Mediocre seasons mean Virginia and Virginia Tech need deep ACC tournament runs

Virginia plays the winner of Tuesday’s first-round matchup of No. 11 seed Louisville and No. 14 Georgia Tech in the second round Wednesday, with tip-off scheduled for 9:30 p.m. at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It knocked off the Yellow Jackets on Feb. 12 during the regular season and beat the Cardinals on Saturday in their only meeting.

“I think it’s a little motivation,” said Cavaliers senior guard Kihei Clark, who is playing in his third ACC tournament after the coronavirus pandemic forced the 2020 installment to be scrapped. “The goal is to make the [NCAA] tournament, so we’ve got to lock in and buckle down, and we’ve got to win four games.”

The No. 7 seed Hokies (19-12) are in jeopardy of snapping a school-record run of four straight NCAA tournament appearances.

They open the tournament at 7 p.m. Wednesday against the winner of No. 10 Clemson and No. 15 North Carolina State in their second visit of the season to Barclays Center. Virginia Tech played in a tournament there over Thanksgiving, losing to Memphis and Xavier.

The Hokies, who have won nine of 11 entering this week, split with the Wolfpack during the regular season and dropped their only meeting against the Tigers, 63-59, in Saturday’s regular season finale in Clemson, S.C.

“We didn’t do ourselves any favors on Saturday,” Virginia Tech Coach Mike Young said. “I haven’t talked to [the players] about [making the NCAA tournament]. They’re smart people. I have done this now for 20 years. It’s always the same thing, winning a game. I’ve always thought if you start looking down the road, it doesn’t work out very well for me.”

A glaring absence of quality victories nonetheless leaves the Hokies with much work to do. Their best win, for instance, based on the NCAA’s NET rankings came against Miami, 71-70, on Feb. 26 in Coral Gables, Fla.

Virginia Tech, which last season lost to North Carolina, 81-73, in the ACC quarterfinals, is 37th in the NET rankings but 1-5 against Quadrant 1 opponents, another metric considered when awarding at-large berths.

“I think our mind-set is this is a new season,” Virginia Tech junior guard Hunter Cattoor said. “You get into postseason play, and whatever happened in the regular season before kind of doesn’t matter now. Everyone starts 0-0, and just try to go out there and win the ACC tournament.”

An intriguing component to this year’s bracket is Virginia and Virginia Tech potentially meeting in the semifinals. The Cavaliers would need to beat No. 3 seed North Carolina in the quarterfinals, while the Hokies would need to upset second-seeded Notre Dame.

The bitter rivals split the regular season series.

“I’ve had teams I’ve felt worse about that went on and did really cool things,” said Young, who directed Wofford to five NCAA tournament appearances before arriving at Virginia Tech in 2019. “I’ve had teams that were playing really well, and, hey, that’s the tournament. You play poorly, and that other team will get you.”

The Hokies did end Virginia’s four-game winning streak, its longest this season in the ACC, with a 62-53 triumph Feb. 14 at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg behind 24 points, eight rebounds and four blocks from forward Keve Aluma, who on Monday was named second-team all-ACC.

One week before that game, the Cavaliers had made strides in boosting their NCAA tournament credentials by beating Duke, 69-68, at Cameron Indoor Stadium on sophomore guard Reece Beekman’s three-pointer with 1.1 seconds to play.

It marked only the second victory for Virginia (77 in the NET rankings) at the storied venue since 1995 and was the second of three Quadrant 1 wins this season.

Its most recent Quadrant 1 win was Feb. 19 against the Hurricanes, 74-71, on the road thanks to 23 points, seven rebounds and three blocks from forward Jayden Gardner, who was selected third-team all-ACC.

But consecutive losses at home to Duke, 65-61, and Florida State, 64-63, on a three-pointer at the buzzer blunted what little progress the Cavaliers had gained toward burnishing their NCAA tournament standing.

“Who knows exactly what it would take for you to qualify for an NCAA tournament,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “It’s just getting ready to play and being sharp. Nothing changes. I think it’s just kind of been understanding that there’s opportunity out there, and you go after it.”

The Cavaliers have won a pair of ACC tournament titles under Bennett, the last in 2018 at Barclays Center. Last season as the No. 1 seed they stunned Syracuse, 72-69, at the buzzer in the quarterfinals on Beekman’s three-pointer but withdrew the next day because of a positive coronavirus test by a Virginia player.

Beekman and Clark are the only starters back from that team. Two of the Cavaliers’ starters this season, Gardner and guard Armaan Franklin, are playing in their first ACC tournament. Gardner is a senior transfer from East Carolina, and Franklin, a junior, transferred from Indiana.

“There’s always an excitement when you get into the postseason, the regular season finishes, and, yeah, it’s been a while since it’s more than about [NCAA tournament] seeding for us,” Bennett said. “Our guys finished with a 12-8 record [in the ACC], and they improved from the beginning of the season to the end, and now the key is to be as ready as you can.”

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