Virginia Tech basketball finds itself in a familiar position: at Clemson, on the bubble

"I really don't think about it," said senior Terrell Bell, above, of the Hokies' seemingly perennial seat on the NCAA tournament bubble.
"I really don't think about it," said senior Terrell Bell, above, of the Hokies' seemingly perennial seat on the NCAA tournament bubble. (Don Petersen)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2011

CLEMSON, S.C. - Senior Terrell Bell asked to have the question repeated to make sure he understood correctly: Could he fathom the notion that Virginia Tech's current crop of seniors - Bell, Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen - might go their entire career without making the NCAA tournament?

After gathering his thoughts for a second, Bell gave an answer that provided a glimpse into how four consecutive years on the bubble has hardened this group of Hokies as they prepare for what could be a make-or-break regular season finale at Clemson on Saturday.

"I really don't think about it," Bell replied. "Honestly, the NCAA tournament is the furthest thing from my mind now. I still got Clemson and then the ACC tournament. The main thing is to get wins. If we play hard and get wins, the rest of it will take care of itself. That's what happened after Duke; after the win, they said we were in the tournament."

Bell was referencing ESPN personality Dick Vitale's reaction to Virginia Tech's upset of then-No. 1 Duke last Saturday. During a postgame interview with Hokies Coach Seth Greenberg, Vitale exclaimed, "Put your dancing shoes on!"

Even as Vitale said it, though, Greenberg could only muster a lukewarm smile. He knows better than to make any definitive declarations about the NCAA tournament before Selection Sunday.

"I love Dick to death. . . . I think he's great for college basketball," Greenberg said Thursday. "But every day it's gonna change. That's the way it is. You just deal with it. It's almost comical."

If this all seems like deja vu, that's because for Virginia Tech's seniors, it really is. Almost three years ago to the day - when Delaney, Allen and Bell were freshmen - they closed the regular season at No. 24 Clemson. And like this year's team, the Hokies sat squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble at the time.

That game, though, ended in heartbreak as Virginia Tech's A.D. Vassallo fouled the Tigers' Demontez Stitt with two seconds left. Stitt sank both free throws, Clemson scored a one-point victory and a week later the Hokies didn't hear their name called on Selection Sunday.

The stakes are even higher this time around, with the Tigers (19-10, 8-7 ACC) also in desperate need of a victory to boost their NCAA tournament chances. Both Clemson and Virginia Tech (19-9, 9-6) sport similar rsums - the Hokies were No. 63 in the RPI as of Friday; the Tigers were No. 64 - and have the same amount of wins over teams in the RPI top 50 (two) and RPI top 100 (seven).

Not to mention the winner of Saturday's matchup will clinch a bye in the first round of next week's ACC tournament. If the Hokies defeat Clemson and Florida State loses to North Carolina State on Saturday, Virginia Tech would earn the No. 3 seed. A Virginia Tech loss, coupled with a Boston College victory over Wake Forest, would drop the Hokies to the No. 6 seed.

Perhaps the Hokies wouldn't be facing this bubble talk again had they backed up that upset over Duke with a victory over Boston College on senior night this past Tuesday. But Virginia Tech came out sluggish and suffered an uninspired 76-61 defeat.

As Greenberg took his three seniors out in the waning moments of that disappointing setback, he told each of them, "We've got some great opportunities down the road and we'll bus down to Clemson and try to get a road win."

That, though, was his only mention this week of the treacherous path that Virginia Tech faces for a fourth consecutive year.

"We don't talk about the pressures. It's not in our discussions. It's not like, 'We have to win this game or [ESPN bracketologist] Joe Lunardi still has us as a nine [seed],' " Greenberg said. "I don't have to bring that up because . . . unless you live in a bubble, you're hearing it every time you turn around anyways. So what's the difference? They know the deal and they're gonna try as hard as they can."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company