The Dagger - NCAAB

Since Virginia Tech won 23 regular season games but missed the NCAA tournament last season because of its anemic strength of schedule, coach Seth Greenberg decided to pit his team against a far tougher non-conference slate this year.

It was a perfectly logical solution except for one slight problem: So far the Hokies have failed to win any of the marquee games they've played.

A road test at top-five Kansas State in mid-November resulted in a lopsided 73-57 loss. A neutral-court matchup with Mountain West contender UNLV two weeks later became a 71-59 setback. And finally, Wednesday's Big Ten-ACC challenge home game against Purdue ended with a 58-55 overtime defeat.

Those three losses put Virginia Tech (4-3) in jeopardy of entering ACC play without a single significant non-conference victory despite beginning the season as a consensus top 20 team. The Hokies own a win over Oklahoma State and still play Mississippi State next week, but it's unclear whether either of those teams will turn out to be strong enough to boost Virginia Tech's resume in March.

An NCAA tournament berth is certainly still a realistic goal for the Hokies, but their margin for error to avoid sweating out Selection Sunday for a fifth straight season is shrinking by the day. They made the 2007 NCAA tournament but have been relegated to the dreaded NIT each of the past three years despite winning a combined 65 games during that span.

Expectations were high for Virginia Tech because they returned the core of a 25-win squad that finished tied for third in the ACC, but injuries deprived the Hokies of much of their frontcourt depth.

Senior forward JT Thompson, Virginia Tech's leading scorer off the bench last year, underwent season-ending surgery in September after tearing his left ACL in a pickup game. And Florida transfer Allan Chaney will also miss the season as a result of a heart condition diagnosed after the forward collapsed on the court after an April workout.

Even the team's supposed three best players haven't performed up to expectations so far this season.

All-ACC guard Malcolm Delaney was brilliant in a 30-point performance against UNLV but committed nine turnovers against Kansas State and shot a career-worst 2-for-18 against Purdue. Backcourt-mate Dorenzo Hudson has a combined five points in the team's past two games as he continues to recover slowly from lingering effects of tendinitis. And top big man Jeff Allen has fouled out of two games and picked up four fouls in two others.

Even if Allen makes strides, Hudson regains last season's form and Delaney feels less pressure to do everything, the weakened state of the ACC will hurt Virginia Tech's NCAA tournament hopes.

Not only will the Hokies be lacking marquee non-conference victories because of the previously mentioned losses, they also won't get as much credit for ACC victories since the perception of the league is that it's weak behind Duke.

In the aftermath of a narrow victory over Oklahoma State at the 76 Classic on Friday, Greenberg described his program's philosophy in these terms.

"We win ugly," he said. "We just hope we can get the other team to play as ugly as we do."

It was definitely ugly on Wednesday against Purdue. And unless Virginia Tech starts finding ways to win these big games, it's only going to get uglier. 

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