Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Forget bubble, think bubbly

BLACKSBURG -- Forget bubbles and brackets and ballpark figures. Virginia Tech's goal should now be to win the ACC.

Crazy? Impulsive? Unrealistic? No. Look at the conference standings. Top three: Duke (9-2), Wake Forest (8-3), Hokies (7-3). They're right there. With both of those teams ahead of them on the schedule.

At times you watch this team and wonder how that could be so, how a group that shoots so poorly and routinely gets beat on the boards could remain in the discussion, but that's just what the Hokies do.

They hang around.

They battle.

They win.

"Our resiliency is almost mind-boggling to me," Tech coach Seth Greenberg said late Saturday, after the Hokies finished a season sweep of Virginia, 61-55. "I couldn't be more proud of how we're winning."

It's not always easy to watch. A game pitting the top two scoring defenses in the ACC began with Tech shooting an airball and UVa missing a dunk, and it didn't get much prettier from there. The halftime score looked like a Pac-10 football tally. Neither team shot 40 percent from the floor overall.

In other words, the Cavaliers lobbed one right into the Hokies' wheelhouse.

"I look at Michigan State," Greenberg said. "They've been to a lot of Final Fours winning ugly."

The coach quickly added that he doesn't consider his squad to be at that level, but you don't need to be Final Four-caliber to win the ACC this year. You need only to get hot.

The three hottest teams in the conference are Duke, Wake and Tech. Each has won four in a row. The Hokies get the Demon Deacons at home on Tuesday. Win that -- and they should be favored to do so -- and they're all alone in second.

Then the Hokies travel to Durham a week from today for their only game against the Blue Devils. Win that -- which they won't be favored to do -- and the Hokies are no worse than tied for first with four games to play.

Challenging? Absolutely. But possible.

"From Day 1, I thought we could win this league," Tech point guard Malcolm Delaney said. "I said at ACC media day that this league was wide open, and people laughed at me. But I think you're starting to see that now."

He's right. And had the Cavaliers pulled this one off, we could have had a similar discussion about them. Their closing schedule is more daunting -- Saturday began a stretch of three games over five days and five games over 11 days for UVa -- but a victory over Tech would have moved the Cavs to 6-3 in the league, right in the mix.

Instead, they're back in the jumble with Clemson and Florida State. It'll take all they have to stay in the top half of the conference over the final three weeks. That's how vital this one was, and everyone knew it.

"It separates us," Delaney said.

Know what else can separate Tech from that fray? Jeff Allen. His ceiling is higher than anybody on the roster, including the fabulous Delaney. And when the Hokies needed him most Saturday, he delivered.

In the final three minutes, Allen tied the game once and gave Tech the lead twice. His flurry of three-point plays -- one the old-fashioned way, the other a bomb from the wing -- turned a 51-48 deficit into a 54-51 lead.

It turned a nervous Cassell Coliseum into a delirious chamber of noise.

It turned a squad with bubble issues into a team with title hopes.

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