- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

Virginia Tech’s first ACC basketball season yielded a string of last-minute victories and an 8-8 record that surprised and impressed many long-time followers of the league.

With similar pluck but considerably less luck, the Hokies’ second season in the conference hasn’t set itself up to be quite as memorable.

Virginia Tech (10-7) ventures to Comcast Center tomorrow after a six-day layoff to face No.22 Maryland, a team that has emphasized defending its home court after league losses at Miami and Duke. The Hokies, meanwhile, need to reverse an 0-4 start in conference play to help revitalize their postseason hopes.

“We’re always looking for the next game, but I think that if we were to get started, this would be a good time for it,” junior forward Coleman Collins said.

The Hokies bring not only the ACC’s lone winless record in league play, but also a squad reeling from non-basketball concerns. Senior forward Allen Calloway was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer last summer. One player’s father is fighting cancer, and another’s guardian died last week. Two reserves are out for the season with injuries.

Even without off-court worries rightfully consuming so much attention, Virginia Tech’s season is already replete with close calls and weird plays. The Hokies were on the verge of an upset of unbeaten Duke last month before Sean Dockery’s halfcourt shot won it for the Blue Devils.

“Those things happen. It’s like the roll of the green in golf,” Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “It can’t be ‘Oh, pity me.’ Life’s not fair. Our team, better than any other team in the country, understands life’s not fair. We have an 18-year-old dealing with his dad [battling cancer]. You can’t find anything more unfair than that.”

Three subsequent league losses weren’t as dramatic, but the Hokies have been close in each of them. Virginia Tech trailed by two with less than a minute left at Florida State and at home against North Carolina before faltering. In Sunday’s 54-49 loss to Virginia, Tech was tied with a minute left before the Cavaliers scored the final five points.

There have been promising signs. Collins (16.9 ppg) is in the midst of a breakout season, while guard Zabian Dowdell (14.9) is enjoying another solid year. Point guard Jamon Gordon leads the league with a 2.46 assist-to-turnover ratio.

“We’re not broken. It’s a play here and a play there,” Greenberg said. “That was the biggest thing. We’re probably four plays from being 4-0, which is [typical] league play in any league. We’ve had a chance to win, and I wanted to make sure our guys understand that.”

Bizarre plays have followed the Hokies throughout the season. Tech scored on its own basket at the buzzer to lose to Bowling Green by one in November. Last month, the Hokies made a shot to pull within one with six seconds left in a loss at Old Dominion, only to be assessed a delay of game technical when Gordon tipped away the ball and it caromed down a tunnel.

Sunday produced two more unusual plays. Collins was fouled on a shot that fell in, but committed goaltending and made only one of the two free throws. Later, Collins had a dunk erased when the ball got caught in the net and popped back out, and Greenberg’s complaints earned him a technical and a four-point swing against the Hokies.

“There’s been all kinds of scenarios that I thought would never happen in basketball,” Collins said. “Lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, so it couldn’t happen too many more times.”

The Hokies still have their flaws. They’ve been outrebounded this season, though that’s no different than last season. Four starters average at least 30 minutes, so fatigue could be a factor later in conference play. However, the recent return of sophomore forward Wynton Witherspoon from a foot injury has added much-needed depth.

Still, Tech’s early hole is large. No ACC team has recovered from an 0-4 start in league play to reach the postseason in nine years. That doesn’t concern Greenberg, who has used this week to improve the Hokies for the dozen remaining conference games.

“There’s 16 separate entities, 16 separate vignettes,” Greenberg said. “One has nothing to do with the other. We can’t get caught up in where we are. At the end of the season, we’ll know.”

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