Hokies won’t underestimate Illini

By Eric Chima

When the Illinois men’s basketball team opens its eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament on Friday, it will be facing a team making just its eighth tournament appearance ever.

And the Illini will be the underdogs.

Virginia Tech claimed its first tournament bid since 1996 this year, but it is not the typical outsider school sneaking into the Big Dance. The Hokies won 21 games this year and beat top-seeded North Carolina twice en route to a No. 5 seed in the Tournament.

“Our guys were very unemotional when the announcement was made and we saw our name was on the board,” Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “I think they’ll be loose. I’m obviously ecstatic to have gotten an invitation, and I think it’s well-deserved.”

Virginia Tech showed flashes of excellence, but were inconsistent over the course of the season. It lost to teams like Western Michigan, George Washington and Marshall, and its wins over the Tar Heels were tempered by three losses to North Carolina State and three losses in its last four games. Overall, though, the Hokies finished 21-11 and 10-6 in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Hokies are led by senior guard Zabian Dowdell, who comes into the Tournament averaging 18 points per game on the season. Dowdell was named to the all-ACC team, and fellow guard Jamon Gordon was named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. In all, four players average over 11 points per game for the Hokies, who like to push the pace and average 72.7 points per game on 47 percent shooting. The Illini, by contrast, average just 64.5 points per game on 43 percent shooting and have only two players that average double figures in points. But it has been the methodical, defensive teams like Illinois that have given Virginia Tech trouble this season.

“We’re not really concerned (with the Illini’s pace), but at the same time we want to go into the game and change the tempo of the game and make it a tempo that’s favorable to us,” Dowdell said. “We definitely want to run and get some baskets out in transition.”

Greenberg said the deciding factors in the game would be the rebounding battle, Virginia Tech’s handling of Illinois’ tenacious half-court defense and the way his players fight through Illini screens. Despite the difference in seeds, he said the match-up with Illinois will be a difficult one for his team.

“Illinois has a better RPI than us,” Greenberg said. “They’re not a 12. People say they were (among) the last four in, (and) that’s a joke. Look at the way they finished the season, look at the quality of their wins – it’s almost embarrassing. Are they one of the top 65 teams in the country? They’re probably one of the top 20 teams in the country.”

Last season, the Hokies failed to even make the NIT as they went through a tumultuous season. The Hokies’ problems were out of their control, as one of their seniors was diagnosed with cancer and four other players had loved ones fall victim to the disease.

“I think we really came together as a team,” Dowdell said. “Guys had family members being lost and stuff like that. It was kind of hard to stay motivated, but we had each other. To come off the kind of year that we had last year, (this season’s success) is the greatest thing that could happen to us.”

Every member of the Hokies’ starting lineup is a junior or senior, each making his first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. That will provide a sharp contrast to the Illini, who have grown accustomed to the March atmosphere. Even Greenberg has not been a part of an NCAA Tournament game in over 10 years, since the Hokies lost to eventual national champion Kentucky in the second round of the 1996 Tournament.

“I’m not sure it was the event that it is now,” Greenberg said. “We’ve played on big stages, we’ve played in great venues, and we’ve played great teams. We’ve been on grand stages, but we haven’t been on this particular stage. We’ve got to see if our act will play on that stage.”