Virginia Tech's NCAA tournament chances undone by a weak schedule

By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010; E06

BLACKSBURG, VA. -- Virginia Tech spent the first half of its season stockpiling wins and buffing a gaudy record. But on Sunday, all the wins didn't add up to an NCAA tournament berth.

The Hokies (23-8, 10-6) were left out of the field of 65 for a third straight season largely as a result of a hollow nonconference schedule and a soft ACC slate that featured only a game apiece against the league's top teams.

Virginia Tech will host Quinnipiac on Wednesday in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament.

"One of the things that allows us to distinguish between one team and another, as you well know, is strength of schedule, especially nonconference strength of schedule," Dan Guerrero, the chair of the NCAA division I men's basketball committee and the UCLA athletic director, said Sunday night in a teleconference. "And that was an area that really hurt Virginia Tech as we talked about whether they made the tournament or not."

Virginia Tech became the first ACC team with 10 regular season conference wins to be left out of the field since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

The Hokies finished tied for third in the ACC regular season standings. But the number that mattered most in the eyes of the selection committee was 339. That was the rank of the Hokies' nonconference schedule, out of 347 teams, in the Ratings Percentage Index.

On Sunday night, Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said the committee's standards were erratic from year to year and questioned the selection process.

"We've got to figure out what's the criteria, because the criteria changes," Greenberg said. "Each selection committee has their own criteria and you have no control over you opponents and opponents' opponents winning percentage."

But for as much damage as Virginia Tech's nonconference schedule did to its NCAA tournament chances, the Hokies were on the bubble this weekend before seeing watching burst in a wrenching 48-hour span.

After falling to 12th-seeded Miami on Friday in the ACC tournament, the Hokies found themselves in the spotlight with a handful of teams vying for the final at-large spots. As a bubble team, Virginia Tech couldn't afford having surprise teams win their conference.

Greenberg said he followed Saturday's scores but opted to attend his youngest daughter's volleyball game. With some surprising results on Saturday, the bubble constricted tightly.

Houston upset Texas-El Paso in the Conference USA tournament final. Washington knocked off California in the Pacific-10 championship. And late Saturday night, New Mexico State upset Utah State to win the Western Athletic Conference tournament.

UTEP, Utah State, Minnesota and Florida were all teams in the in-or-out conversation that made the tournament over Virginia Tech. Greenberg declined to discuss teams that received at-large bids.

"I'm not going to take away from someone else's moment by basically berating their invitation to the tournament," he said on Sunday night. "It's not the right thing to do."

With a handful of memorable performances, the Hokies had the makings of a special year after getting off to their best start (12-1) since the 1995-96 season. But they set themselves up for disappointment long before March because nine of their nonconference wins came over teams ranked below the RPI 200. By scheduling the likes of North Carolina Central, Longwood and others, Virginia Tech set positioned itself poorly, because even wins in those games would have had little impact on its credentials. But it also would have been hard to predict that schools like Penn State, last season's NIT winner, would have lost 20 games this year. The Hokies beat Penn State on Dec. 12.

Ed DeChellis, the Nittany Lions' coach, sent Greenberg a text message earlier this year to apologize for "ruining your RPI."

DeChellis's text message proved to be prophetic, and the now Greenberg said he was left to take inventory of the program and make an effort to schedule bigger home-and-home games. He said he has tried unsuccessfully to schedule Gonzaga and West Virginia.

But this season, the Hokies' impressive record meant little as their strength of schedule was a stain on its résumé, and one that was too unsightly to overcome even among a weak at-large pool.

"They took the first two months off and they had a relatively easy conference schedule," Jerry Palm, an independent analyst who runs, said Friday in a telephone interview. "And really, if this were any other year, they'd be way out."

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