It's a script we've all become familiar with.
The Virginia Tech basketball team makes a desperate run towards the NCAA tournament, only to be denied in the final weeks—even with signature ACC wins.
The Hokies have simply been unable to avoid the out-of-conference landmines.
Granted, their overall record is not that bad. The past three seasons Virginia Tech has a combined record of 28-13 in out-of-conference games, but some unforgivable losses these past few years really put the Hokies behind the eight-ball heading into the brutal ACC, where the Hokies are 26-22 in the same stretch.
Last season the Hokies were 9-4 prior to ACC play, and although those four losses were by a combined eight points, it also meant that Virginia Tech's best win was against St. John's. That kind of a victory is not exactly something that will impress the selection committee.
Well, imagine the surprise of everyone—particularly for a team most people considered an afterthought—to see the Hokies flipping the script this season.
Virginia Tech is flying under the radar this season at 12-1, close to the Top 25 and beginning to make waves in college basketball. With the ACC season on the horizon, the Hokies are in great shape to return to the Big Dance this season.
They even registered a signature victory this season over Seton Hall this past weekend. Even without the ACC's leading scorer in Malcolm Delaney, the Hokies were able to escape in overtime against a Big East foe who has scared a few conference powers already this season.
So, all is well with the Hokies, right? Maybe.
Despite the great start, questions still remain as to how good the Hokies really are. A victory over Seton Hall looks good, but if the Pirates cannot translate these close losses into wins, then that win will lose its luster.
The only other big victory was a close decision on the road to Penn State. While we know Talor Battle is a gamer, the Nittany Lions are also a big question mark heading into Big 10 play.
I never claim to be a guy for statistics and formulas, but the Hokie offense is ranked 138th according to the latest Pomeroy rankings. That ranks them next to last in the ACC on offense, but their 11th-ranked defense has definitely turned heads.
Considering that the ACC's calling card is usually high-flying offense (in contrast to the grind it out Big East or Big Ten style), does this spell doom for the Hokies this season?
Whether people want to believe or not, the Hokies are going to be a factor in the ACC. Perhaps expectations were lower this season, but Virginia Tech has proven that when they need to play well they can do it. When adversity has appeared, the Hokies have responded not by folding up like a lawn chair, but by actually putting games away.
Consider that last year Virginia Tech was 6-8 in games decided by six points or less. This year, the Hokies are 4-0 in those games.
This disparity really exemplifies two things.
First, the Hokies are putting teams away early. When you note that Virginia Tech won its first two games last season against Gardner-Webb and Mount St. Mary's by a combined eight points, it seems clear that the Hokies were keeping teams in the game.
Champions find ways to put opponents away early, and, even if they have not been knocking off basketball giants, it is important to see that eight of Virginia Tech's 12 wins have been by double digits. Last year only four wins by double-digits in the out-of-conference schedule for the Hokies.
Second, the Hokies are learning how to win close games. Go ahead and think back to Virginia Tech basketball, and the images most people remember outside of Blacksburg are not good ones.
Sean Dockery's miracle shot at Cameron Indoor, Wake's big shot to win their first ACC game without Skip Prosser, and Clemson stealing a victory at Cassell to deny the Hokies a share of the ACC regular season title in 2007 are just a few that come to mind.
So close and yet so far for Hokie fans—but those heartaches may finally bear fruit this season as this team appears to not only handle these situations but thrive in them.
We all know that Delaney and Jeff Allen were going to be strong contributors, but Dorenzo Hudson has truly emerged as a prime-time player.
Even before his Seton Hall performance, Hudson had critical moments against Iowa and Penn State—securing not only big shots but big rebounds to keep the opponent at bay. Twice in the final two minutes Hudson secured a key rebound to hold the Nittany Lions from having a chance to take the lead.
After a 41-point performance against the Pirates, Virginia Tech has proven that they have players who can step up in the ACC when they are needed. Fortunately, that time is now for the Hokie basketball team, as they open conference play against the defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels.
This will be the opportunity for Virginia Tech to prove to the nation that they are worthy of their record and can really compete with the big boys. Although the Hokies have lost the past four games against the Tar Heels, the last three have been by single digits.
Is this the year those close losses translate into close wins? Will this also be the season that the Hokies avoid playing down to the competition?
If the first two months are any indication, the answer seems clear.
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