Many college basketball seasons are ending this week, and most of them end without hope.
For Rutgers or Saint Louis, a season is a black hole which swallows up the head coach and leads to a search for a way out of the darkness. For Georgetown and Boise State, a season was supposed to offer something more, but success somehow proved to be elusive in the end.
For a program such as Penn State — not expected to do anything but blessed with an incoming recruiting class of considerable quality — the 2016 season ended quietly on Thursday against Ohio State. Cautious optimism is warranted in State College, but little about this season showed that the Nittany Lions could soon turn the corner.
Seasons end — and fall short of the NCAA tournament — in so many contexts. The best kind of context is one in which a team goes down fighting and screaming so furiously that it’s impossible not to smile at what’s ahead.
Such is life for the Virginia Tech Hokies.
Yes, Virginia Tech’s NCAA dream — at least in 2016 — died Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament. The Hokies were defeated by Miami, just five days after smoking The U on Saturday to deny the Hurricanes a share of the ACC regular season championship. Miami used its defensive tenacity — and its veteran experience — to outclass the Hokies in both halves. The game’s overall flow and eventual outcome were not surprising at all.
The indelible imprint left by this contest, though, did not come from the Canes. It was delivered by the losing team, a group which simply didn’t know how to quit.
Miami punched Virginia Tech in the mouth for almost all of Thursday’s game. Forcing 14 turnovers and disrupting the Hokies’ halfcourt sets enabled Miami to play this game on its terms. The Hurricanes didn’t show up last Saturday in Blacksburg, and they knew they’d have to recommit themselves at the defensive end of the floor in what amounted to yet another road game against Buzz Williams and Company.
Technically, the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., was a neutral court, but its location relative to the Virginia Tech campus enabled Hokie fans to dominate the crowd. Miami didn’t want to bear the sting of losing twice to the same opponent within a week’s time. The reality of Saturday’s atrocious performance figured to awaken the Canes, and conventional wisdom was upheld in that regard on Thursday. From a broader vantage point, Miami did what it was expected to do — nothing more or less.
What stood out was how hard Virginia Tech worked to make Miami cross the finish line.
Up to the under-four-minute media timeout in the first half, Miami had dominated the proceedings. However, Virginia Tech — a young team doing what veteran teams and higher seeds ordinarily achieve against less proven foes — closed the half with an authoritative burst. Had a 16-foot baseline jumper tickled twine in the final five seconds of the first half, Virginia Tech would have taken a 34-33 lead. As it was, the Hokies walked to the locker room down by only one point after playing 16 of 20 minutes on their heels.
Good teams survive bad halves in that fashion.
In the second half, Miami reasserted itself. Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez (13 of 22 from the field, 6 of 12 on threes, and 8 of 10 at the foul line, for 40 combined points) torched the Hokies’ backcourt on a night when the Canes hit 56 percent of their shots. Virginia Tech shot the ball well and hit 28 of 31 foul shots, but the Hokies wasted too many possessions to expect to win. This was an uphill battle throughout the evening for Virginia Tech, and given how far the Hokies had climbed just to be in an ACC quarterfinal — one season after finishing 2-16 in the conference — no one would have thought less of them if they faded down the stretch.
Instead, Virginia Tech kept extending the game, forcing Miami to make free throw after free throw. The Hokies created one exchange of possessions after another.
Buzz Williams wouldn’t let his players concede this season. That message wasn’t just meant for 2016. It was meant for 2017 and beyond.
Miami appeared to be 10 to 12 points better than its opponent, but Virginia Tech made the final margin a six-point scoreline at 88-82. As was the case throughout the ACC season, Buzz Williams lifted his team higher than most expected.
Williams surprised everyone when he left Marquette — an Elite Eight program — for Blacksburg. Yet, no one doubted that Williams was a spectacular hire for Virginia Tech and athletic director Whit Babcock. What’s striking, though, about Williams’s body of work over the past few seasons is that as heralded as he is, he’s still repaired this program faster than many were prepared to admit.
After all, a 2-16 (last-place) finish in the ACC ordinarily means that a three- or four-year trajectory will be required to achieve NCAA tournament-level quality in the nation’s best and deepest basketball conference. The idea of Virginia Tech going 2-16 in 2015, 10-8 in 2016, and then jumping to the NCAA tourney in 2017 seemed remote 12 months ago.
Now, it’s hard to think the Hokies won’t go Dancing next season. They are already on the cusp of being an at-large team. If they schedule properly and manipulate the RPI — winning just enough of the games they have to win — a .500 finish in the ACC will get them over the top.
It’s all in place for Virginia Tech to re-enter Bracketville a year from now. Is that really possible?
No — it’s actually probable.
No 2016 season bereft of an NCAA tournament carries more hope for the future than Virginia Tech’s marvelous journey. The Hokies won’t get to Dance next week, but no one can view this program and its trajectory without becoming giddily and unceasingly optimistic.