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The Big E

It was certainly an interesting sequence of weeknight games for ACC basketball. Virginia Tech’s hard-luck Hokies scratched out another win, league basketball aristocracy Duke and Carolina staged another of their donnybrooks and there were a couple of other games that went right down to the wire. It was just another typical week in this most storied of all basketball leagues. There were also some things to be found that provided illumination in the differences between ACC basketball and football.

The Tech team got the bounces against Clemson, especially the last-second one off of the rim. Despite what seemed to be an effort to hand back what had been a spirited Tech comeback by missing free throws, the Tigers went Tech one better by clanging a short baseline jumper that would have won the game. It was a tough loss for Clemson, but Tech was due to win another of these. The Hokies have now won three of their last four, all down-to-the-wire affairs, and are still in the hole in the close loss department. Lose by having somebody throw in a desperation half-court heave at the buzzer, Tigers, and we’ll talk.

During the last minute of regulation, Seth Greenberg also provided the textbook example for all of those television talking heads who always say, “You don’t have to shoot the three.” Indeed. Down by four, Tech eschewed the desperation shot, realizing there is no four-point line in college basketball, and kept driving the lane for easy ones. Clemson is the ACC’s worst free-throw shooting team and the odds were pretty good they would eventually miss one as Tech kept extending the game through fouling. Sure enough, they did. That is when you take your three and Zabian Dowdell nailed it. That was excellent coaching.

Good players make good coaches and Seth will look like the next John Wooden if he continues to get games as he is getting from Jamon Gordon. Jamon is truly remarkable, in possession of a will to win not often seen. He puts this Tech team on his back, refusing to surrender to all of the adversity that has plagued this team, and leads by example. When a 6′ 3″ guard can corral sixteen rebounds, he is busting his ass. With that kind of effort, good things will happen and did.

Since Tech joined the ACC, Seth has been preaching about the totality of effort needed to compete at this level. He generally gets it. Tuesday night during the Duke-Carolina headliner, we saw a coach who was not getting it, at least for a while.

It was a telling expression on the face of Ol’ Roy early in the Second Half as his Tar Heels displayed something other than maximum effort in falling behind by seventeen. It was a look that said something along the lines of, “I don’t give a shit [one of Ol’ Roy’s favorite expressions] how good you were in high school, Hansbrough. There are hundreds of kids who would love to be playing ACC basketball. If you don’t care to, I will find somebody who will. I may lose by thirty, but, by cracky, I will do it with guys who want to play,” or something to that effect.

It worked, too. Ol’ Roy ‘s starters sat on the bench watching as the Blue team gave a remarkable demonstration in how far great effort can take you. The message sunk in and when Carolina ‘s starters returned to the floor they displayed a bit more enthusiasm for the game. The result was yet another classic Duke-Carolina finish.

It is interesting to contrast that with this year’s Tech-Hoo game. The circumstances were very similar: a pretty good team hosting its highly-ranked arch-rival. When they got behind and with the exception of their tough-as-nails quarterback Marques Hagans, the Hoos folded like cheap card tables. Those 1986 bumper stickers that read ‘Hoo Quit Again?’ were relevant two decades later.

Not so with the Heels Tuesday night. When the going got fairly tough, Carolina responded and fought back, with the scrubs leading the starters by example. O’l Roy knew what to do, unlike algroh, whose team seemed to take its cue from his befuddled sideline countenance. Perhaps that is why Ol’ Roy is a big-time winner with a national championship burnishing his credentials, while algroh is a career assistant who fast-talked his way into the Hoo job and whose chief talents seem to be for bragging and grasping years of NFL experience out of thin air.

There are some other football-basketball comparisons that can be made, or at least it seems that way to me. How about the recent Florida State-Duke basketball game with the Carolina- Tech football one? In both instances, a favored ranked team was at home against a middle of the pack visiting one. Lane and Cameron are considered the most fearsome ACC venues in their respective sport, no matter what is claimed by those in Bobby Doak Campbell or Dean’s Dome.

