Virginia Tech Basketball: 2017-18 Roster Preview

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Buzz Williams
Buzz Williams has plenty of talent on this year’s roster. (Ivan Morozov)

Virginia Tech’s basketball season tips off on Friday night in Cassell Coliseum with a matchup with Detroit Mercy. Though many faces from previous seasons return, there are also a number of new players that are being throw into the mix.

The Hokies knocked off South Carolina 86-67 in a scrimmage in Columbia on Sunday afternoon. It was an impressive performance. South Carolina made the Final Four last year, and even though they lost a lot of talent from that team, they will still be a solid squad this year with Frank Martin as their head coach.

The early returns, through the South Carolina scrimmage and an exhibition with George Mason, is that this team is much improved defensively. In today’s basketball season preview, we’re going to skip over Tech’s wing depth, of which we all know there is plenty. We’ll focus on other topics, such as point guard, the lack of depth in the post, the emergence of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, lineup options, and an improved defense (knock on wood).

2017-2018 Roster

Here’s the roster for this upcoming season.

No.NamePosn.Ht.Wt.Cl.
1Tyrie JacksonG6-1205r-Fr.
3Wabissa BedeG6-1195Fr.
4Nickeil Alexander-WalkerG6-5210Fr.
5Justin RobinsonG6-1185Jr.
10Justin BibbsG6-5220Sr.
11Devin WilsonG6-4195r-Sr.
13Ahmed HillG6-5205r-Jr.
14P.J. HorneF6-5215Fr.
15Chris ClarkeG/F6-6210Jr.
21Nick FullardF6-10235r-Jr.
22Justin AmmermanG6-3185Jr.
24Kerry Blackshear Jr.F6-10260r-So.
42Ty Outlaw 1G/F6-6220r-Sr.
1 - will be a redshirt for the 2017-18 season
Justin Robinson finally has help at point guard. (Ivan Morozov)

Multiple Point Guard Options

Justin Robinson (6-2, 190, Jr.) is a very good player, but he was playing too many minutes last season. In general, the Hokies’ starting point guard was on the court anywhere from 34 to 40 minutes per game, and it affected his performance mentally, as well as on the defensive end.

Robinson played just 27 minutes in Virginia Tech’s exhibition game with South Carolina on Sunday, and he appeared to be a better player on both ends of the court. In 27 minutes of action, he finished with 12 points, eight assists and four rebounds. He ran the team well, and was more effective defensively than he was last season.

During the 2016-17 campaign, Seth Allen was the only other player on the roster capable of running the point, and even he wasn’t a natural point guard. This year the Hokies have several other options at the point, including a player who has started many games at the position in the past. Here’s a list of the other options…

Devin Wilson (6-4, 195, r-Sr.)
Tyrie Jackson (6-1, 205, r-Fr.)
Wabissa Bede (6-1, 195, Fr.)

We’ll see Wilson playing a variety of positions for the Hokies this year, depending on his defensive responsibility. I think there’s a misconception out there that he isn’t an ACC caliber player and he isn’t going to play much. That’s not true. Just because he isn’t a good scorer doesn’t mean he isn’t an ACC caliber player. He will fill the same role that Markus Sailes filled back in the 2006-07 season. Sailes wasn’t a big scorer, but he was an excellent defensive player who could defend three different positions, and he could also run the point if needed.

Wilson started yesterday’s exhibition game and played 20 minutes. He is one of Virginia Tech’s top three perimeter defenders. He’s going to see plenty of time on the court this year.

Wabissa Bede is also considered to be one of Tech’s top three perimeter defenders, along with Justin Bibbs and Wilson. He had 15 minutes in the scrimmage, and he’s impressed early observers with his toughness, his quickness, and his strength as a defensive guard.

Tyrie Jackson was on the court for 18 minutes, and he finished with eight points and six rebounds. He can play point guard, but he can also play the two spot as well, which means he can be on the court at the same time with Justin Robinson and Wabissa Bede. He has the potential to be a good defensive player, and he’s a guy who can put the ball in the basket.

Not only do the Hokies have more point guard options this year, but they have better defensive options, and more versatile options. Justin Robinson won’t have to shoulder nearly the entire load, and that’s going to make him a better player.

Devin Wilson
The return of Devin Wilson will help the Hokies defensively. (Ivan Morozov)

 

Defense Will be Better

Despite their lack of size, post defense really wasn’t the issue for the Hokies last season.

