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Posted at 04:47 PM ET, 01/06/2012

Virginia Tech basketball vs. Wake Forest: Hokies begin ACC play with NCAA tournament still in sight

One of Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg’s favorite lines during the early portions of this season has been to remind reporters that his nine-man rotation includes six players who essentially did not play college basketball a year ago.

But with his team 11-3 entering ACC play Saturday at Wake Forest, Greenberg is beginning to realize his young squad could surprise some people this winter even though the Hokies didn’t score a marquee nonconference win once again.

“At the end of the day, we will not use our inexperience as an excuse,” he said this week. “We don’t have that experience but we do have trust and we do have pieces. . . . I think we have a good spirit and that spirit enables us to get better.”

As is tradition in Blacksburg now, the Hokies find themselves squarely on the bubble entering conference season. They are currently ranked No. 37 in the RPI, and The Post’s Eric Prisbell projects Virginia Tech as a 10-seed in his initial NCAA tournament projections.

But Virginia Tech has just one RPI top 50 win — over Norfolk State, which will soon fall out of the top 50 once it begins play in the MEAC — and one top 100 win over St. Bonaventure. The Hokies also have two wins over Oklahoma State – a neutral-court victory at Madison Square Garden and last Saturday’s triumph in Stillwater, Okla. Both should help because they happened away from Cassell Coliseum, but the Cowboys are No. 111 in the RPI and aren’t expected to be an upper-echelon Big 12 team this year.

The good news is that Virginia Tech has 12 more games against top 100 opponents remaining, starting with Saturday’s matchup against the Demon Deacons in Winston-Salem, N.C. In fact, the month of January will likely be a deciding factor in whether the Hokies can make a run to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.

Six of Virginia Tech’s seven games this month come against teams currently ranked in the RPI top 100, including a rare January nonconference game against BYU (13-4 record, No. 46 in the RPI). Greenberg hasn’t even mentioned the postseason yet to reporters this year, and thinks his squad still has a lot of room for improvement.

“We’re a long way from where we need to be. We still have to get a lot tougher than we are right now,” he said this week. “There are areas in terms of execution that we need to improve on, but as a group we have nine guys that on any given night someone can step up and help us win a game. That’s a luxury.”

This deeper rotation, it seems, is what separates these Hokies from some of Greenberg’s teams of the recent past. Virginia Tech has had eight players register at least eight points at some point this season.

As expected, junior guard Erick Green (15.5 points, 3.2 assists per game) has emerged as the team’s leading scorer and best overall player, but it has been the development of sophomores Jarell Eddie and Cadarian Raines that has the Hokies poised to challenge for a top-four finish in a weak ACC this year.

Eddie has become a valuable commodity because of his ability to knock down shots. He’s shooting a team-high 52.5 percent from three-point range so far, and helped pick up the scoring slack when senior Dorenzo Hudson went in a mini-slump around finals time last month.

Raines, a 6-foot-9 forward, has provided the sort of energy boost and interior presence the Hokies lacked off the bench a year ago. Raines has oftentimes outplayed senior starter Victor Davila and is averaging five points and 4.4 rebounds despite receiving just more than 15 minutes per game.

The team’s freshmen have also played exceedingly well through 14 games, though each have had their own bouts with inconsistency. Highly-touted forward Dorian Finney-Smith is the team’s leading rebounder at 8.2 per game, and Greenberg has begun running more and more offense through him lately. Finney-Smith is averaging 7.6 points per game, but Greenberg would like to see him become even more assertive on the floor.

Shooting guard Robert Brown is the team’s fourth-leading scorer at 8.6 points per game, and has shown off the sort of offensive skill set that indicates he could be a star in the near future. He has, however, been a liability at times on the defensive end of the floor. Forward C.J. Barksdale has also played well in limited minutes, averaging 3.5 points and 3.4 rebounds. Guard Marquis Rankin has shown few effects from the minor knee surgery that sidelined him for the first seven games of the season.

Whether all of this means the Hokies will finally get over the hump and into the NCAA tournament remains to be seen (and quite frankly, any Virginia Tech fan trying to gauge Selection Sunday worthiness now really hasn’t learned anything the past few years). But the path to March Madness begins in full Saturday with Wake Forest.

The Demon Deacons are currently No. 97 in the RPI and look to be improved from the dreadful squad that went 1-15 in the ACC during Coach Jeff Bzedelik’s first season. With a 9-5 record so far, they already have one more win than a year ago.

But Wake Forest is also coming off a four-point defeat to Wofford on Monday, its third loss this season to a team with an RPI ranking worse than 100. The Demon Deacons are led by guard C.J. Harris (18.7 points per game) and forward Travis McKie (17.9 points per game), two players Greenberg tried to recruit to Virginia Tech that are currently No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in the ACC in scoring.

By Mark Giannotto  |  04:47 PM ET, 01/06/2012

 
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