Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Tough-luck losses taunt Hokies

BLACKSBURG -- This was one of those games where if you're a fan, you usually applaud the effort, shrug and go home.


Virginia Tech basketball is almost always entertaining these days, and Monday was no exception. Against a Wisconsin team on the fringe of the Top 25, the Hokies fought back from 13 points down with 18 minutes to go, nine points down with 12 minutes to go, six points down with 3 minutes to go and three points down with 11 seconds to go. They were beaten a dozen times, it seemed, but always came back.

In other words, the Hokies battled like crazy. They showed you some grit. But they lost 74-72 on a last-second jumper by Trevon Hughes, a top-notch player in the Big Ten. It happens.

Applaud, shrug and go home. Right?

Not this time. This time, it felt bigger than that. And here's why: The Hokies never led. And now, once again, they're playing this season from behind.

Tech coach Seth Greenberg says you can't play your way into or out of the NCAA tournament in December. True enough. But what you can do is craft a cushion, store up some margin for error. And for the second straight year, the Hokies are letting that opportunity escape.

What kept them out of the tournament last year? The heartbreaker at Clemson? The blowout loss in Chapel Hill? The Tyler Hansbrough dagger in the ACC Tournament?

In a way, sure. A victory in any of those games probably would have locked up a bid. But they were so close to an at-large berth that they probably could have gotten in despite those losses had they not suffered three straight defeats -- to Butler, Gonzaga and Penn State -- during the nonconference schedule.

Unfortunately for the Hokies, it's happening again. A half-court buzzer-beater by Xavier stunned them in Puerto Rico. A four-point loss to Seton Hall followed. And now this: A tough-luck home loss to the Badgers, another near miss against a solid opponent.

"We're going to have plenty of chances to get top-50 wins," Greenberg said. "We've lost two games on the last play of the game. Does that mean we're a bad team? I don't think so."

Nobody's saying that. Tech has a legitimate star in senior A.D. Vassallo, who scored a career-high 30 points Monday, and a promising young nucleus led by post man Jeff Allen. Basically, this is the same team -- minus Deron Washington -- that was so good at the end of last year. The NCAA is and should be the goal.

But Tech is quickly becoming a team that's going to need a monster ACC season to reach that goal.

"We play in a league where we could get 10 teams [into the NCAAs]," Greenberg said. "Go through our league. Who's bad? Tell me who's bad."

And that's the good news? Yikes.

You get the feeling the Hokies would have won Monday had they simply taken the lead. The crowd was ready to explode all night. But despite the comeback, they couldn't ever get an edge.

"We never did?" Vassallo said. "Oh, man. I didn't even realize that."

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan did. And he's glad it didn't change.

"How would our young guys [have] reacted to that?" he said of Tech taking the lead. "I didn't want to find out. It's tough enough being tied."

Even tougher being behind. And once again, Tech is getting to know that role a little too well.

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