“We’re very surprised. We didn’t expect to come out this way,” sophomore Jarell Eddie said Tuesday. “We wasn’t planning on this at all.”
The Hokies entered ACC play with an 11-3 record and a six-game winning streak. But now, instead of worrying about its perpetual spot on the NCAA tournament bubble, Virginia Tech is left to consider if it can finish above .500. To top it off, the Hokies are about to encounter the toughest portion of their schedule.
Starting with Thursday night’s matchup at home against No. 8 North Carolina, Virginia Tech’s next five games include three top 15 teams (No. 15 Virginia and No. 4 Duke are the others), another ranked in the Ratings Percentage Index top 50 (BYU) and a road trip to Maryland.
It begged the question this week whether, in retrospect, Greenberg thinks his team’s early-season success was a mirage. After all, Virginia Tech’s best win this year according to the RPI came against Norfolk State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
“The one thing I wasn’t fooling myself — I know how green we are,” Greenberg said. “Was it fool’s gold? Winning at Oklahoma State [on Dec. 31] is hard, that’s a hard place to win. Playing Syracuse the way we played them, that showed promise. But it’s a long season and these young guys having to be ready to play every night is a new experience. . . . If you look around the country, probably excluding Kentucky, there’s a learning curve for young players. That’s just the way it is.”
Greenberg believes his team lacks toughness right now, and though they want to play hard, “I don’t think they understand competing at the level I want them competing at.” That could explain why in five of their six losses, the Hokies have had the lead in the second half at some point.
It is, however, those close calls that have helped buoy Virginia Tech the past few days as it prepares for a North Carolina squad hungry to erase the memories from an embarrassing 33-point loss at Florida State on Saturday.
As Eddie put it Tuesday: “We’re good enough to beat anyone. We’re still confident and still believe we can contend with anyone we play against.”
The Hokies will also get a boost with the return of starting point guard Erick Green. The team’s leading scorer at 16.1 points per game, he missed Virginia Tech’s 61-59 loss at Boston College this past weekend with a left knee sprain but is expected to play Thursday.
Green’s presence is vital considering how much the Hokies have struggled to score of late. They have yet to put up more than 60 points or shoot better than 40 percent in an ACC game this year, and committed a season-high 17 turnovers without Green against the Eagles.
Facing North Carolina’s dynamic lineup, that sort of production could result in a blowout loss. The Tar Heels feature three players (Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Dumfries native Kendall Marshall) named to the Wooden Award midseason watch list this week as candidates for national player of the year.
But Greenberg has been able to take solace in the fact that the Hokies have yet to look overmatched this season. Their three recent losses have come by a combined nine points.
“It’s not like we’re way off,” Greenberg said. “It’s not doom and gloom around here. If we were getting whacked by 30 and 40 against whoever we were playing, I could see that. We also have a lot of positive things going on.”