- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

For Gary Williams’ Maryland Terps, just three years removed from an NCAA championship, a berth in the NIT is a bitter pill. But for the Virginia Tech Hokies, who haven’t played in the postseason since 1996, being invited to the Other Tournament is a major thrill. Pill/thrill, half-empty/half-full; it all depends on where you’re from.

In keeping with the spirit of the occasion in Blacksburg, Tech coach Seth Greenberg — along with some boosters — bought 2,400 student tickets to the Hokies’ first-round game against Temple and had them given away yesterday. At $5 a pop, the total tab was $12,000, but the unsinkable Greenberg felt it was the least he could do.

“I came up with the idea,” he said. “I wanted to make sure the students know how much I appreciate their support. They’re a big reason we’re still playing. It’s also a way to remind them — since alumni are contributing to this — that they’ll be alumni soon, too, and that there’s a partnership between the alumni and the student body.”

There is, indeed. Shortly after 9 a.m., a fan posted this advisory to students on a Hokies Web site: “My husband just called from the line in front of the ticket office at Cassell [Coliseum to inform her of the giveaway]. … So, hurry over soon and get your free tickets and the rest of us ‘old folks’ will gladly buy ours. Go Hokies!”

Virginia Tech’s first season in the ACC has been a lovefest from start to finish. Greenberg’s no-name squad somehow finished ahead of the highly touted Terps with an 8-8 conference record and are 15-13 overall. Cassell, meanwhile, was routinely packed and seems destined to become, once again, one of college basketball’s pre-eminent pits. Duke lost there. N.C. State lost there. Maryland lost there.

And now the Hokies are NIT-bound — and loving it. Hey, why not? Some of the program’s finest hours have come in the tournament. Tech won the whole thing in ‘73 (defeating its four opponents by an almost impossible five total points), took the title again in ‘95 and placed third in ‘84. As for Greenberg, he’s enjoying one of the fringe benefits of coaching in the ACC — as opposed to, say, the Big West. In his five previous trips to the NIT as a head coach, three with Long Beach State and two with South Florida, he never had a home game. His teams had to travel to Stanford, Arizona State, Hawaii, TCU, New Mexico and, the ultimate indignity, David Letterman University (aka Ball State).

But tonight he’ll have the Cassell kooks behind him, 9,847 strong — and 2,400 of them will be there on his (and his booster buddies’) dime. Think they might raise a bit of a racket? You almost feel sorry for John Chaney, who will be returning to the Temple bench after serving a five-game suspension for Goongate. My friend Robert, the Hokies zealot, wonders whether there isn’t “a slight potential for a Woody Hayes-like moment for coach Chaney. … All tickets for the game are general admission, so it will be like the old Metro Conference days where the students occupied at least one side of the lower bowl — as opposed to now, where they are behind the basket closest to the visitors bench.”

(One of the subplots of this NIT — imagine an NIT with a subplot! — is: Will Chaney end up playing Saint Joseph’s, the team he sicked his arm-breaker on last month? The tournament’s organizers put some distance between the two schools, bracket-wise, but not as much as you would have thought. The Owls and Hawks could meet in the semifinals.)

Virginia Tech, of course, will have something to say about that tonight, when it unleashes Zabian Dowdell and Co. on the Chaney Gang. Should the Hokies get past Temple, Memphis likely awaits, followed by — just guessing here — Indiana in the quarters, Notre Dame in the semis and Maryland in the final.

Greenberg was too immersed yesterday in the intricacies of the Owls’ 2-3 matchup zone to look beyond the immediate. But just getting ready for a game like this, after taking over Tech’s moribund program a mere two years ago, gives him a warm feeling.

“We haven’t been to 11 straight NCAA tournaments,” he said. “There’s a process to building, and it doesn’t happen overnight. But we’ve given the fans some hope. This is a proud place. People love this place, and we’ve shown them we can build something here.”

The NCAAs are for the Dukes, the Kentuckys and the Connecticuts. The NIT is for the would-be Dukes, Kentuckys and Connecticuts — the Nebraskas (NIT champ, 1996), the Southern Mississippis (NIT champ, 1987) and, yes, the Virginia Techs. The NIT is for the real dreamers.

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