Coaches have much in common with ancient Egyptians, who considered the heart the center of consciousness and took pains to preserve it for the afterlife. For coaches, afterlife is called retirement, and is often as involuntary as death. They therefore value heart in the present, less as an organ than as a descriptive.

Coaches are inordinately fond of making anatomical references–saying a player showed guts, possessed the “eye of the tiger,” used his or her brain, acted like an ass or some other nether locale. Still, to say someone plays with heart is the highest of compliments, denoting ultimate perseverance and dedication.

But there’s heart of the competitive variety, and then there’s a quality of character that transcends sport.

At Virginia Tech, the men’s basketball squad has shown heart while being shadowed by death. The father of one player and the grandmother who raised another both died during the current season. The mother of a third player is battling cancer, as is a member of the Hokie squad. Senior forward Allen Calloway has been benched, perhaps permanently, by alveolar soft part sarcoma, a rare and inoperable malignancy in his left calf muscle that spread to his lung.

A refreshing aspect of sports is that outcomes are quantifiable, not subject to negotiation or manipulation like so much in the public realm. But sometimes the rankings, standings, statistics, and seedings, the jabber about the field of 65 and the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight and Final Four obscure details of a more human sort such as the struggles at Blacksburg.

The record book will show the Hokies, projected to finish in the middle of the ACC pack, were 4-12 in conference play, tied for 10th place in a 12-team league. Fans will remember a stunning 40-foot, buzzer-beating shot by Duke’s Sean Dockery that deprived Virginia Tech of a key victory in the teams’ ACC opener at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

But the real pain, said coach Seth Greenberg, has nothing to do with that game or any other.

“We’re an exhausted team right now,” Greenberg said the other day. The emotional toll has been heavy. The coach finds himself vacillating between an accustomed level of discipline and expectation and giving his young players room to cope with their sorrows. “It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever dealt with,” Greenberg said.

N.C. State likewise seems spent, although for more prosaic reasons. Lauded as the ACC’s premier defensive team, the Wolfpack won 21 of its first 26 games and appeared to be the deepest and best-crafted squad of Herb Sendek’s decade-long coaching tenure. Students displayed playful hand-lettered signs that read, “What can HERB [in green letters] Do For You?” and “I [Heart] HERBs.”

Then injuries and a seeming malaise hit. N.C. State lost its final two home contests, including a drubbing by hated rival North Carolina, and followed with a dispirited loss at Wake Forest, which finished last.

The Demon Deacons, 13-3 in the ACC in 2005, matched the greatest decline in conference history by going 3-13 this year. They still handled the Wolfpack rather easily, deepening a murmur of discontent that surrounds N.C. State men’s basketball.

The ongoing critiques of Sendek’s program are both disappointing and understandable.

On one hand, there should be no complaint about a program that closely adheres to what we say is desirable in intercollegiate athletics.

Sendek’s players graduate and avoid off-court trouble. His teams play hard. The 2006 Wolfpack is certain to tie a school record by making a fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance (matching a run from 1985-89 under Jim Valvano). Sendek’s squads have won 21 or more games and finished among the ACC’s top four teams in four of the last five seasons. The coach is well-spoken, intelligent and a caring individual.

Unfortunately for the 43-year-old from Pittsburgh, that resume does not satisfy a hunger fueled by memories of two national championships (1974 and 1983) and a record of tournament excellence established by Everett Case following World War II. The link with faded glory is made all the more painful by competing in a neighborhood where excellence, not competence, is routine.

Between them, nearby Duke and North Carolina have appeared in 14 Final Fours since 1990 and won five NCAA championships–Duke in 1991, 1992, and 2001 and UNC in 1993 and 2005. N.C. State last got to the Final Four in 1983.

Duke and UNC combined to finish among the nation’s top 10 teams on 21 different occasions between 1991 and 2005. Seven times the Tar Heels or Blue Devils finished first in the final Associated Press poll. During the same period, a single N.C. State team ended a season ranked in the polls, and that was at No. 15 in 2004.

The ’06 squad, which only weeks ago possessed a winner’s swagger, has fallen from a high of No. 14 in this year’s poll to also-ran status. With postseason play about to begin, the chorus of complaint could grow ugly if the Wolfpack continues to dissolve like tissue paper in water.

Duke’s late stumble, consecutive hard-fought losses to Florida State and North Carolina, is not apt to raise hackles among loyalists.

Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils have spent 21 weeks atop the polls this season, and at 12-2 finished first in the ACC. Their 27-3 record is impressive by any measure. Seniors J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams are All-Americas. Redick, the conference’s all-time leading scorer, is the repeat ACC player of the year, boasting the top scoring average in the league (27.8 points per game) since David Thompson’s 29.9 for N.C. State in 1975.

For all that, plus four other prep All-Americas in the playing rotation, this is a team with a small margin of error. When Redick’s shots do not fall, Duke struggles, and he has misfired on 57 of his last 80 field goal attempts.

Redick clearly was bothered by the pressures of his well-chronicled chase of the ACC career scoring mark, but one also wonders about fatigue. Krzyzewski uses only seven players, and over the years several of his teams have faltered in the NCAAs when timely help from reserves might have saved the day. Claims of officiating bias notwithstanding, Williams also frequently gets in foul trouble, and there are few experienced options to fill his place.

Should the preseason pick as the nation’s top team fail to proceed deep into the
NCAA tournament, the short bench likely will be a factor.

Lower expectations already mean greater satisfaction in Chapel Hill. Little was expected of the ’06 Tar Heels beyond a fitful recovery after losing the top seven performers from last year’s championship squad. Instead, a nine-man rotation produced a second-place ACC finish and 21 wins during the regular season and a slew of awards for everyone from coach Roy Williams to freshman forward Tyler Hansbrough.

Two freshmen start, including Hansbrough, a strong, relentless, and sure-handed young man from Missouri. Hansbrough is just the sixth freshman voted first team All-ACC since first-year students became eligible for varsity competition in 1972-73. A third starter, Wes Miller, is a diminutive walk-on from Charlotte who readily admits “it’s a dream come true to be playing significant minutes here, let alone starting.”

Senior David Noel and junior Reyshawn Terry were minor substitutes in 2005, but in retrospect can be seen as gifted players who needed an opportunity and intensive coaching to flourish.

Yet, for all the satisfactions, including a home finale won by 45 points over Virginia, Williams ended his 2006 stint on the Smith Center sidelines in a bit of a snit. To the coach’s vast irritation, the largest cheer on senior night was not the pregame introduction of four Tar Heels finishing their collegiate eligibility. Rather, the crowd reserved its greatest roar for the posting of the score in Duke’s first ACC loss of the season.

Following the game, before the seniors took a microphone to address the victory-sated spectators, Williams heatedly chastised onlookers to avoid living down to their oft-repeated characterization as a laid-back “wine and cheese crowd.”

Most flaws will fade from memory once tournament play begins. Just as emerging leaves obscure the lay of the land to all but the most discerning eye, so what happened most recently in sports makes the greatest impression. In college basketball, very much a tournament sport, seasons will be defined or devalued based on what happens in the next few weeks.

You can bet, however, that when teams win coaches will laud their uncommon heart.