2-Pt. % Defense: No. 159 nationally
3-Pt. % Defense: No. 249 nationally

Granted, the two-point defense wasn’t exceptional, but it wasn’t horrific either. However, time and time again we saw wide open shooters on the perimeter, and you can’t give ACC caliber players wide open shots. Not only did they struggle to stop the three-point shot, but they struggled to stop dribble penetration as well. The Hokies had to win a lot of shootouts last year because of their inability to defend the perimeter.

That is going to improve this year simply because Seth Allen, Ty Outlaw and Zach LeDay aren’t playing. I’m a big fan of each of those guys, but they were all defensive liabilities. Their offense will be missed. Their defense will not. From what we saw in the South Carolina exhibition game, the Hokies still have enough offensively to be very dangerous on that end of the court. Even if their offense drops off slightly, it will be more than offset by a much-improved defense, particularly on the perimeter.

Justin Bibbs (6-5, 220, Sr.) is considered by most to be Virginia Tech’s top perimeter defender. Devin Wilson could be considered a close second, and from what we’ve heard thorough the scrimmage with George Mason and the exhibition with South Carolina, Wabissa Bede could be thrown into that group as well. Nickeil Alexander-Walker has the length and quickness to be a good defensive player as well, and Kerry Blackshear represents a much bigger post presence than Zach LeDay.

In short, there’s no way this team can do anything but be much better defensively than they were a year ago.

Kerry Blackshear
Kerry Blackshear is the ideal big man for Buzz Williams. (Ivan Morozov)

Limited Post Options

Freshman forward PJ Horne (6-5, 215) had eight points and nine rebounds in 14 minutes against George Mason, and then he finished with 11 points and two rebounds in 12 minutes against South Carolina. I’m confident that he’s going to be a good player for the Hokies.

However, Horne is 6-5, and for those of you who don’t like seeing 6-5 centers, you might want to cover your eyes this season. At this point, Horne is getting the majority of his minutes at the center spot out of necessity. Kerry Blackshear (6-10, 260, r-So.) had 26 minutes against South Carolina, while former walk-on Nick Fullard (6-10, 235, r-Jr.) had five minutes. That means nine of Horne’s 12 minutes came at the five, while the remaining three came at power forward. That’s assuming nobody else played the five; if they did, I didn’t notice.

Watching one exhibition on ESPN3 is a small sample size, but it looks as if the Hokies aren’t doubling the post with Blackshear in the game, but they are doubling it when PJ Horne is defending at the center spot. That makes sense. Outside of Chris Clarke, Horne is probably the quickest guy off the court. He’s a very good athlete, and he’s going to have a good career. But he doesn’t have any business defending centers, and unfortunately he’ll have to do that this year.

The good news is that Kerry Blackshear is perhaps the most skilled Virginia Tech center above the height of 6-7 that I’ve ever seen. You’d have to go back to the 1980s to Bobby Beecher (who was listed at 6-9) to find somebody approaching Blackshear’s size who actually had skill. Skilled 6-10 players don’t exactly grow on trees around these parts. While it’s true that he never reached the magical length border of seven feet, Blackshear is huge by Virginia Tech post standards.

Blackshear had 12 points and eight rebounds in 26 minutes against South Carolina. Late in the game, he stepped outside the three-point line on the left wing and buried a three-pointer. There aren’t many 6-10 guys who can do that. He can score in the post, and he can knock down some open jumpers. He can even put the ball on the floor to a certain extent.

Because of everything I said in the previous two paragraphs, and the fact that the Hokies have pretty much no post depth, Blackshear is this team’s most valuable player. If he goes down with an injury or gets in foul trouble, it will become much more difficult for this team to win games.

Nick Fullard was awarded a scholarship over the summer, but limit your expectations. He’s a former Division II player at Belmont Abbey, and here are his career stats…

Freshman: 14 starts, 28 games, 2.8 points, 3.2 rebounds
Sophomore: 28 starts, 28 games, 3.2 points, 3.5 rebounds

Fullard got five minutes against South Carolina, and roughly the same amount against George Mason. He’s going to play a role this year for the Hokies, though a very small one. That said, there will be days where perhaps Blackshear will be in foul trouble and Fullard will have to play more than expected. When that happens, don’t expect a lot of points and rebounds. My main hope for Fullard is that he’s a competent defensive player when he’s in the game.

