximizing their potential, and that's a good sign.

As for the rest of the game (click here for stats from The USA Today), the Hokies played great defense, shutting down UNCC's leading scorer, Jobey Thomas, who only had 7 points on 2-11 shooting. UNCC shot only 31.6% (18-57), and the Hokies outrebounded them 39-37, despite the presence of UNCC players who stood 7-0, 6-9, 6-5, 6-5, and 6-5.

Tech didn't get many points from the guard spot, but that's not a surprise. Ricky Stokes needs some shooters. Freshman Tony Dobbins was out with a bad back, and Brendan Dunlop, Andre Ray, Drew Smith, and Rodrigo Viegas went 3-13 from the field for 10 points.

Based on the early returns, the Hokies are somewhat thin at the guard spot, but Roberts and Mims are high-caliber players. If Dunlop stays steady and Mims and Roberts continue to play well, 15-18 wins is achievable, maybe more.


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