SAN JOSE, Calif. • Unprompted by any question or remark that had preceded, Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson revealed just how he and his teammates view Friday night’s NCAA Tournament meeting with St. Louis University.
Two words: “Revenge game.”
It’s been a while since the Hokies and Billikens played early in the 2017-18 season with SLU winning 77-71 on a neutral floor at Madison Square Garden.
SLU has played 65 games since. Virginia Tech has played 62.
But if you think the Hokies haven’t given that result any thought, think again. It might not have been on their minds before Sunday, but when the matchup was announced it apparently rekindled some bitterness.
“We’ve talked about it as a team, not necessarily with the coaches,” guard Ahmed Hill said. “We knew we kind of let that game go last year. They were obviously a good team. They beat us. They earned it. But we kind of felt like we deserved to win. We knew we were the better team.”
That might be bulletin board material if the Billikens, who are a No. 13 seed, weren’t acting so business-like ahead of Friday’s approximate 8:57 p.m. (St. Louis time, on truTV) tip-off at SAP Center in the East Region.
Virginia Tech is the experienced NCAA Tournament team as the Hokies are making their third consecutive appearance. SLU is in the field for the first time since 2014.
But the Hokies have losses in the last two seasons hanging over their heads. Until last weekend the Billikens weren’t even expected to be in the tournament. So, SLU players weren’t buying into the idea that a game played in November 2017 holds any value.
“We don’t really care about that game,” guard Jordan Goodwin said. “This is a whole new team, so they’ve got to come see us (Friday). If they need that to get their extra motivation, they can think like that. But we’re going to focus on ourselves.”
SLU is playing a team that lost in the first round last year to Alabama by three points and to Wisconsin the year before by 10. Most of Virginia Tech’s key players were around in 2018.
The Billikens’ only NCAA Tournament experience belongs to Javon Bess and Dion Wiley, who played with Michigan State and Maryland, respectively. Coach Travis Ford suspects those two have shared some thoughts about the tournament with their teammates.
“I haven’t asked them, but I know they’ve talked about it,” Ford said. “I want them to do it on their own terms. We talked about it in Brooklyn in the locker room about what an incredible opportunity, what an incredible memory this will be and the fact that this is the greatest sporting event there is.”
Ford is walking the fine line between having his players enjoy the NCAA Tournament and all that goes with it and treating it like any game in terms of the focus and preparation. His repeated message to the team in recent days and again at practice Thursday was for the players to be “laser focused.”
They are trying despite all that has transpired since winning the Atlantic 10 tournament on Sunday. The team received a police escort to the university after flying home from New York and had a celebratory throng waiting. The players have participated in organized news conferences. They flew to San Jose on a chartered jet, and most players have family members in town.
Tramaine Isabell Jr., who is closest to his hometown of Seattle, said he has about 40 family members and friends in San Jose for the tournament. He said most know to leave him alone at this point.
“You’re in California. It’s good weather. There’s a lot of things to do,” he said. “But I think there’s a lot on the line right now, so guys are focused on this game. Everything else that’s happened in the past doesn’t matter anymore. We’re happy to be A-10 champions, but you can’t live in the past. We want something greater than that.”
Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams did his best to downplay his team and build up the Billikens. SLU’s rebounding, he said, is a concern. This year’s Hokies aren’t necessarily any better than the previous two tournament teams, despite being a No. 4 seed. And he downplayed talk of his name being connected to the coaching job at Texas A&M.
But he definitely said he is impressed by the Billikens.
“This year’s group is more of a Travis Ford-type team, a Marcus Smart-type team, a Le’Bryan Nash-type team,” Williams said. “Can’t be on the floor unless you can bench 300 pounds. Can’t be on the floor unless you’re really mean and really tough. Can’t be on the floor unless you can average a rebound every third trip.”
Ford said he has spent a small amount of time re-watching the SLU-Virginia Tech game from early last season. He put the team through a tight 90-minute workout at San Jose State on Thursday before the Billikens went through their public workout at the arena later that night.
Now it’s time to find out how much the Billikens have left to offer.
“We’re a pretty resilient group of guys,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, no question. We’re sitting here with 23 wins going through a lot of injuries. When we were struggling at our worst there were reasons behind it, many of them out of our control. A lot weren’t even talked about that we kind of kept pretty close to the vest to not make a lot of excuses but just to compete.”