Virginia Tech basketball hopes to avoid another slide off the NCAA tournament bubble

Coach Seth Greenberg on his team's position:
Coach Seth Greenberg on his team's position: "I look at it as we're having an exciting year." (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010

BLACKSBURG, VA. -- While visiting with students at an on-campus dining commons this week, Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg came across a fortune cookie with an inscription that seemed to be written for him. He snatched it and stuffed it into his pocket.

"You may lose the small ones," the fortune said, "but win the big ones."

When the Hokies (22-7, 9-6 ACC) play at Georgia Tech (18-10, 7-8) on Saturday afternoon, it will count as one of the big ones, so Virginia Tech might need the extra luck. A common occurrence in recent seasons, the Hokies will try to play their way into the NCAA tournament in their regular season finale. For the past few years, Virginia Tech has been squarely on the bubble at season's end.

"You'd have to be ignorant not to hear people talking about it," Greenberg said of the in-or-out conversation that always seems to surround his team this time of year. "But to me, if you're on the bubble, it means you're having a pretty good year, because a lot of people aren't having a discussion about being one of the 34 best at-large teams."

With a win over the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta, Virginia Tech can all but secure its first NCAA tournament berth since 2007. A loss, though, would again leave the Hokies in a perilous position as they brace for next week's ACC tournament. They likely would need to pick up at least one more quality win.

"We don't want to live on the bubble," junior guard Malcolm Delaney said. "We're so focused. We know how it feels to be on the other side. We know when we're in the situation like we are now, we're controlling our own destiny."

If the script sounds familiar heading into its final weekend, that's because it is.

Two seasons ago, a handful of bad losses to the likes of Penn State, Old Dominion and Richmond hurt the Hokies. They went only 1-7 against teams ranked in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index that season, and their lone quality win came over Miami in the first round of the ACC tournament.

In the quarterfinals that season, Virginia Tech lost to North Carolina on a last-second shot by Tyler Hansbrough and ended up being left out of the NCAA tournament. After the stomach-churning defeat, Greenberg choked up while speaking with reporters, and in defending his team, he uttered a line so memorable it remains something of his trademark.

"If you don't think this team is one of the top 65 teams in the country," he said, "you're certifiably insane."

Virginia Tech was not as well positioned for an NCAA tournament berth last season. While the Hokies played one of the nation's most difficult schedules, they only went 2-9 against teams in the RPI top 50. Each of the Hokies' final five regular season games were against teams in the RPI top 50, and they lost all but one of them.

Greenberg said such late-season losses gnaw at him while he watches other teams playing in the NCAA tournament. While vacationing in Hutchinson Island, Fla., Greenberg will bring game film from a handful of those losses to "find out how we can get better."

Virginia Tech has been hurt this season by a nonconference schedule that ranks 339th in the RPI. Penn State, Iowa and Georgia have all undercut expectations with surprisingly poor seasons that have hurt the Hokies' nonconference rating, but Virginia Tech has gone only 2-4 against teams in the RPI top 50. Georgia Tech ranks 35th in the RPI.

On Friday night, Greenberg planned to gather his players at the team hotel and show a highlight film from their season to try to help alleviate some pressure surrounding the game and to remind them of what they accomplished to this point.

"We've come so far from where we are the beginning of the season," Greenberg said. "I look at it as we're having an exciting year."

Virginia Tech's cast of talented juniors, all of whom have played in meaningful late-season games, seem well equipped for a tense atmosphere on Saturday, even if none has been to the NCAA tournament since arriving in Blacksburg. But as the Hokies prepared to make the trip to Atlanta, the whole down-to-the-wire scenario felt eerily similar.

"Here we go again," junior swingman Terrell Bell said. "It's déjà vu."

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