Earlier this week, I examined a number of the low points in Hokie basketball history. It didn't make anyone feel good—me especially—but people far brighter than I have long extolled the virtues of learning from our past and so we press on, for good or ill.
This time, we'll take a far happier walk down memory lane by looking at the best of times for Tech basketball.
We should all take this team an enormous grain of salt as the early 1900s game is hardly basketball as we know it. The previous season a rule was passed finally allowing dribblers to attempt field goals. The free throw line was 15 feet from the basket and one season after Tech went undefeated, a rule was enacted that barred coaching during the game by anyone associated with either team.
So yes, the early 1900s were a strange time for basketball but this represents Tech's only undefeated season in school history so it's worthy of a mention here.
There isn't a ton of information that I found on the team, but there's a lot about its coach. Branch Bocock coached baseball, basketball and football at various points, becoming the Hokies' first head football coach to receive a full-time salary. He posted a record of 34-14-2 at Tech in football, 57-13 in basketball and 38-18 in baseball. He also served as athletic director upon his arrival in 1909.
Fast forward to the modern era and we find the Hokie team that came closer than any to making a trip to the Final Four.
The Hokies—then playing without a conference (they had previously been a member of the Southern Conference)—opened the season with an upset win in Charlotte over No. 4 Duke and went on to beat ACC opponents Wake Forest and Virginia. With two wins apiece against William & Mary and Richmond, Tech went 5-0 against teams from the Commonwealth in addition to posting an 11-1 record in Blacksburg.
The Hokies were led by head coach Howie Shannon and star player "The Kentucky Rifle" Glen Combs. The sharpshooter made 45% of his shots and averaged 21.3 PPG despite playing before the advent of the three-point line. Ken Talley averaged a double-double with 10.6 PPG and 11.1 rebounds.
Tech qualified for the Mideast Region of the NCAA Tournament, winning their opener 82-76 against Toledo in Lexington, KY. The Hokies faced an uphill battle in the Regional Semifinals against Indiana, but Combs and Talley came up big.
Combs finshed with 29 points and Talley added 16 points and 11 rebounds leading Tech to a 79-70 upset of the Hoosiers. That left the Hokies with one game against the Dayton Flyers separating hem from the Final Four. Dayton prevailed 71-66 in overtime in the Regional Final and went on to lose in the national championship game to John Wooden, tournament MVP Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbaar) and UCLA.
Editor's Note: Elvin Hayes scored 51 when the Hokies played Houston in 1968, so one can only imagine the devastation VT was spared in not having to face Big Lew.
In the early 1970s Hokie basketball still didn't have much of a name outside the New River Valley, so Tech's run in the NIT took most everyone by surprise.
Don Devoe's team was led by one of Tech's all-time greats in 6'7" forward Allan Bristow. One of four players to have his number retired and hung from the Cassell Coliseum rafters, Bristow averaged 23.9 PPG and 11.6 rebounds during his senior season.
Bobby Stevens, Charlie Thomas, Craig Lieder and Ed Frazier rounded out the starting lineup for a team that was ranked No. 19 for most of February of 1973. Tech fell out of the rankings after road losses to Richmond and Toledo but the Hokies rallied and won games against rivals West Virginia and Virginia to finish the regular season with 18 wins including a perfect 11-0 record at home.
That qualified the Hokies for a trip to New York City and the National Invitation Tournament. Given the small size of the NCAA Tournament (25 teams) the NIT was considered a prestigious event and the 16 teams involved were of a high caliber. The NIT Final Four of 1973 featured North Carolina, Notre Dame, Alabama and the Hokies.
Virginia Tech beat New Mexico, Fairfield and Alabama to earn a title game match up with Notre Dame. The Irish—led by Digger Phelps who had turned down Tech's head coaching job in 1971—played only six guys which likely hurt them when the game went into overtime.
On the final possession, Bobby Stevens missed a jumper but got his own rebound and made the second try to give Tech the 92-91 win. The Hokies won four games by a combined five points to seal their first championship in a national basketball tournament.
1994-95, Record: 25-10
This group represents one of the most well-rounded teams in school history. Tech had a bona fide star in Ace Custis, but the supporting cast was extremely capable.
"We had one great player in Ace (Custis) but it seemed like every game, there was a different hero. Someone else making a key play," head coach Bill Foster later recalled.
While Custis averaged a double-double (15.8 PPG, 10.5 REB), he was actually second on the team in scoring to big man Shawn Smith who put up 16 PPG. Guards Shawn Good and Damon Watlington both averaged double figures in scoring and the entire team played tough defense. The Hokies finished 36th in the nation in points allowed per game.
Tech played a weak schedule however and lost its only games against ranked opponents by 11 to No. 3 North Carolina and by one to No. 13 UVA in Richmond. The Hokies were 14-1 at home but just 6-6 against a weak Metro conference slate. Thus, Tech shipped off to the NIT.
