- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Virginia Tech guard Zabian Dowdell pushed the button for the elevator in his team’s hotel yesterday morning. When it arrived and the door opened, he did a double-take.

“I look inside and said, ‘Whoa, what is going on here?’ ” Dowdell said. “We can’t get away from them.”

Virginia coach Dave Leitao was standing in front of him.

It is fitting the Cavaliers and Hokies are at the same NCAA tournament site and even in the same hotel considering they have been on the same path all season. The only two major conference programs from the commonwealth both have enjoyed resurgent seasons after prolonged NCAA tournament droughts.

The pair from the ACC will share the spotlight inside Nationwide Arena today as they finally return to the NCAA tournament.

Virginia, which tied for first in the conference in the regular season, is in the field for the first time since 2001. The Cavaliers (20-10) were given a large amount of respect from the selection committee as the fourth seed in the South Region and will meet No. 13 Albany in the first round.

“It’s been a rough four years, but right now it’s been a great opportunity for our team,” Cavaliers senior guard J.R. Reynolds said before a shootaround in the arena. “You’ve just got to have fun because this could be your last game. And for me, it is going to be a very special day.”

The Cavaliers’ tournament-less stretch is nothing compared to the Hokies’ hiatus. Virginia Tech had not made the tournament since 1996. Since then, the Hokies have switched leagues twice.

Virginia Tech (21-11) also received a high mark from the selection committee with the fifth seed in the West Region. The Hokies will face No. 12 Illinois in the first round.

“It’s been a long four years,” said Dowdell, a senior and first-team All-ACC selection. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been here. We don’t want to just be the other team’s opponent; we want to come in here and have success.”

The two Virginia squads even have similar strengths with talented, experienced backcourts under the tutelage of coaches who have arrived in the past four years. Virginia has all-conference guard Sean Singletary, a junior, alongside Reynolds with coach Dave Leitao in only his second season in Charlottesville.

The Hokies are led by the senior backcourt of Jamon Gordon and Dowdell. Coach Seth Greenberg is in his fourth season in Blacksburg.

“Obviously, we are excited for our senior backcourt and our upperclassmen who have been through so much and helped kind of create a renaissance of Virginia Tech basketball,” said Greenberg, whose team finished tied for third in the ACC during the regular season in its third year since leaving the Big East. “They came in with very little expectations and were able to create a culture.”

Virginia hasn’t had to switch conferences, but it has had to overcome its share of painful setbacks. Coach Jeff Jones was fired after the 1997-98 season. Three years earlier, he had led the Cavaliers within one win of the Final Four. Pete Gillen was brought in to revive the program but was ousted after the 2004-05 season after failing to reach the tournament for four straight seasons.

The Cavaliers’ comeback season coincided with the opening of $130 million John Paul Jones Arena. Virginia posted a 16-1 record in the building, including an 8-0 mark in ACC games, as attendance increased by more than 6,000 a night compared to the final season at University Hall. The Cavaliers had last won or shared the top spot in the ACC regular season in 1995, when they were part of a four-way tie.

“The atmosphere has really changed,” Singletary said. “People want to come see us play because of the way we play. We see people wearing Virginia basketball jerseys. We had a packed house [against Virginia Tech]. It is a great feeling.”

After the Hokies routed Virginia in Blacksburg, the Cavaliers won at home in the rematch in the final week of the regular season. Today, they’re in the same place again.

“Hopefully we have maybe changed the perception [of Virginia] a lot from a few years ago,” said Leitao, the ACC coach of the year. “Virginia Tech has done the same things.”

Said Greenberg: “It seems like we keep running into each other.”

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