Virginia Tech's biggest challenge in ACC tournament could be mental
The Virginia Tech men's basketball team headed down to Greensboro, N.C., Tuesday afternoon to begin final preparations for the start of the ACC tournament. The Hokies will hold an open practice for about an hour later this afternoon at Greensboro Coliseum ahead of their must-win game against Georgia Tech on Thursday night.
The tournament really couldn't have been set up better for Virginia Tech. It is 6-1 this season against teams on its side of the bracket, including 2-0 against Florida State and Duke -- the two teams it would potentially face in the quarterfinals and semifinals. That, though, is about the only mental advantage the Hokies have going for them at this point.
Coming off two straight losses, Coach Seth Greenberg said Tuesday the past few days have been spent persuading his players to not let one bad week taint what this team has accomplished during the course of the season. He's reiterated several times that "We're a good team," in hopes that it will get this group over the mental and physical malaise that have left Virginia Tech with a game that has tons riding on it.
"We have a small margin of error. They know it; that’s just the reality of it," Greenberg said. "But we’re the same team a week ago that thought they were invincible. We’ve got to maintain that mindset, but again, I understand our limitations. But through those limitations, we’ve won a lot of games."
Above how Malcolm Delaney or Jeff Allen or even Georgia Tech's Iman Shumpert play Thursday, the manner in which the Hokies deal with the strain of an entire season riding on one game could be the most intriguing part of this ACC tournament. Last year, faced with almost the exact same circumstances -- needing at least one win to secure an NCAA tournament berth -- Virginia Tech suffered a debilitating upset to Miami.
Greenberg said that while the coaching staff has a scouting report ready for a potential quarterfinal matchup with Florida State, his focus has been entirely on the "next 40 minutes." For his players, though, that is easier said than done. Just look at the way the Hokies reacted to that resounding victory over then-No. 1 Duke, which suddenly seems like ages ago.
Not to mention there is plenty to worry about heading into Thursday's loaded matchup -- most notably depth concerns with the status of both Allen and Jarell Eddie up in the air. But Greenberg has been imploring this group to "play freed up and not afraid. We can't play not to lose."
"We’re not gonna be able to change [the pressure]," Greenberg said "They know that. There’s nothing I can say to them that’s gonna change that, so what we need to do is be aggressive. We need to get out in transition, we need to score easy baskets, we need to be an attacking team.”
We'll get a chance to see how the players are dealing with the stress later this afternoon, but one person uniquely equipped to speak on this topic is Georgia Tech Coach Paul Hewitt. The Yellow Jackets entered last year's ACC tournament with two losses to end the season -- one of which came to Virginia Tech -- and in desperate need of some wins to pad their resume. But while the Hokies bungled their opportunity in the postseason a year ago, Georgia Tech made it all the way to the ACC tournament finals, a run that ultimately gave them an NCAA tournament berth over Virginia Tech.
This time around, Georgia Tech doesn't have much to play for other than pride. The Yellow Jackets are No. 162 in the RPI as of Wednesday, and can only attain a .500 record this year if they somehow find a way to win the whole tournament. They do, however, enter Thursday riding a two-game winning streak.
On Monday's ACC teleconference, Hewitt spoke about the advantages a team enjoys when it gets off to a quick start in a tournament atmosphere.
"This time of year, you’ve got so much to play for, nerves are a part of it," Hewitt said. "Young kids can sometimes get out there and get off to a tough start regardless of how they entered the game, no matter what type of momentum they had. They get off to a tough start, you can get a little shaky and all of a sudden the basket starts to shrink on you, you’re hands are on your shorts;and you turn the ball over.
"It does mean something ... especially in those first games. If you get off to a good start, it can really mean a lot in terms of confidence and momentum and giving you the opportunity and giving you a cushion to overcome mistakes that are inevitably gonna happen.”
We'll see if that holds true Thursday. It's worth noting, though, that last year against Miami Virginia Tech actually took an early lead only to see it wither away by halftime. Another thing to keep in mind is that the Hokies two-game swoon last week were two of the few times this year they've gotten off to poor starts.
| March 9, 2011; 10:56 AM ET
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