Sunday, March 06, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Tech's tank is sitting on empty

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Manny Atkins walked out of the Virginia Tech locker room after Saturday's 69-60 loss to Clemson and let out a sigh.

"Tired," he said.

"Everybody's dead," he added later. "No legs."

An excuse? No, a reason.

We wondered where the wall was, and now we know. The Hokies have reached it, slammed into it, and their NCAA hopes might be flattened because of it.

Four days after falling to Boston College in the first round of the Bubble Invitational, Tech got stiff-armed again in the second round. The games had some commonalities -- huge first-half struggles that made you wonder where their heads were, mid-game rallies that generated some hope, and, ultimately, final scores that made the other guys smile.

This is Tech's first two-game losing streak of the conference season, and it's no mystery why it's coming now.

The minutes have piled up for the starters. All five have averaged more than 31 per game since conference play started, with Malcolm Delaney the ACC leader at a tick under 39. (Clemson, by comparison, has only two players averaging at least 30.)

But there's more to it than just minutes. The physical and emotional strain of playing game after game with a "must-win" banner flying overhead seems to have sapped these guys of their on-court chemistry. Tech had just nine assisted baskets against Clemson and six against BC. Against Maryland on Feb. 15, the Hokies had 19.

Every night can't be like last Saturday, where the home crowd is going insane and imbuing these guys with energy. Starting last Tuesday and going through whenever this season ends, that would have to come from within.

So far, the Hokies have been reaching around for that reserve fuel and haven't found it.

On Saturday, a team with only eight healthy scholarship players effectively had only six. Jarell Eddie didn't play because of what Seth Greenberg termed a "coach's decision." He declined to elaborate.

Greenberg only played Tyrone Garland for three minutes, sitting the backup guard down after he committed two turnovers.

And that's the problem which finally caught Tech by the tail: the Hokies have nowhere to turn when things go sour. Jeff Allen was suffering through one of the most difficult stretches of his career in the first half Saturday. He still played 19 minutes in it, though, because there was nowhere else to go.

Erick Green -- whose leadership, poise and scoring punch have been this season's most pleasant surprise -- simply didn't have it on Saturday. He made just two of his 13 shots en route to seven points, his lowest output in a month. But what is Tech supposed to do? Bench him and let him collect his thoughts?

After missing back-to-back open looks at one point in the second half, Green backpedaled toward his defensive position, drawing in deep breaths to try to ease the frustration.

If the sophomore was tired, well, that would make sense. Clemson sent waves of defenders at him and Delaney, making it difficult for the Hokies to get into their offense without a struggle. That's by design; other teams know a short bench when they see one.

"I think they were definitely worn down," Clemson guard Demontez Stitt said. "That's why they missed shots at the end -- they didn't have their legs."

Will they have them by Thursday? As they departed that somber locker room, the Hokies promised they would. They'll get some rest, stay out of the downtown scene, focus on getting the wind back.

Logic, though, tells you they'll need at least two victories in the ACC Tournament to get back in the NCAA discussion. If they couldn't go 1-for-2 on the must-win circuit this week (with one of those games at home), are we to believe they can go 2-for-2 on a neutral floor?

The Hokies needed the ACC Tournament bye more than any other team in the league, and they knew it.

The fact that they couldn't secure it says something about the comparative quality of Clemson and Boston College. But it also says a lot about how much Tech has left in the tank.

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