CHARLOTTE — There might be an extra layer of hype to the Virginia-Virginia Tech rivalry for fans at the start of the college basketball season, with both men’s teams ranked in the Associated Press preseason poll for the first time in 23 years. But players and coaches on both sides said Wednesday at ACC basketball media day that they approach their matchups with elevated passion regardless.
“They could not be ranked. We could not be ranked. We’re still going in there like, ‘We’ve got to have this game,’ ” Virginia Tech graduate guard-forward Ty Outlaw said. “People in Blacksburg tell us, ‘Even if you don’t win any games this season, beat them.’ ”
Virginia, ranked fifth entering the season, ascended to No. 1 in the country last season for the first time since 1982, became the first team to go 9-0 on the road in the grueling ACC and earned the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
No. 15 Virginia Tech, meantime, reached the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time since the 1980s. A third straight NCAA tournament berth would mark a first in program history.
“I think I have a right to say this: Preseason rankings, postseason rankings, seeding means nothing, really,” Cavaliers Coach Tony Bennett said at Wednesday’s event at Spectrum Center, where the Cavaliers then became the first No. 1 NCAA tournament seed to lose to a No. 16 in a stunning 74-54 upset by Maryland-Baltimore County. “Funny story. We’re flying here and we’re talking about that, if any team or any coaches know what the number is before the name.
“Specifically about Virginia Tech, I know they’re good because of the players they have back and [Coach] Buzz [Williams] and they’re staff. They’re really good, and so I think that’s always a great rivalry, but the league will be deep, and I think most coaches say the rankings, especially early, whatever.”
Last season, Virginia’s only conference loss over the 18-game schedule came against the Hokies, 61-60, in overtime at John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers, then ranked No. 2, had won 15 in a row before that game.
Kyle Guy, Virginia’s leading scorer last season with 14.1 points per game, said of the rivalry: “Students buy into it so much that it just really brings a different competitive nature. And now that they’re ranked, I think they absolutely deserve it because they’re bringing a lot back.”
Five of the Hokies’ top six scorers are back, including point guard Justin Robinson and forward Kerry Blackshear, whose basket with eight seconds left in overtime was the difference in the game against Virginia last season.
Robinson was voted second-team all-ACC after averaging 14 points and 5.6 assists. Blackshear averaged 12.5 points, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (10.7) and Ahmed Hill (10.6) also averaged double figures.
“Like every time we go somewhere, ‘Just beat U-Va.,' ” Hill said. “That’s how we look at it.”