By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Seth Greenberg was conducting his weekly radio show from a Blacksburg restaurant on Feb. 23, but his eyes were fixed on a television displaying the Georgetown-Louisville game. The Virginia Tech coach observed the effect of life on the NCAA tournament bubble as the Hoyas played on edge, with every possession seemingly serving as a referendum on the team's postseason livelihood.
Two days later, the Hokies beat then-No. 12 Clemson. Before the game, Greenberg warned his players not to make too much of NCAA tournament predictions, and they played with the sense of ease that Greenberg wanted after watching Georgetown falter under pressure. Immediately after the game, however, Virginia Tech's players wondered aloud how their win would look on their NCAA tournament résumé. They thought they needed just one more victory in their final three games.
The first opportunity went unfulfilled when the Hokies lost to No. 7 Duke on Saturday, and things won't be much easier when the Hokies host No. 2 North Carolina on Wednesday and visit No. 24 Florida State on Sunday. If Virginia Tech fails to win either game, it likely will need to upset a higher-ranked team at the ACC tournament in Atlanta or else spend Selection Sunday with the same anxiety that accompanied the Hokies' perceived snub last season.
"It's human nature. They know they're 40 minutes from getting a bid," Greenberg said. "They know what's at stake, but you can't obsess over the process."
Greenberg said before the season that being a part of bubble discussions still means the team has had a good season. The Hokies will feel more comfortable if they do earn one more win, but few bubble teams would likely have success hosting the Tar Heels and visiting the Seminoles.
"Virginia Tech has had a great year. They've been in hellacious games," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "But because of the skewed schedule, you can't look at conference records the same way, either. Because who have they played? Say Virginia Tech gets up to 8-8. What if they end up 7-9? What if they end up 9-7 and there's no sweat?
"But my feeling is, the top eight teams in our league, they all need to be in. And let's see what happens with Miami, Maryland. There might be nine, depending on these last few games. But it should have nothing to do with conference records. I think that's just such a big mistake."
The different opinions and contrasting projections mean Greenberg has become as much psychologist as basketball coach. He said it is simply human nature that the players hear discussions about the NCAA tournament. Forward J.T. Thompson tried playing coy, but admitted he has been unable to ignore prognostications about the Hokies' tournament standing.
"Everybody's saying: 'We don't want to go back to the NIT. We want to make the tournament,' " Thompson said. "I glance once in a while. I really don't know too much about who loses or who's in. But I like to see if they say we're going to be in every now and then."
Greenberg has managed to avoid the speculation. He said he does not spend "an ounce of energy" worrying about it, because neither his opinion nor the opinions of basketball analysts count when the brackets are formed.
Greenberg considers some of the formulas discussed "ridiculous," such as a team's record in the final 10 games. The Hokies' final five games are all against teams that are currently ranked, and it is conceivable that Virginia Tech will finish the regular season with seven losses in its final 10 games. Most mock brackets identify how many bids a conference earns, and the Hokies are stuck with a handful of middle-of-the-pack ACC foes on the bubble.
"What should happen in the NCAA tournament is once you get your conference champions, from then on, it doesn't matter what you do in your conference," Krzyzewski said. "It matters what you've done in your whole season. To put another criteria in, like what you've done in your last 10 games, what you're conference record is, it's wrong. Because not everybody plays the same last 10 games, not everybody is in the same conference. But everybody plays the whole season."
Greenberg's task is to ensure that his players expend their energies less on what is said and more on what they can control. He said his message to the team before the North Carolina game will be to play off instincts and allow the winning -- or losing -- to take care of itself. If it works and the Hokies win, the discussions Greenberg wants his players to avoid will become moot.
"That's what we're telling ourselves," Thompson said. "We just have to get it done."