The Hokies beat Clemson in Blacksburg to open the tournament, then went on the road and beat Providence comfortably. The third game saw New Mexico State nearly sneak out of Cassell with a win. After trailing the game by 20 pts early, the Aggies tied the game late. But they left Tech with one final possession, which gave Travis Jackson the opportunity to knock down a three from the corner to give the Hokies 64-61 win and a trip to Madison Square Garden.
After a 12-point win over Canisius, The Hokies took on Marquette in the NIT championship game. It was a nail biter going down to the final seconds of overtime when tournament MVP Shawn Smith made two free throws with .7 seconds remaining to give Tech a 65-64 win and the school's second NIT Championship.
It's important to note that due to injuries, the Hokies were limited to just six active players for much of the tournament.
Editor's Note: And one of the six was Myron Guillory who didn't do much but dribble tentatively on the perimeter for 10 seconds at a time and pass off. He wasn't much of an asset that year.
1995-96, Record: 23-6
The Hokies moved from the Metro to the Atlantic 10 conference the following year and carried with them the momentum from the NIT run, beginning the season ranked in the top 25 and staying there the entire campaign.
The Tech lineup was essentially the same and the defense actually improved, ranking 11th in the nation allowing just 62.9 PPG. The Hokies beat No. 22 UVA in Roanoke and largely cruised through the conference slate finshing 13-3 and first in the A-10's western division.
In February the Hokies found themselves ranked No. 8 in the country until a loss at George Washington dropped the team out of the top ten. A few wins got Tech back in and set up the only match up between top ten teams in Cassell Coliseum history when the No. 10 Hokies hosted No.1 UMass Feb. 17, 1996.
The Minutemen rolled 74-58 and Tech dropped a game at Temple and one more in the first round of the A-10 Tournament to Rhode Island. Still, the Hokies were ranked and expected a decent seed in the NCAA Tournament. They were instead rewarded with the 9-seed in the Midwest Regional.
Tech bounced Wisconsin-Green Bay 61-48 in the opening round but ran into a buzzsaw in the next game with 1-seed and eventual national champion Kentucky.
Editor's Note: The huge snowstorm in early January caused some problems with the roof of the Cassell, causing VT to play a home game v LaSalle at Radford, and the return game from GW up in Roanoke at the Civic Center. The Hokies won two key games in Roanoke that season, also beating Harold Deane, Curtis Staples and UVA in a scheduled neutral site match in late December.
2006-07, Record: 22-12
This was the season the Hokies stepped up and smacked down the old guard of the ACC. While NC State inexplicably beat Tech in all three meetings including once in the ACC Tournament, Duke and UNC weren't so lucky.
In Tech's ACC opener, they went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and upset No. 5 Duke 69-67 in overtime. A week later, No. 1 North Carolina fell 94-88 in Blacksburg. The Hokies would complete the UNC sweep with an 81-80 overtime win in Chapel Hill later in the season.
The lineup was led by the dynamic back court of Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon. Dowdell led Tech in scoring with 17.4 PPG and Gordon routinely filled the scorer's sheet with a little bit of everything (11.4 PPG, 4.5 REB, 4.5 Assists, 2.8 Steals). Coleman Collins and Deron Washington provided the bulk of the scoring in the frontcourt and sophomore A.D. Vassallo gave the offense a dangerous outside threat, averaging 11.1 PPG on 41.5% shooting from three-point range.
The Hokies would climb as high as No. 16 in the polls during the regular season, but stumbles down the stretch against Clemson, UVA and NC State halted some of the momentum going into the NCAA Tournament.
Tech earned a 5-seed and were matched up against Illinois in the first round. That game would prove to be a Seth Greenberg fever dream as hard nosed defense ruled the day. The Hokies made just enough plays to win and ground out a hard fought 54-52 win.
In the second round Tech drew 4-seed Southern Illinois and Tech's starters had a rough afternoon. Washington and Gordon tried to carry the Hokies but Collins, Vassallo and Dowdell combined for just 13 points while shooting 5-17 from the field. The Hokies fought but ultimately lost 63-48.
So which is the best team? Strong arguments can be made for any of them—save for Mr. Bocock's club which was really just an interesting historical footnote.
Seth Greenberg's team made a big splash against top competition in the ACC but Don Devoe's crew won a national tournament against top notch opponents as well. Bill Foster's mid-nineties run showed balance and heart with talent to match. Of course Howie Shannon's team nearly made the Final Four back when there were only 23 teams in the tournament.
The truth is, they all deserve placement in the pantheon of Hokie basketball excellence. With only 8 NCAA Tournament bids in 106 seasons there's admittedly plenty of room in said pantheon, but there have been some impressive highlights that are often overshadowed by the low points in the space between.
Whether it's James Johnson or someone we've never heard of, another coach will have a chance to lead Tech to similar heights. Here's hoping they take some notes from the past.