Virginia Tech, struggling to stay respectable only a few weeks ago, has surprised just about everyone but Coach Charles Moir on its way to the NCAA basketball tournament.

The Gobblers, after playing like so many turkeys in losing eight of 12 games during one miserable midseason stretch, now are champions of the Metro Conference and only one victory from playing top-ranked Indiana State on national television.

"It's hard for some people to believe, but I knew we had it in us," said Moir. "I said all along that if we play to our full potential, we can beat anyone."

By winning their conference tournament last Saturday, the Gobblers got an automatic bid to the Ncaa/ tournament.

The Metro Conference has a first-round bye in the 40-team tournament, but it went to at-large entrant Louisville, 23-7. The Cardinals were seeded third in the Midwest Regional. Virginia Tech (21-8) is eighth-seeded Jacksonville (19-10) in the first round Friday night at 8:05 in Lawrence, Kan.

The winner will play undefeated Indiana State in a nationally televised second-round game Sunday afternoon at Lawrence, with that winner advancing to the regional semifinals March 15 in Cincinnati.

"It would be a great opportunity for us to play Indiana State," Moir said, "but I know Jacksonville has a good club and you can't look past anybody at this stage of the game."

From the beginning, it has been an unusual season for the Gobblers. This was their first year in the Metro Conference and they were ineligible for the regular-season championship because the only conference teams on their schedule were Louisville, St. Louis and Cincinnati.

The conference designated six other games -- two with Virginia, two with West Virginia, one with Richmond and one with North Carolina State -- to count as conference games.

In those 10 games, the Gobblers won four and lost six. They were seeded fourth in the conference tournament.

They played Cincinnati in the first round, winning, 80-74. They upset Louisville, 72-68, in the semifinal, then beat Florida State, 68-60, for the championship.

Virginia Tech now has won eight straight. It started the season by winning nine in a row, but promptly lost eight of its next 12.

The Gobblers weren't losing to any lightweights. Among those losses were setbacks to North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia twice, Louisville and St. Bonaventure.

"We learned a lot while losing," said guard Marshall Ashford.

"We were confident and cocky when we won those first eight," said another player. "Nor, we're just confident."

Virginia Tech basically plays a man-to-man team defense and prefers to run on offense, as evidenced by its 83 point-per-game average. The Gobblers occasionally run a little too much to suit Moir, but they showed welcome patience in the Metro tournament.

The key man in the Tech attack is 6-foot-8 1/2, 235-pound freshman center Dale Solomon from Annapolis.

He was the conference tournament's most valuable player, the first freshman to earn the honor. Solomon did not play in the first tournament game because of the death of his grandmother. He played in Memphis, the site of the tournament, for the Louis-ville game, however, and helped beat the highly favored Cardinals with 28 points and nine rebounds.

The next night he had 21 points and nine rebounds in the championship game.

For the season, the muscular Solomon averaged 17.8 points and eight rebounds and shot 57 percent. He was the conference's freshman of the year and a first team all-conference selection.

Solomon was not highly recruited out of Annapolis High School, but after a year at Fork Union Military Academy near Portsmouth, Va., he developed into a highly recreuited blue chipper.

"I knew he was a great player but I had no idea he would do all of the things he has done this year," Moir said. "And he's improving all the time."

Still, the Gobblers are not a oneman team. Junior Forward Wayne Robinson (6-9 1/2) averages 14 points and 9.2 rebounds and the other forward, 6-7 Les Henson, averages 12.3 points and 4.4 rebounds.

The starting guards are 6-1 sophomore Dexter Reid, an 8.1 points-a-game scorer and clever assist man, and 6-2 senior Ashford, with an 11-point average.

The top Virginia Tech reserves are 6-6 senior George Price, a starter a year ago, and 6-3 Chris Scott, a junior from Fairfax.

The Gobblers' other prize freshman, 6-4 sharpshooter Jeff Schneider, fractured his cheekbone in the first game of the Metro Conference tournament and it is doubtful he will play in the NCAA tournament.