Virginia Tech Coach Ricky Stokes knew the challenge when he was named the Hokies' coach four years ago: attempting to take a program that had trouble in the Atlantic 10 and making it competitive in the Big East.
But the struggles have mounted more than expected over the past four years, with attendance down, 11 players transferring out and a handful of losses to teams from lower-tier conferences such as Murray State, Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Wofford.
Though Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver has promised Stokes he will coach the final year of his original contract in the 2003-04 season, both acknowledge there are two surefire ways Stokes can placate the doubters.
One way is for the Hokies to make the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, which includes only the top 12 of the 14-team league and has excluded the Hokies the past two seasons.
The other comes tonight, when an expected sold-out Cassell Coliseum crowd welcomes archrival Virginia.
"It would mean a whole lot," senior guard Brian Chase said. "If we get this game, we have done something we haven't done in a long time. That would pick us up, as would the fans' support. If no other game, that's going to be the biggest game of the year for our fans."
The Hokies (7-8, 1-2 Big East) rarely draw 5,000 to Cassell, even for games against Big East powers, so having 10,000-plus on hand tonight would provide the Hokies with an ideal stage. The past three seasons, Virginia Tech has provided spirited, if unsuccessful, resistance -- including holding a 16-point halftime lead last season before falling, 69-61, in Charlottesville. Virginia (10-5) carries a six-game winning streak in the series.
In Chase's mind, last season's game is typical of the Hokies during the past few years, hanging around against even the Big East's best teams but coming up short in the end. Nine of Virginia Tech's 12 conference losses were by margins of 10 points or less.
"If we take better care of the basketball, execute our plays, we win these games by five instead of losing by 10," Chase said.
Chase (Dunbar High) was one of the last recruits signed by Stokes's predecessor, Bobby Hussey, who was fired in March 1999. Chase honored his commitment, and is the only player to have participated in the entire Stokes era. He played as a freshman during Stokes's first season, when the Hokies went 16-15 in their final Atlantic 10 schedule, and the subsequent 8-19 and 10-18 campaigns in the Big East.
But the Hokies' 2-14 and 4-12 conference records in their first two Big East seasons put them last in the East division, leaving them out of the postseason conference tournament.
"Our goal is to go to Madison Square Garden," Stokes said. "It's not been ideal, no question about it. One of the things you can do is look at the other programs who have moved into the Big East. It doesn't happen overnight. It's not always two steps forward, one step back."
Of the four other additions to the league in the past 12 years, Notre Dame needed six years for a winning conference record, Miami needed seven, and Rutgers has not had a winning league record in seven seasons. Only West Virginia, which went 11-7 in its second season of league play, had quick success.
Stokes acknowledged that the Hokies' current four-game homestand is critical for the team's success and, perhaps, his future. It started off well enough for the Hokies, with a 92-79 victory over Providence on Saturday, and their 1-2 conference record amounts to their best start to a Big East season. After Virginia, St. John's arrives on Saturday and Boston College visits Jan. 29.
Weaver said he will revisit Stokes's situation after the season to see if an extension -- all but essential for recruiting purposes -- would be granted, but he played down the pressure on Stokes.
"I get an e-mail now and then about this," Weaver said. "But it's not to the point that people might think. I just haven't received that great of a response."