- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

Contrary to popular belief, they field a basketball squad at Frank Beamer U. And lately, Virginia Tech has been playing hoops pretty well, too.

“Everyone talked about Virginia Tech getting into the ACC and isn’t it great with Frank Beamer and the bowl games,” basketball coach Seth Greenberg said. “And we were a throw in. People were like, ‘Yeah, it’s great that they are in the ACC, but they are not going to be competitive.’ ”

It was no surprise Virginia Tech was forecast to be fodder in its inaugural ACC campaign. The Hokies barely broke a run of six losing seasons last year with a 15-14 record. They reached no postseason tournament since 1996, had little experience and were jumping from the Big East to the ACC.

Virginia Tech was picked to finish 10th in the 11-team conference.

“I was hoping we could get sixth or seventh.” said forward Coleman Collins, one of three sophomores who start along with a freshman and a senior. “I thought we could definitely surprise some people.”

The Hokies probably surprised even themselves by finishing tied for fourth place and earning a first-round bye in the ACC tournament.

Virginia Tech stunned fifth-ranked Duke, Maryland and Georgia Tech on its way to an 8-8 ACC regular-season. Now the fourth-seeded Hokies will shoot for another surprise when they play fifth-seeded Georgia Tech in an ACC quarterfinal today at MCI Center.

“If someone would have told us at the beginning of the season that we would have eight wins in the ACC and not be playing on Thursday [in the opening round], I would have said, ‘That would be a pretty good thing,’ ” Greenberg said. “And that guy would have a pretty good imagination.”

Some incurable optimists are now envisioning the Hokies in the NCAA tournament, although an at-large bid would seem highly unlikely because of their overall 15-12 record and an abysmal 120 RPI following bad early-season losses to VMI, St. John’s and Western Michigan.

The Hokies’ hopes rest on the ACC’s history of getting teams with 8-8 league records into the NCAAs. Seven of the nine who finished .500 in the league since 1992 have been selected, with only Virginia (1992) and Georgia Tech (1995) left out.

Tech has gotten this far with a strong backcourt and some dominating rebounding performances. The Hokies beat Duke 49-32 on the glass and won 67-66 on Zabian Dowdell’s 3-pointer with 16 seconds left.

Collins, an undersized big man at 6-foot-8, 228 pounds, had 18 rebounds that night and 15 more when the Hokies outrebounded the Terrapins 45-33 last Saturday.

“The thing they’re missing is the big, strong guy in the middle,” Terps coach Gary Williams said, “but other than that, they’re as good as anybody else position by position.”

Dowdell averages a team-high 14.9 points while making 44.3 percent of his 3-pointers. Carlos Dixon, the Hokies’ lone senior, averages 13.9 points and sinks 41.4 percent of his 3-pointers.

The Hokies’ turnaround came after a 6-6 start. Collins played the first seven games with a cyst on a foot that eventually required surgery and forced him to miss two games. Virginia Tech had lost four of five after blowing a late lead at Florida State on Jan. 8. The Hokies then put together a five-game winning streak, including four in the ACC.

“Coleman came back, and we simplified some things. We threw out everything except our straight man-to-man [defense] and said, ‘Let’s get good at something.’ And we got a better flow to what we were doing.”

The Hokies gained recognition with victories over N.C. State and at Georgia Tech but then lost by 35 points at Duke on Jan. 30. It was not until the Blue Devils came to Blacksburg two weeks later for the Hokies’ first nationally televised game that many skeptics took notice.

A packed house in Cassell Coliseum went nuts as the Hokies toppled the ACC bluebloods.

“Duke is the standard by which we are all measured in this league,” Greenberg said. “They are the Yankees. It validated our vision. That’s probably the most gratifying thing about our Duke win — that they [almost] never lose to somebody they are not supposed to. To get our guys to play at their level of intensity, that was satisfying to me.”

“We had to slap everybody in the face again, and prove to them again that we can play,” Dowdell said. “We are not one of those teams that has a great history of winning. I think that plays a major part in how people perceive us. Until we create a history for ourselves, we are going to be doubted. This is the beginning of our history.”

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