Sunday, November 15, 2009
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Early slate of hoops are worth watching

Typically, nonconference play in college basketball is a lot like YouTube.

Occasionally you'll come across a pre-January game worth watching -- an instant classic such as "Dramatic Prairie Dog" or "Boom Goes the Dynamite" -- but mostly it's a lot of filler.

Twenty-second clips of cats sitting on couches, drunk people singing, that sort of stuff.

Better to wait for a link from a trusted friend, because searching for gems is not worth your time.

But this year feels different around here, because it is different around here. And as local teams started tipping off Friday -- with Virginia Tech joining the party at home today -- there are plenty of reasons to pay attention early, even as the biggest nights of conference action remain weeks away.

Consider:

  • At Radford, where the Highlanders topped Navy in Friday's opener, the defending Big South champions bring back the core of an NCAA tournament team that is an overwhelming favorite to win the league again.

Some of their most consequential games before the Big South tournament, then, could come in the next few weeks.

A lackluster nonconference record set up a first-round matchup with North Carolina last season, the kind of death-wish seeding the Highlanders want to avoid this year.

And with games scheduled at Duke, Kansas and Louisville all before New Year's Day, Radford has three shots to pull the kind of upset VMI did last season at Kentucky, which makes the university the center of the sports world for a night.

  • Does VMI have any thrills left now that the Holmes twins are gone? Friday's victory over Army was a good start for the retooling Keydets.

With that gung-ho offense, games next month against the Hokies and Seton Hall could be interesting.

  • Virginia's nonconference slate -- which began with a win over Longwood on Friday in Charlottesville -- won't make anybody do cartwheels, but that never matters when a new coach comes to town.

Not only will we get a clearer vision of Tony Bennett's style of play, but we'll also see just how much damage was done by the previous administration. And whatever happens, we'll get a reminder of how quickly -- or not-so-quickly -- things can be turned around, lessons that will be valuable this winter as the football situation shakes out.

Bennett's team was picked to finish 11th in the ACC preseason poll. In this year's case, that's all the more reason to tune in before January.

  • The Hokies lie somewhere in the middle here. Most consider them a fringe candidate for the NCAA tournament -- they were chosen eighth in the ACC preseason poll -- and the bubble has been a familiar spot for them come March.

Coach Seth Greenberg frequently says that nobody makes the tournament in December, and he's right. But you can play your way out with a poor start. The ACC is too strong of a league to bank on any February miracles.

So Tech's got to snag these winnable games -- now, next week, and beyond.

"I definitely have learned that those first couple games are serious and are crucial for us to win," said Tech forward Lewis Witcher, a senior who has seen the Hokies drop early nonleague games to Georgia, Seton Hall, Richmond, Old Dominion and others. "Sometimes in the past couple years, we've slipped up and lost some of those games, and those games are the ones that could have helped us get into the tournament."

Junior guard Malcolm Delaney said the team has a chance to make an unbeaten run through the nonconference slate.

The most difficult games figure to be against Temple in Philadelphia, at Iowa, against Georgia in Blacksburg and against Seton Hall in Cancun, Mexico.

"It's definitely an opportunity for us to step up," Delaney said. "There's a lot of people talking about basketball now.

"Before, it was just like, 'What football game are you going to?' Basketball was secondary after football season. But I think people are starting to get more excited about basketball now because of the opportunity that we have just to put Virginia Tech on the map by having a good year in basketball.

"We've just got to prove to the fans that we can."

That effort starts today. And this year, it's definitely worth an early look.

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