Tech was a better football program across the board than were the Tar Heels. Talent, coaching, conditioning, you name it, Tech had better. The same can be said of the Duke basketball team when comparing it to the Noles. Carolina put up a bit of a struggle, but as Tech rolled over the Tar Heels in the Second Half the body language of the Heels’ players indicated they were a beaten team and knew it, while Big John Bunting’s expressions showed that he knew it, too and had not the slightest idea of what to do about it. This was not the case with Leonard Hamilton’s crew.

Florida State rolled into Cameron last Saturday and gave the Blue Devils all they wanted. They were most definitely not intimidated by the venue, or by the names on the uniforms. The same can be said when comparing Tech’s football trip to Maryland with Duke’s to Boston College . In both instances, a middle-of-the-pack ACC team was hosting a league power. Byrd Stadium was full with what I imagine the Terps thought was an enthusiastic crowd, although most Hokies in attendance did not. Conte Forum was about as excited as it ever gets for Duke’s visit.

Maryland put up a struggle for a while, but Tech’s superior everything eventually overwhelmed the Terps and most everybody wearing red knew it and played like it. When Al Skinner was game-planning the Duke-Fredo game, he neglected to inform his players that Duke was better and should beat them. The ending of Duke-BC was considerably more exciting than Tech-Maryland.

Seth Greenberg preaches maximum effort like Buddhist monks chant mantras. For Tech to have any kind of success in basketball, he has to have it and behind the sterling example set by Jamon Gordon, he gets it. No matter what happens to this Tech team, whether it be a tough loss or personal misfortune, and there has been plenty of both, the team gets up, brushes itself off and proceeds to fight just as hard or harder the next time out. A team that lost a heartbreaker against Fredo came back and fought just as hard against Clemson, this time coming out on the long end.

It is necessary that this type of effort be given in all ACC games. Just about every single game turns out to be a closely-contested affair fought with a ferocity that would make ancient Japanese samurai envious. Everybody fights hard against everybody else, regardless of ranking or perceived rank in the basketball pecking order. As my brother pointed out to me following this latest round of nail-biters, there is no ACC basketball equivalent of the football breather against Duke.

That is perhaps not the case in football. Outside of the league’s Florida power structure, Tech rarely saw the type of effort expended by the opposition that seems to be routine in all conference basketball games. An exception would have been the season-opener at NC State, where the Wolfpack out up a spirited fight. But after that loss, Chuckie seemed to have had much trouble getting his team to call forth that kind of effort again. He certainly was not as successful as Seth, whose team, win or lose, is fighting hard the next game no matter what.

Just about everybody in ACC basketball plays that way. Oliver Purnell certainly had no complaints with his team’s effort against Tech. Neither did Frank Haith, whose team gave favored State all they wanted almost through two overtimes. Even Skip ‘Cincy’ Prosser stopped packing long enough to convince his last-place guys to play very hard against Fredo and turn that game into yet another close finish. Coaches expect and demand that kind of effort. If they don’t get it, Ol’ Roy demonstrated against Duke that they have ways of extracting it.

ACC football these days can very likely equal the power of the nearby SEC. What the ACC has not been able to match, yet, is the tendency of every SEC game, this year even the ones involving lowly Vanderbilt, to turn into football equivalents of the French and Russians clashing at Borodino . Week after week, SEC teams go after each other with hammer and tong, creating death struggles that make that league’s football so popular with fans and television. The same exists in ACC basketball; football still has a ways to go.

This past season, all three of the expansion teams finished at or within hailing distance of the top of their football divisions. In basketball, despite the glum forebodings of doom put forth by the boys in Raleigh , none of the expansion teams are embarrassing themselves in basketball, even Tech, which has fought through myriad problems and now put some distance between itself and bottom-feeding Wake. They have done it in part by quickly adapting to the basketball culture of the ACC, which emphasizes maximum effort in each and every game. We shall see how long it takes the Tech football culture to be matched in places like Hooville, Chapel Hill and College Park.

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