Virginia Tech Hokies vs. Bethune-Cookman Wildcats
Virginia Tech opens its fourth consecutive NIT Wednesday night against an over-matched Bethune-Cookman team. The Wildcats will no doubt enter the game fired up as they make their first Division 1 postseason appearance as the regular-season MEAC champion.
The Hokies likely only have to match the intensity level of Bethune-Cookman to advance to the second round of the NIT. That's something that hasn't been a given for the Hokies this season and after Sunday's selection snub, you couldn't blame them if they came out flat against Clifford Reed's Wildcats.
Equally as intriguing as what the team's enthusiasm will be for Wednesday's game will be the enthusiasm of Virginia Tech fans for it. It will be interesting to see what kind of support Hokie fans give for a tournament that they've been to for four consecutive years now.
In 2008, the Hokies nearly averaged a sell-out for their three NIT home games. An average of 9,667 fans came out to support the team against Morgan State, UAB and Ole Miss. Those numbers were bolstered by 3,000 tickets that were donated to students by donors and head coach Seth Greenberg for each game.
Attendance for the 2009 NIT slipped, even though tickets were again donated, as an average of 6,385 fans saw the Hokies play Duquesne and Baylor. The university offered 3,000 tickets for students against Duquesne and 2,000 against Baylor.
Last year, attendance dropped even more for Tech's first-round game against Quinnipiac. That game saw the fewest for a Tech NIT game the last three seasons with 5,264 in attendance. However, games against a big-name opponent in Connecticut and an opportunity to advance to New York against Rhode Island helped bolster the average in 2010.
The Hokies' 2010 average for three NIT home games rose to 6,434 after over 14,000 fans came to those two games. Last year, Tech offered students around 398 tickets against Quinnipiac, around 308 against UConn and around 144 against Rhode Island. After those tickets were exhausted, students could purchase seats for $5.
Will the bottom fall out for a fourth consecutive NIT with no big-name draw in the Hokies' bracket? Maybe not because the university has made a wise move in offering free admittance for Virginia Tech students. Will that be enough to ensure a full Cassell or will a malaise toward the tournament set in for Tech fans?
We may not know for sure until a potential second round game, which would take place at 11 a.m. Sunday at Cassell against either Nebraska or Wichita State. A weekend game against a higher quality opponent than the Wildcats would give us a much better idea of how Hokies fans feel about a fourth NIT.
Not surprisingly, the first-round games have been the Hokies' lowest attended the last three years, averaging 6,923 fans and 5,571 the last two years. Compare that to an average of 7,830 for second-round games and 8,406 for quarterfinal games. Tech is averaging 7,634 fans for its last eight NIT home games.
So as the Hokies begin their fourth consecutive quest for a trip to the NIT semifinals in New York, the emotions of both the team and the fans will be interesting to watch. Either they'll finally have their wills broken by being left out of a fourth consecutive tournament or they'll rally in support of another postseason run.
Odds are the fate of that run will be tied to their motivation for it.