What if I told you that the first top 10 conference rivalry game of the college basketball season happened in the ACC? You probably wouldn't be surprised and would be wondering how many single-day Duke and North Carolina would pop up on your Twitter feed.
However, this matchup doesn't involve Duke or North Carolina. This game doesn't involve any of the ACC's most recent old Big East additions like Syracuse, Louisville, Pittsburgh, or Notre Dame either.
Rather, it's a Commonwealth showdown between Virginia Tech and Virginia teams that have combined for one loss by one point in their first 30 games combined.
Regardless of the result of tonight's game, this is a historic moment for college basketball in the Commonwealth with Virginia and Virginia Tech both being legitimate national title contenders and worthy top 10 teams with players who could have their numbers in the rafters at Cassell Coliseum and John Paul Jones Arena in the not too distant future.
Go back six years to the spring of 2013 when Virginia was in their fourth year under Tony Bennett and Virginia Tech had just promoted James Johnson to head coach. That season, the Hokies finished last in the ACC despite having Co-ACC Player of the Year Erick Green while UVA was headed to the NIT and only had 1 NCAA Tournament appearance in four years of Tony Bennett.
At that time, the Hokies were a complete mess and were poised for two more years in the cellar while UVA hadn't shown any signs that they were poised to become one of the ACC's feared.
A lot has changed in those six years.
First, Virginia made five-straight NCAA Tournament appearances with 3 ACC regular season titles and 2 ACC Tournament titles. Virginia has gone from being seen as a likely mid-pack ACC team to a consistent ACC and national title contender that has the respect of every program in America.
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech hit bottom before hiring Buzz Williams five seasons ago. Now, the Hokies are on their way to a third-straight NCAA Tournament appearance that comes after three-straight outright last place finishes in the ACC only separated by a NIT apperance in year 2 of the Buzz Williams era.
In all of that, the Commonwealth has become a staple for college basketball with ESPN's College GameDay making the trip to Charlottesville last year to feature a game between the Hokies and Cavaliers. As everyone well knows, the Hokies won that game
in one of the most dramatic finishes the rivalry has seen regardless of the sport being played.
At the time, it seemed like a pinnacle moment for the rivalry given the national spotlight. Instead, it was like making the trip to Blacksburg from Charlottesville with a higher peak awaiting almost one year later in the same venue even if ESPN is having major regrets about choosing UNC-Notre Dame over this game months ago.
Of course, both programs have had plenty of scars along the way from the Hokies' suffering a home loss to Alabama State
in their second season under Buzz Williams, to the Cavaliers becoming the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed last season losing 74-54 to UMBC
While both fan bases have plenty of scars from postseason disappointment, this is not a time to try to unnecessarily re-live disappointing moments. Rather, this is a time to celebrate two of the best coaching jobs of the decade that has changed the ACC and made the conference's Commonwealth schools become the major predators and not the mid-pick or cellar prey.
Yes, the game isn't on ESPN as egregious and wrong as of a decision as that was. While it would have been nice, this game is still the one that everyone will be talking about on a night where Kentucky and North Carolina are both playing on ESPN. Could you have ever imagined a VT-UVA game eclipsing those teams without having to be promoted heavily by being on ESPN?
For the Hokies, it isn't ideal not to have the additional depth that Chris Clarke and Landers Nolley
would have provided but so what. As this team has shown, they are more than capable of being a top 10 team and a potential national title contender with the players that they do have. That is special in its own right with no need for any what if questions.
Once the ball is tipped, all of this sentimental talk about sitting back and enjoying this special moment will likely go out the window and that's okay, this is the biggest game in college basketball so far in 2019. This game should be a game where the passion of Hokies and Cavaliers fans should be higher than ever because of their teams' performances.
After the game, don't be overly frustrated with the result, but sit back and enjoy the fact that both Virginia Tech and UVA have built basketball programs that have done it the right way and earned their status as two of the premier basketball programs on the East Coast that faced off to determine the final undefeated team in conference play in an ACC that includes Duke, UNC, Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and more.
Sit back and enjoy this special game that seemed impossible. Let your passion for your team go all out for the type of big game that could have only been dreamed of and when it's over, know that both of these teams could have an even bigger game looming against each other a month from now in Blacksburg that will be worth savoring even more than this historic game.
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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