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Posted at 12:46 PM ET, 01/13/2011

UNC could add to Virginia Tech's rising tournament resume

By Mark Giannotto

The six-game win streak that the Virginia Tech men's basketball team will put on the line Thursday night at North Carolina began back on Dec. 12 with a victory over Penn State. But really, it's been the past five days that have left the Hokies, and their fans, feeling much more positive about their NCAA tournament chances.

It started out with that convincing home victory over Florida State Saturday. Then came consecutive upsets by Penn State over No. 18 Michigan State and No. 16 Illinois. And as last night came to a close, the Seminoles pulled off a stunning victory over No. 1 Duke, ending the Blue Devils' 25-game winning streak. It could have been an even more momentous night had Oklahoma State been able to beat No. 14 Texas A&M or UNLV knocked off undefeated San Diego State.

Virginia Tech is 66th in the latest RPI ratings. The Hokies are 4-3 against RPI top 100 teams but just 1-3 against the RPI top 50 -- the lone win coming over Oklahoma State.

All that has conspired to make Thursday night's visit to Chapel Hill even more exciting. Not only can the Hokies add another RPI top 50 win to their resume, a victory on the road in a hostile environment would put a stamp on a week that could serve as the launching point for an NCAA bid.

North Carolina is coming off what Coach Roy Williams described as an "ugly" win over Virginia last Saturday. The Cavaliers slowed the pace of the game, building a 10-point lead at one point, before stumbling down the stretch and fumbling away an upset.

Coming off the most disappointing campaign in Chapel Hill since Williams returned back in 2003, this year's squad isn't a vintage Tar Heels team, either. They've got one impressive victory over Kentucky, but four narrow losses to No. 12 Texas, No. 16 Illinois, Minnesota and Vanderbilt.

But Williams thought the win over the Cavaliers gave his team a needed boost after the Tar Heels struggled to win close games a year ago. It was a glimpse of what it's identity must become now that ACC play has arrived.

"I was just proud of how things were ugly, things weren’t smooth, things weren’t going well, and yet we just kept plugging along and making a basket every now and then and making a free throw every now and then and putting ourselves in a position to win in the end," Williams said this week.

Three story lines to watch

*What defense will Greenberg use?: In beating Florida State, Coach Seth Greenberg used a 2-3 zone for nearly the entire game -- the first time he's ever done that in 21 years coaching. The zone worked to perfection, but will Greenberg use it exclusively again considering it shouldn't catch the Tar Heels by surprise?

North Carolina has a decided size advantage over the Hokies with 7-footer Tyler Zeller, 6-10 John Henson, and 6-9 Justin Knox. The dilemma Greenberg faces is that the Tar Heels have two players -- guards Leslie McDonald and Reggie Bullock -- who are shooting better than 37 percent from three-point range. But they've also got a couple players -- most notably freshman sensation Harrison Barnes and junior Larry Drew -- who settle for three-pointers far too often considering their lack of accuracy.

Greenberg refused to tip his hand as to what defense he'll play this week, but I can't imagine seeing the Hokies in much man-to-man. That would leave forward Jeff Allen in prime position to pick up fouls guarding the likes of Henson and Zeller down low in the block. We might see a new wrinkle -- maybe a 1-3-1 trap or a 1-2-2 matchup zone -- instead of just a vanilla 2-3 zone.

*Can Davila handle Tyler Zeller: Zeller leads the Tar Heels in scoring this year, and when things break down in their halfcourt sets, they tend to feed him the ball in the post. He also "runs the court harder than [Tyler] Hansbrough," according to Greenberg.

The responsibility of chasing Zeller up and down the court will fall on the shoulders of 6-8 forward Victor Davila. Though the Hokies will likely play zone, Davila will have to guard Zeller in the post if the Tar Heels can penetrate into the Hokies zone.

Rebounding will also be key. Zeller, Henson and Knox average 20.4 rebounds per game between them. Davila, meanwhile, is collecting just 3.8 rebounds per game during the Hokies six-game winning streak. Greenberg said he needs that figure to double if Virginia Tech is to get by with such a limited front court.

*Tempo: As I wrote in today's paper, North Carolina thrives getting easy baskets in the open floor with its incredible athletes. Point guard Kendall Marshall said Coach Roy Williams would prefer if he didn't have to call a set play during the entire game. With just an eight-man rotation, though, Virginia Tech can not run with the Tar Heels and expect to win this game. The Hokies need the final score to be in the sixties. Anything higher means North Carolina controlled the speed of the game.

This will be a real test for these makeshift Hokies, and they'll need monster performances from both Allen and guard Malcolm Delaney to pull it off. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that this is just the second true road game Virginia Tech has played this year. Its win over St. Bonaventure technically took place at a neutral site. And that "road game" against UNC Greensboro was played in a half empty arena where there were more Hokies fans than anything else.

North Carolina students returned to campus this past Monday, so the Dean Dome should have a good atmosphere. If the Hokies react well, they could score a defining win that many believed would never happen just two weeks ago.

By Mark Giannotto  | January 13, 2011; 12:46 PM ET
 
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Next: Virginia Tech can't think long about North Carolina collapse

Comments

Wapo, why don't you cover Pitt or Syracuse? they sure are closer to DC than VT.

Posted by: tony28 | January 13, 2011 3:49 PM | Report abuse

This should be an interesting game.

Both teams have a lot on the line for this one.

Posted by: postfan1 | January 13, 2011 8:08 PM | Report abuse

Great game, but the Hokies weren't deep enough, and let their lead slip away.

Posted by: postfan1 | January 13, 2011 11:40 PM | Report abuse

I think I've proved my point. Nobody in DC cares about VT. 3 posts all day. I think the Washington Post should start recording this.

Posted by: tony28 | January 14, 2011 2:07 AM | Report abuse

[Luke] I care!

anyway, I watched until 10 minutes left in the second half. I'm a little under the weather, and tired, and I figured that I'd seen this script many times over the last couple years: tight game at the end, then a questionable key call would go against either Delaney or Allen. Then down at the end, the offense would turn it over while trying for a shot to win at the buzzer. Turned out about right, except Tech did get off a shot at the end.

Still, I gotta admire this team with its depleted ranks and basically one and a half front-court players (is Allen really capable of making it through a big game without foul trouble?)

With the ACC down this year, I guess the only hope for a spot in the NCAAs is to build for a run in the conference tourney...

Posted by: CDRHoek | January 14, 2011 10:57 AM | Report abuse

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