Virginia Tech Hokies (20-11) vs. Illinois Fighting Illini (23-11)
When: Friday, 7:10 p.m.
VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES
1. Can't Win the Small Ones. The Hokies finished their ACC season 10-6, their best mark in the conference and one game out of first place. The weird part? Tech was 5-2 against the top four teams in the conference, including 3-0 against teams ranked in the national top five, but only 3-4 against the bottom five teams, including two double-digit losses to N.C. State and Sidney Lowe's red blazer. It doesn't help that three of their four non-conference losses came to powerhouses Marshall, Western Michigan and a George Washington team that's having a down year. On the other hand, Virginia Tech was the first team to beat both Duke and UNC on the road in the same season since Georgia Tech in the 1995-96 season, and only the third team to do so in the last 25 years. But it's all about ending the futility: Virginia Tech hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1996, when Ace Custis patrolled the lane and the Hokies were in the Atlantic-10 conference. To put that in perspective, 1996 was the year the "Macarena" was the top-selling single in America.
2. A Ballsy Move. Junior forward Deron Washington has provided plenty of highlight plays this season with his freakish athleticism and constant hustle, and his retro look also provided fodder for a sign at UVA that read, "Hey Deron, the 80's wants its sweatband back." Sweatband aside, Washington inspired Duke haters everywhere by putting his sweaty manparts in Greg Paulus' face on his way to a layup in Tech's 67-65 upset of Duke at Cameron Indoor. Washington later sealed the deal by blocking Paulus' last-ditch heave out of bounds at the buzzer. The sweatband compares with only A.D. Vassalo's penchant for shaving "PR" into the back of his hair, reminding the entire world that he is a shoot-first guard from Puerto Rico, for most interesting Tech hair.
3. The Ones That Got Away. Sometimes missing out is good, sometimes it's bad. Tech coach Seth Greenberg offered Stephen Curry, son of Virginia Tech Hall of Famer Dell Curry, a walk-on opportunity with the Hokies in response to Curry's desire to follow his dad's footsteps at VT. Today, Curry is leading Davidson in scoring and shooting 41 percent from behind the arc, which would help a Tech team that is shooting just 35.6 percent from deep this season. Also, the man Greenberg replaced at Tech, basketball legend Ricky Stokes, is currently running the East Carolina program into the ground much as he did the Hokies. Stokes took the Pirates helm after departing Blacksburg after the 2003 season with a sterling 46-69 record. Among those 46 wins was a grand total of 10 in three seasons of Big East conference play. Greenberg won seven in his only year coaching in the conference. — Brad Hinshelwood
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
1. Breaking The Social Contract. In a season that was riddled with repeated freak injuries and the thank-God-we-might-not-have-to-talk-about-the-Chief-anymore madness, the most bizarre story was the late-season car crash involving guard Jamar Smith and center Brian Carlwell. In case you've been fortunate enough to forget, during a severe ice storm, Smith — who was later discovered to have been drunk — skidded across the road and crashed into a tree, destroying his car and knocking Carlwell out. Smith, rather than call the police, drove the car home and went inside his apartment. Why? Because he thought Carlwell was dead. (Carlwell spent nearly a week in the hospital in critical condition; the police only knew about the incident because one of Smith's neighbors saw the car and called 911.) I'll say this: If one of my friends knocks me out in a car crash and leaves me for dead in the car (during an ice storm), it's unlikely we are going to remain friends.
2. This Is Not A Fun Team To Watch. Pity the poor Illini first-round opponent. Not because Illinois is a particularly formidable opponent — they're not — but because they might play the least visually appealing form of basketball in the country. Thing is, kids, Illinois is not an offensively skilled team — to say the least. The Illini have Shawn Pruitt underneath, Warren Carter slashing ... and four guards who either can't dribble, can't shoot or (more often) both. Illinois' defense is as solid as anyone's in the country — Chester Frazier is particularly nettlesome — but if you watched that wretched Big Ten tourney game against Wisconsin, you recognize that all the defense does is make the other team look as, or as nearly, offensively inept as the Illini. This makes for a lot of 53-48 games that are hideous to witness.
3. The Embattled Duck Man. Coach Bruce Weber, who looks, talks and walks like a duck but is not, in fact, a duck, came under considerable fire this year, not just for his team's off-court problems, but also for their lack of cohesion on offense. But considering how much of a shitstorm the season has been in every possible way, it's rather amazing the Illini are in the NCAAs at all. It's a testament to Weber's insistence on frantic defense — which is even more impressive considering Weber was known as an offensive specialist when he came to Illinois — that they could have made it this far. In an odd way, it might have been his best, if most taxing, coaching job yet. Now, about that recruiting ... — Will Leitch