Virginia Tech junior Erick Green sat in the stands of an empty Cassell Coliseum on Tuesday and started to reflect on a month that, until Sunday, had not gone as planned. He first talked of how his younger teammates were told all along just how hard ACC play would be, and yet they were still surprised when the Hokies started January with four straight conference losses.
“They were probably like, ‘Yeah it ain’t gonna be like that.’ I was the same way,” Green said.
But Virginia Tech’s leading scorer and starting point guard didn’t dwell long on that thought, not after the Hokies scored their biggest win of the season in a 47-45 upset at No. 19 Virginia on Sunday night. As Green surveyed the empty court in front of him, he had already begun visualizing the potential for Virginia Tech’s next win and what it could mean for a season that seemed to be a lost cause only a few days earlier.
“We always sit down and look at the schedule and there’s some people that think we’re counted out,” Green said. “But beating U-Va. has been a turning point. It gave us confidence and it’s given us a chance to turn it around and get everyone up and going. I think [Wednesday], if we can get this one, it’s gonna be a big turnaround.”
The Cougars sport a 17-5 record during their first season as a member of the West Coast Conference and are currently No. 54 in the Ratings Percentage Index. The Hokies, meantime, are No. 70 in the RPI as of Wednesday morning, more than 20 spots higher than they were before upsetting the Cavaliers.
Like Virginia Tech, BYU has yet to defeat an opponent currently ranked in the RPI top 50. The Cougars only lost by three to No. 6 Baylor, but they also have confounding losses to Loyola-Marymount and Utah State on their record.
Regardless, this would easily be the Hokies’ best nonconference win of the year.
“As I look back on it now, I wish we had some bomb on our off week, but this is surely not a bomb. They’re a really good team,” Coach Seth Greenberg said this week, adding that next year’s return game in Salt Lake City will take place over winter break.
The Cougars no longer have dynamic guard Jimmer Fredette on the roster, but they do have three significant contributors back from last year’s Sweet 16 team. Forwards Noah Hartsock (team-high 17.5 points, 5.4 rebounds), Brandon Davies (14.1 points, 8.1 rebounds) and Charles Abouo (11.5 points, 6.1 rebounds) will present a difficult challenge for Virginia Tech’s front court, which held Virginia’s Mike Scott to just 10 points and six rebounds last Sunday but got manhandled by North Carolina the game before.
Speaking of the Tar Heels, that’s the team Greenberg has been comparing to the Cougars all week because of the way they attack in transition. BYU leads the WCC in possessions per game and ranks 12th in the country at 80 points per game. The Cougars have also attempted 426 three-pointers this year – almost 100 more than Virginia Tech — and UCLA transfer Matt Carlino (12.6 points) and guard Brock Zylstra are both hitting 42.6 percent of their shots from long range so far.
The Hokies will need to be better offensively than they have been in quite some time, even if they’re able to slow the tempo a bit. Virginia Tech finally did shoot better than 40 percent at Virginia on Sunday for the first time all month, but it still managed only 47 points. The Hokies have averaged just 57.6 points per game in ACC play, second worst in the conference behind the Cavaliers.
But more important to Greenberg is how his team will hold up against BYU’s maturity. Carlino is the only Cougars starter who isn’t at least four years removed from their senior year of high school. Virginia Tech is relying on six players in the midst of receiving significant playing time at the college level for the first time.
“When you’re playing the BYUs and Utah State schools that have players that go on missions, you’re not playing kids, you’re playing men,” Greenberg said. “You’re talking about a group of guys that have returned from a Mormon mission that are 23, 24 years old. It’s like playing in an adult league in a lot of ways.”
One positive in Virginia Tech’s favor is that BYU, which is 0-8 all-time against ACC foes, is in the midst of a brutal stretch. After traveling nearly 2,000 miles for their first East Coast trip of the season, the Cougars return home to Provo, Utah, for games with Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, the two best teams in the WCC this year.
But after a disastrous start to January, the Hokies aren’t taking anything for granted anymore.
“Once you finally get in here and it’s a grind, you’re gonna fight,” Green said. “Every loose ball means something. If you miss a block out, it’s gonna hurt you. I think the young guys are finally starting to realize that everything we do in practice means something in this college game.”