GREENSBORO, N.C. —- The natural inclination of a college basketball player is to assume the best will happen.
Of course things will work out.
Of course the next shot will fall.
Of course an NCAA tournament berth will be granted to a team with the ultimate borderline profile.
Certainty can erode, of course, when the worst repeatedly unfolds.
Such is the psychological state of Virginia Tech guard Malcolm Delaney entering 24 hours of anxiety. The sixth-seeded Hokies fell 77-63 to second-seeded Duke in the ACC semifinals, neither making a substantial push nor getting run out of the Greensboro Coliseum in what amounted to their final chance to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee.
Deep down, Delaney surely hopes he finally slips into the NCAA tournament as a senior. But after endure a miserable March three years running, he’s not banking on it.
“People who watched that team with the limited numbers we had and what we went through, they would know we’re one of the top teams to get in the tournament,” Delaney said. “But I won’t believe we’re getting in until our name name is called. I’m not going to bed thinking we’re in. I’m going to think the worst and hope we come out with the best tomorrow.”
Such is the fate of most associated with the Hokies (21-11), who beat Georgia Tech and Florida State with only seven scholarship players before sputtering against the imposing Blue Devils (29-4).
It had the look of a tired, short-handed team and a possible national title contender throughout. Duke guard Nolan Smith shrugged off a toe injury and scored 27 points. Delaney and Erick Green were harassed into a 2-for-12 afternoon beyond the 3-point line. Virginia Tech forward Jeff Allen was slapped with a technical foul for elbowing and eventually fouled out with 6:29 to go.
And Duke was Duke, never permitting the Hokies to close within less than six points in the second half while efficiently sapping Virginia Tech’s chances of advancing to Sunday’s title game against North Carolina.
“We needed to play well, not just hard,” coach Seth Greenberg said. “I thought we played really hard. Unfortunately, we didn’t play as well today.”
And so precisely four months after its season began, Virginia Tech sits in its familiar mid-March perch: Waiting for the selection committee to render its verdict.
It didn’t work out in 2008, when Greenberg memorably used his postgame press conference after a ACC semifinal loss to blurt out it would take someone “certifiably insane” to leave the Hokies out. There was no NCAA berth, and no reported commitment of selectors to sanitariums, either.
The next two years were also close calls, particularly the 2010 team zapped in large part because of its marginal nonconference schedule and ACC tournament flameout.
Neither factor can be held against these Hokies. But the scars remain, and they manifest themselves in different ways.
Greenberg, burned by his cheeky outburst three years ago, said all the right things —- while still plugging an up-and-down team hoping its late victories over Duke (regular season) and Florida State (ACC tournament) provide just enough of a bump to nudge the Hokies into the field.
“We’re proud of our body of work, but certain things are out of control,” Greenberg said. “I would hope that this team presented itself in a manner that they would be given an opportunity with three seniors and what they’ve accomplished to be in the tournament. We don’t have any say in that. If we did, it would be great.”
Alas, Greenberg will commence with the Hokies’ annual wait. Unlike Delaney, he doesn’t figure to sleep Saturday. Yet there’s also an upbeat tone, a bit of positivity as Virginia Tech goes through its usual exercise.
“I’m going to think the best, quite honestly,” Greenberg said.
Sitting beside him, Delaney repeatedly —- almost violently —- shook his head with disagreement. Things didn’t work out for the Hokies his first three seasons, and they didn’t again on Saturday. Virginia Tech’s season arcs throughout Delaney’s career are remarkably similar and the endings identical. This one wasn’t much different.
Sunday, he’ll learn if his wariness is warranted or if at long last, he and the Hokies will have finally done just enough to play on in a meaningful manner.
—- Patrick Stevens