By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
BLACKSBURG, Va., Feb. 12 -- When Roy Williams and Seth Greenberg shook hands at center court in Cassell Coliseum one month ago, the North Carolina and Virginia Tech coaches chatted for a moment, and Greenberg looked ahead on the schedule.
"I thought we never had to go to Chapel Hill," Greenberg joked.
In the Hokies' two-plus seasons in the ACC, they had never traveled to the Dean E. Smith Center, but Greenberg knew that would change. They will play in Chapel Hill as an ACC school for the first time on Tuesday at 8 p.m., trying to duplicate their earlier upset of North Carolina. The Hokies last played in Chapel Hill in 1976, when the Tar Heels still used cozy Carmichael Auditorium as their home court.
What transpired at Cassell for the two hours following the coaches' pregame handshake may have a significant bearing on the outcome. North Carolina entered the game ranked No. 1 in the country, then fell behind by 22 points and lost, 94-88. Along with jockeying for position in the ACC standings, revenge will be on the Tar Heels' minds.
"I know they'll be waiting on us, anyway, because we beat them," the Hokies' Jamon Gordon said. "Those games get ugly down in Chapel Hill. Any team you lose to, you got to have an edge. I know North Carolina is going to have a chip [on its shoulder]. I know they want to beat us."
In that first game, played on Jan. 13, the Hokies beat the Tar Heels (22-3, 8-2) at their own game. Williams has become known for his fast-tempo, transition offense, but Virginia Tech outscored UNC 19-7 on fast-break points. UNC also utilizes one of the country's deepest, most talented benches, and Virginia Tech's reserves outscored Carolina's 36-23.
Virginia Tech (17-7, 7-3) used the win to build momentum, eventually taking first place in the conference and rising to No. 16 in the rankings. A surprising loss at home to North Carolina State followed by a blowout defeat at Boston College abruptly halted the run.
Greenberg denied the theory that the Hokies let success inflate their collective ego. The Hokies simply didn't play well and they were tired, he maintained. That may have stemmed from Tech's pursuit of its first NCAA tournament berth since 1996. Virginia Tech's veterans are unaccustomed to the feeling of a tournament push, and the stress of dealing with increased expectations and heightened possibility wore on them.
"They are very focused on trying to make the NCAA tournament," Greenberg said. "It's hard to make the NCAA tournament. Our team, this is a new experience for them. If anything, our guys are no different than any of the fans. I guarantee you they know our RPI. They know who we have left on our schedule. They know what Jay Bilas is saying about us. All that wears on you. It's something that they really, really want to accomplish. I think that weighs on our players and everyone around the program."
Does that include the head coach?
"There's no doubt about it," he said. "Me? I'm a neurotic mess anyway. It makes no difference. It wears on everyone."
Virginia Tech used a week off and an 84-57 pummeling of Virginia to recapture the energy it showed during its conference start. Gordon said the key to extending the run against the Tar Heels would be limiting UNC and its towering front court to one shot, and then racing out on the fast break. The Hokies created several fast breaks in the last meeting with defense, making 14 steals.
To contain Carolina's dual inside threats, Tyler Hansbrough and Brandan Wright, freshman Lewis Witcher will see more time, Greenberg said. Witcher has quietly started 18 games this season, providing defensive muscle and a rebounding presence while scoring 3.4 points per game. Witcher sat the entire Virginia game because Greenberg felt he could use forward A.D. Vassallo to create mismatches against Virginia's slower front court. It worked: Vassallo scored 22.
Tuesday's game will assuredly be more difficult, coming on the road against a supremely talented team with something to prove. But the novelty, for now, gives the Hokies something to anticipate.
"I'm looking forward to it a lot," guard Zabian Dowdell said. "That's another big game. We have to try to get one on the road. We know they're going to be a hungry team."