Consistency and reliability are a way of life in bucolic Blacksburg, Va., in particular when it comes to Virginia Tech sports. Each fall, Hokies fans can count on coach Frank Beamer's football team to contend for an ACC title and BCS bowl berth. And each March, like clockwork, coach Seth Greenberg's hoops team gets left out of the NCAA tournament.
"When [Greenberg] retires," CollegeRPI.com's Jerry Palm said, "they ought to name the bubble after him."
It really is a remarkable and bizarre streak. The Hokies last reached the tourney in 2007, as a comfortable No. 5 seed. In each of the past three seasons, however, they've spent the last month hovering on the bubble, decent enough to merit discussion right up through the start of CBS' selection show, but not distinguished enough to hear their name called. Greenberg in turn has become synonymous for his 11th-hour sound bytes, like declaring in 2008 that the committee members would be "certifiably insane" if they didn't think the Hokies belonged in the field. Turns out that's precisely how they felt.
Last spring, when the NCAA expanded the field from 65 to 68, Greenberg was one of the first coaches reporters sought out for reaction. "I'm not sure 68 is the right number," he said. "I think it's a start." Clearly he wanted an even bigger field -- and it's easy to see why.
Here we are, a little over two weeks away from another year's bracket announcement, and wouldn't you know it, Virginia Tech (18-8, 8-5 ACC) is squarely on the bubble. Again. Neither Palm nor SI.com's Andy Glockner have the Hokies in their latest projected brackets, though they're one of Glockner's "first four out." Same thing on Bracketology 101.
The Hokies have not beaten a single RPI top-50 opponent. (The closest: No. 54 Florida State on Jan. 8.) Meanwhile, they sport a pair of losses to the ACC's ninth-place team (Virginia), as well as one to 11th-place Georgia Tech. The fact that they're even in consideration says more about the quality (or lack thereof) at the bottom of the at-large pool.
But if ever Greenberg's team hoped to get over the hump, a golden opportunity presents itself Saturday night when the Hokies will host No. 1 Duke (26-2) with ESPN's GameDay crew on hand. With just three top-50 teams in the ACC this season (Duke, North Carolina and Boston College), they've had few opportunities to pick up quality wins, much less knock off a potential No. 1 seed. To close out the regular season, however, Virginia Tech hosts both the Blue Devils and 50th-ranked Boston College before visiting fellow bubble contender Clemson.
"They don't have to beat Duke [to get in], just because the [bubble] competition around the country is so weak," Palm said. "If they don't beat Duke, but they beat the teams they're contending with [BC and Clemson], that's just as important as whether or not they beat Duke."
The Hokies have been in this situation before. Heck, they've faced every possible bubble scenario imaginable the past three years.
In 2009, they were 17-10 in late February heading into a similar stretch that included consecutive home games against No. 7 Duke and No. 2 North Carolina. They lost both, as well as an ACC tournament heartbreaker against the Tar Heels, after which guard Malcolm Delaney -- then a sophomore -- said frankly, "I don't think we're going to get in." They didn't.
Last year, Greenberg for one felt far more confident. The Hokies finished tied for third in the ACC with a 10-6 record and 23-8 overall. "I would hope that the team that tied for third place in the ACC would be in pretty good shape," he said. They were not. The committee chair, UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, cited Virginia Tech's weak nonconference schedule (339th out of 347 teams nationally) as the deal-breaker.
In response, Greenberg upgraded his schedule this year, visiting Kansas State, taking on Oklahoma State and UNLV at the 76 Classic, hosting Purdue and playing Mississippi State. But even that backfired, with Tech losing to the Boilermakers (in overtime), Rebels and Wildcats, while the best teams they beat, Oklahoma State and Mississippi State, are a combined 10-16 in their conferences.
Boasting a veteran team and preseason Top 25 ranking for the first time since 1995, injuries have decimated the Hokies. Before the season even started, senior forward J.T. Thompson tore his ACL and Florida transfer Allan Chaney passed out during a workout due to a viral inflammation of the heart. A month in, senior guard Dorenzo Hudson and sophomore forward Cadarian Raines suffered season-ending foot injuries.
The Hokies still boast two four-year standouts, Delaney (19.1 points per game) and Jeff Allen (13.8 points and 10.3 rebounds), and breakout sophomore guard Erick Green (11.1 points) but very little depth.
"We're a good basketball team with a small margin for error," said Greenberg.
By now, Greenberg is quite familiar with this annual rite of winter, when the TV talking heads and the online bracketologists spend hour after hour crunching numbers debating the merits of teams like his.
"The next three weeks, for about 50 schools, is going to be torture for their fans, for anyone associated with college basketball, listening to the changing landscape from game to game, week to week," the Hokies coach said earlier this week. "If you use too much energy on that, then you're probably using your energy in the wrong direction."
Told of that comment, ESPN's Jay Bilas -- who as part of the GameDay crew broadcasting from Blacksburg on Saturday will undoubtedly debate the subject -- shot back, "It's torture for us to watch them play." Yet ultimately, he says, "They [the Hokies] are going to get in. The bubble was really weak last year -- it's weaker this year. The truth is we don't have 68 good teams in college basketball, but there will be 68 teams in."
One thing working against the Hokies is the perception that their conference is significantly down. While Virginia Tech is ranked 30th in Ken Pomeroy's more advanced efficiency ratings, along with five other ACC teams in his top 50 (Duke, UNC, FSU, Maryland and Clemson), the committee still largely relies on the RPI, where the Hokies rank just 63rd. That's lower than any of its past three NIT-relegated teams, which placed 52nd, 61st and 59th.
Greenberg has quietly begun making his team's case.
"Eight wins in the ACC is not easy," he said after Tuesday night's road rout of Wake Forest. "I don't care if the league's good, the league's bad -- it is not easy. That's an accomplishment with three games remaining. I'm really proud of the way this team has evolved, and now we have a chance to play the best team in America."
Bilas admits a soft spot for Greenberg's thrice-snubbed team.
"The one reason I'm rooting for them to make it this year is that Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen are two of the most accomplished players in the ACC over the last four years," he said. "The league has let them down a little bit, in terms of the quality of their wins, but that's not their fault. For what they've done [over four years], they should get to play in the NCAA tournament."
Unfortunately for Tech, sentimentality plays no role in the selection room. As Palm said, "The committee is cold blooded." Tech will have to earn its way into the field, and upsetting the Blue Devils would be a tremendous start.
Of course, it would be truly Greenberg-esque if the Hokies do finally make it but wind up in one of the NCAA's new play-in games for the last four bubble teams.