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February 12, 2009

Close games create angst for coaches, great theater for hoops fans

By: Jimmy Robertson

February 2 represents Groundhog Day, the time-honored tradition when Punxsutawney Phil waddles out of his cozy burrow on Gobbler’s Knob and predicts the remaining length of winter – which always seems to be six more weeks.

Fifteen years ago, Hollywood became enamored with fuzzy Phil and made a movie about it in which a self-centered weatherman traveled to Gobbler’s Knob to cover the event – and found himself repeating the same day over and over and over.

Seth Greenberg certainly can relate to Bill Murray, the main character in the movie. After all, his team seemingly plays the same, nail-biting, heart-stopping game over and over and over, at least for the most part this season.

Before Tech entered ACC play, it found itself on the wrong end of some razor-thin margins. The Hokies lost on a halfcourt prayer at the buzzer to Xavier, fell by two to the cheese heads from Wisconsin and dropped a one-point decision at Georgia.

Then league play commenced, and the Hokies survived UVa by three points, knocked off No. 1 Wake Forest on the road and squelched Miami in overtime. In the next two games, they let a 15-point bulge slip away against Clemson and lost on a tip-in with less than a second left at BC.

Then they rallied in historical fashion, coming from 18 points in arrears to topple N.C. State – and snap an ugly six-game slide to the Wolfpack in the process.
And that game only marks the halfway point of league play.

“One thing about this league,” Greenberg said. “There is no quit in anyone. You have to put your arms around a game and finish it because the players and the coaches and the environments are so competitive.”

Greenberg can serve as the resident expert in this particular area. After all, just one game prior to the N.C. State game, Tech lost at BC at the buzzer. And after the game, Tech’s coach didn’t sugarcoat – and never does – things to his team.

“We’re going to go through this nine more times this season [the number of regular-season games left],” he told them.

And therein lies the greatness of the ACC. Rare exceptions aside, no one blows anyone out and no one gets blown out. The unexpected is the expected. You think Wake blows out last-place Georgia Tech, right? Or that heavily favored Duke steamrolls Miami at Cameron, no? Well, the Yellow Jackets buzzed the Deacs and Duke needed an extra five minutes to quell the Hurricanes.

The games simply come down to the final ticks, and usually, the team with the last shot carries the day.
In other words, it’s like Groundhog Day, the movie.

This makes for great theater for fans of basketball – none better than what Hokie Nation witnessed against N.C. State. The Hokies now sit right in the middle of this prickly ACC race as this column gets written, and within hailing distance of an NCAA Tournament at-large bid with a few more wins.

Consider nearly a year ago. The tournament selection committee all but cited Tech’s lack of victories over top-50 opponents as the reason for exclusion – the Hokies didn’t get their first top-50 ‘W’ until the ACC Tournament. Now this year, in the middle of the second half of the ACC slate, Tech already has three (at Wake, at Miami and BC).

Their ride to the Big Dance won’t be smooth, though. Tech ends the regular season with a quartet of possible potholes – at Clemson, UNC at home, Duke at home and at Florida State. And while the Hokies possess some talent, they also lack a little leadership.

Before the season, Greenberg pointed out repeatedly that this team was still young and a tad immature. At the time, most dismissed that as coach-speak. Turns out, he was prophetic. A lack of consistency and maturity showed up in back-to-back losses to Clemson and at BC.

That might be the Hokies’ biggest challenge here in the final weeks of the regular-season – avoiding a decimating losing streak. Losses are going to happen in this league. Keeping them to minimum, as simplistic as that sounds, stands as paramount.

“When you play in the ACC, you’re going to have some hiccups,” Greenberg said. “The only way to deal with it is to stay in the present and not let the hiccup snowball. And it can easily snowball in this conference. Let’s get past it, let’s stay in the present and let’s move forward.”

That, obviously, is not easy to do, especially for Greenberg, who takes every loss hard. But he knows the deal in this league, and his players should, too, at this point. One game you lose to BC at the horn. Then the next, you beat a nemesis in overtime.

Every game is the same. Just like Groundhog Day, the movie.

And without giving the ending away, the egocentric weatherman got what he wanted.
In the next few weeks, we’ll find out if the Hokies do as well.