Friday, March 13, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Yes, it's the same Virginia Tech ACC tournament story

ATLANTA -- Welcome to last year.

Same convincing debut victory. Same sense of win-or-else. Same talk about knowing the enemy and relishing the opportunity.

"Same script," Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said Thursday, after his Hokies decked Miami 65-47 in the opening round of the ACC Tournament. "Hopefully different ending."

Any differences between Tech's situation in the 2008 ACC Tournament and their current position are slight. Like Coke vs. Coke Zero. "Black Sheep" vs. "Tommy Boy." Madea Simmons vs. Ernest P. Worrell.

(OK, perhaps that last one's a stretch. But both serial movie characters went a lot of different places and eventually wound up going to jail.)

Guard Malcolm Delaney says this win was a lot better than last year's quarterfinal victory over Miami, and it was better. But only slightly.

This might have been the Hokies' finest performance all year. They shot well. They defended masterfully. They started fast and never trailed. Jeff Allen played alertly, J.T. Thompson contributed plenty off the bench and Delaney -- despite missing nine of 10 shots -- thrived in the role of distributor and pace-setter

But let's not degrade last year's win over Miami. The Hokies whacked the Hurricanes 63-49 in that one, restoring their confidence after a bitter loss against Clemson in the regular-season finale.

Both Miami maulings left the Hokies in the same spot -- within view of the NCAA tournament door, needing only to get past North Carolina to slide through it.

But the Tar Heels are one monster of a castle guard. Like last year, they're ranked No. 1, loaded and rested. And like last year, the Hokies will view them the only way they can -- as mortals who hold their ticket to the party.

"You're playing the best team in the country," Greenberg told his players, last year and this. "And you have an opportunity to do something special."

They almost pulled it off last year, of course. They outplayed Carolina for most of the game and trailed for only 1 minute, 32 seconds.

Unfortunately for Tech, Wayne Ellington and Tyler Hansbrough made sure the final buzzer was part of that span.

"Heartbreaker," Delaney said. "I don't even want to talk about that. I think last year, that was probably the best game we played all year."

They'll need another one like it to have a chance at noon today, but they might be getting a break. UNC point guard Ty Lawson, the ACC player of the year, has been battling a toe injury and could barely walk earlier this week. The Tar Heels -- virtually assured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, regardless of what happens here -- could hold him out all or part of the game to prepare him for a run at the national title.

"In my opinion, he's the best player in the country," Delaney said. "Their transition game is pretty much nothing without him. He's the fastest player in the country with the ball."

The Hokies aren't intimidated by UNC. They played the Tar Heels evenly most of the game last week in Blacksburg before succumbing in the final minutes. A.D. Vassallo, Cheick Diakite and Lewis Witcher have beaten them twice in their careers. And Tech's grueling late-season schedule, along with plenty of ups and downs throughout the year, have steeled them.

"We've been through pretty much every type of game," Delaney said. "That's what's going to prepare us for tomorrow. I don't think too many teams have had the type of season we've had, with the close losses, half-court shots, stuff like that."

Welcome to last year. Because just like then, all of the wavering could disappear with one momentous win.

When Tech didn't get it in 2008, Greenberg delivered an impassioned speech about how the Hokies belonged in the NCAAs.

You remember the one. "Certifiably insane" and all that.

Asked if he had a similar exhortation planned for this year, Greenberg smiled.

"Nah," he said. "I'll let you guys do that."

No need. It's pretty simple, really: Win or head to the NIT.

Just like last year -- until noon today, when the Hokies decide if the paths diverge.

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