Coach Seth Greenberg isn’t sure anyone ever expected his Virginia Tech Hokies to be picked ahead of ACC basketball heavyweights Duke or North Carolina.
But in the preseason, the media tabbed the Hokies as the No. 2 team in the Atlantic Coast Conference - ahead of the Tar Heels and behind the defending national champion Blue Devils.
On the strength of five returning starters, which include all-ACC point guard Malcolm Delaney, off guard Dorenzo Hudson and forward Jeff Allen, Virginia Tech also will start the season ranked in the Top 25 - at No. 21 - for the first time since 1995-96.
Greenberg downplayed the expectations, but said it says good things about his team, which opens the season Friday night against Campbell.
“You don’t get picked No. 2 unless you have some history of success and have some pedigree returning that creates some type of excitement and enthusiasm and expectation,” the coach with a 132-94 record at Tech said, “so I guess that means we’re building something.”
Indeed. The Hokies were 25-9 last season, tying the school record for wins in a season. They also were 10-6 in the conference, but became the first team with 10 ACC wins not to get an NCAA tournament invitation. In Greenberg’s seven seasons, they’ve been NCAA-bound just once, and he said he will not allow their lack of NCAA tournament bids to define his program.
“If this group graduates the winningest group in the history of Virginia Tech, and ends up graduating with a winning record in the ACC - and none of you has a clue of how hard that is - and average well over 20 wins a season, should they walk out of here thinking that they were failures?” he asked reporters on media day. “We can’t control what goes on in that room.
“We can’t control other people’s perception. We can only do our job.”
The team needs to win 23 games this year to pass the 1985-86 Hokies, who won 87 career games, as the Hokies’ winningest class ever.
Despite the accolades, the Hokies already are facing significant challenges.
JT Thompson, “basically a sixth starter” and the inspirational leader of the team, according to Greenberg, will miss the season after having surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee. Allan Chaney, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Florida, will also not play this year while continuing to work with doctors after being diagnosed with a viral inflammation of the heart.
The losses, combined with what has become a chronic foot problem for 6-9 sophomore Cedarian Raines, leave the Hokies with just two of their five experienced frontcourt players.
Raines, a powerful inside presence, was just starting to get the college game figured out when he was hurt late last season.
“For us to really be special, we need Cedarian to be healthy,” Greenberg said.
They also need Allen, their best rebounder, to finally avoid the foul trouble that has plagued him throughout his career.
Delaney, who learned from NBA scouts that he needs to assert himself more as a leader, says Allen knows he’s critical to everything this year.
“When Jeff’s on the court, we’re a better team, and I think in the offseason he kind of realized that,” Delaney, who averaged 20.2 points, said. “It’s going to be a big point for our team, being so thin at that frontcourt spot. He knows he needs to stay on the court.”
Allen, the league’s active career leader with 191 steals, has a plan.
“Stop the gambling, the reaching,” he said, that leads to many of his fouls.
Of the other starters back, Hudson was second on the team in scoring at 15.2 ppg, and had the league’s largest one-season improvement of plus 10.6 ppg; low-post man Victor Davila started all but one game and will be looked to for more than 5.3 ppg; and 6-7 forward Terrell Bell, the team’s best defender, may be asked to play the power forward on occasion.
Greenberg said while the injuries are a handicap, the Hokies can make it work with their commitment to defense and rebounding that he preaches about every day in practice.
That, and a sense of playing for the teammates sidelined by injury.
“It’s their job to play for these guys,” he said. “A real team, you’re not just playing for yourself. If you’re going to have a really good team, you’re playing for each other.”
Campbell gave Virginia Tech a scare early last season in a 71-60 home loss Nov. 23. The Camels, who went 19-11 in 2009-10, made it a five-point game at the 4-minute mark before the Hokies pulled away.
Greenberg said he schedules games against Campbell because its coach, Robbie Laing, is an old friend.
“Real simply, Robbie Laing is one of the best guys in this business,” Greenberg said. “He’s a friend. We both got into coaching not for the money but to coach. We talked, and I was in position to help him and build the (Campbell) program and do some things.”