Jamon Gordon and Zabian Dowdell sat in the apartment they share on Virginia Tech's campus and stared at the television Sunday, doing something they never thought they would. The Maryland men's basketball team was coming back against North Carolina, and if it could somehow spring the upset, Virginia Tech and Virginia would again be tied for first place in the ACC.
"Jamon had a tough time cheering for Maryland," Dowdell said. "Because he hates Maryland."
Sitting in a chair with a basketball in his lap Tuesday, Dowdell smiled, remembering the moment. During his freshman season, he rooted for teams to win so the Hokies could eke out a spot in the Big East tournament. Important ACC contests were of little significance to him for the past two seasons, Virginia Tech's first two in the conference.
Now players for Virginia Tech and Virginia watch each game with bated breath, knowing the results will affect their seasons, as Carolina's loss at Maryland certainly did. The upset set up a monster game at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville tonight, perhaps the most high-profile men's basketball game ever played between two teams from Virginia. It's another sign that, for at least this season, the ACC's balance of power has spread north. Three teams are tied for first place, and two of them are from the Commonwealth.
"It's good for both schools, it's good for the ACC, it's good basketball in the state, " Hokies Coach Seth Greenberg said. "To play a game of this significance this time of the year, the environment is going to be electric. This game is huge. It's fun. It's exciting. You coach your team to put yourself in a position to win a championship. We're 80 minutes away. So is Virginia."
Virginia, unlike Virginia Tech, will need help to claim the regular season title. The Hokies hold the upper hand in the chase for the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament next week because of tiebreakers. Virginia Tech swept North Carolina this season and blew out the Cavaliers in their first meeting. Because Virginia lost to UNC, it must win its final two games and hope Carolina the Tar Heels lose either tonight at Georgia Tech or Sunday against Duke.
Both Virginia schools have already clinched a top-four finish in the league and the conference tournament bye that comes with it, huge steps for teams that have combined for one NCAA tournament appearance this decade, Virginia's berth in 2001. Both teams have secured NCAA tournament bids, the first time since 1986 both schools will make the tournament in the same year.
The jockeying for seeding has created odd bedfellows -- such as Gordon rooting for the Terrapins -- for both teams.
"Last year we were watching and thinking: 'We're just as good as these teams. They're ranked. Why are we not ranked? Why are we losing all the close games?' " Hokies guard Markus Sailes said. "To actually watch it and think, 'All right, if Carolina wins it affects us,' it felt good to know that. Instead of wishing we're in that predicament, now we're there living it."
The Hokies and Cavaliers have arrived at their shared perch in strikingly similar fashion. They have ridden elite back courts (Dowdell and Gordon for Virginia Tech; Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds for Virginia). They have notched defining victories (Carolina twice and at Duke for Virginia Tech; Arizona and Duke for Virginia) to go with baffling losses (to North Carolina State twice and Marshall for Virginia Tech; to Miami and Utah for Virginia).
And they have ACC coach of the year candidates patrolling the bench. Virginia Tech under Greenberg, in his fourth season, and Virginia under Dave Leitao, in his second, have risen to the top of the ACC sooner than most observers would have guessed.
That's particularly true for Virginia Tech, which is in its third season in the conference after arriving as an afterthought to the football team. Greenberg hoped the basketball team would ascend in the ACC as the football team did in the Big East, and so far it has.
"I'm not sure people thought, when we came in this league . . . we'd be in the upper division for a good, long while," Greenberg said. "All we're trying to do is create a winning culture -- playing together, playing hard, player development. That's what we've been able to do. But still, it's a long process. We're battling 50 years of tradition. We're trying to catch up in three. We're taking baby steps. But we're making progress."
The game that flickered on the TV sets of the Hokies on Sunday symbolized that progress, because it mattered. After the final horn blared, Sailes's cellphone started buzzing. His father was on the phone, and he wanted to talk about first place.
"You wanted it, now you got it," Sailes recalled his father saying. "Now what are you going to do with it?"