Alexander-Walker Looks Legit

Buzz Williams signed the highly-touted Nickeil Alexander-Walker (6-5, 210) in his last recruiting class. Thus far, Alexander-Walker has looked the part.

To refresh your memory, here are Alexander-Walker’s recruiting rankings…

Rivals: 4-star, No. 32 player nationally
247: 4-star, No. 37 player nationally
ESPN: 5-star, No. No. 21 player nationally

He’s the third highest-rated recruit in the 2017 class to sign with an ACC school other than Duke. One of the two players in front of him, Bruce Bowen, was the 6-figure signee that eventually made Rick Pitino run out of lives. Per ESPN, Alexander-Walker is a higher-ranked player than any recruit who signed with schools such as North Carolina, Syracuse, NC State, Florida State, etc. for the previous class.

In short, signing Alexander-Walker was a bit like breaking new ground for Virginia Tech. Dorian Finney-Smith was a similarly ranked player. Let’s hope Alexander-Walker’s VT career goes a lot better. (For those curious, Finney-Smith now plays in the NBA.)

Alexander-Walker was listed anywhere from 175-195 as a recruit. However, he enrolled at Virginia Tech for the first summer session so he could get extra time in the weight room, and as a result he’s now up to 210. He doesn’t look like a freshman. He also had impressive performances over the last two weekends, scoring 18 points against George Mason, with another 18 points and six rebounds against South Carolina.

He’s a gifted player who can shoot it from the outside, and he can score around the basket. Probably the most difficult adjustment for Alexander-Walker is learning what is a good shot within the framework of Buzz’s offense. Shot selection was his biggest issue during Sunday’s exhibition. If he can figure that part of it out, he has the potential to have a very good season.

Alexander-Walker was born on September 2, 1998. That makes him a year older than most true freshmen, so it makes sense that he’s a bit more physically developed at this stage. There isn’t much talk (outside of the VT fan base) about Alexander-Walker being a one-and-done player, but there are some who project that he could be a first round pick after his sophomore season in college. If that’s the case, that would put him on the same trajectory level as Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon, who was a first round pick after his second year in Tallahassee.

I was surprised when Alexander-Walker didn’t get any votes for the ACC’s Preseason Freshman of the Year. Here were all the vote getters and their ESPN rankings…

Marvin Bagley III (58), Duke: No. 1
Lonnie Walker IV (3), Miami: No. 13
Lavar Batts, Jr. (2), NC State: No. 97
MJ Walker (2), Florida State: No. 27
Jalek Felton (1), UNC: No. 28
Aamir Simms (1), Clemson: UNRANKED
Oshae Brissett (1), Syracuse: UNRANKED (Postgraduate)
De’Andre Hunter (1), Virginia: No. 72 (Class of 2016)

No love for the No. 21 ranked player in the country? Yet Aamir Simms, who is outside the Top 100, gets a vote? I’m sure Bagley win it, but you’d think Alexander-Walker would have gotten a vote or two.

Preseason voting aside, I’m betting that Alexander-Walker will end up on the ACC All-Freshman team at the end of the season. He’s going to play a lot of minutes for the Hokies, and while I’m sure he’ll have his freshman moments, he’s going to have some big games as well.

Lineup Options

Buzz Williams has 10 healthy players who were recruited as scholarship athletes to play at Virginia Tech. Williams has more lineup options than he did last year.

Starting

1: Justin Robinson (Jr.)
2: Ahmed Hill (r-Jr.)
3: Justin Bibbs (Sr.)
4: Chris Clarke (Jr.)
5: Kerry Blackshear (r-So.)

Defensive

1: Wabissa Bede (Fr.)
2: Ahmed Hill (r-Jr.)
3: Devin Wilson (r-Sr.)
4: Justin Bibbs (Sr.)
5: Kerry Blackshear (r-So.)

Rebounding

1: Devin Wilson (r-Sr.)
2: Justin Bibbs (Sr.)
3: Chris Clarke (Jr.)
4: PJ Horne (Fr.)
5: Kerry Blackshear (r-So.)

Shooting

1: Justin Robinson (Jr.)
2: Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Fr.)
3: Ahmed Hill (r-Jr.)
4: Justin Bibbs (Sr.)
5: Kerry Blackshear (r-So.)

Even though the Hokies have suffered some attrition with Khadim Sy leaving and Ty Outlaw tearing his ACL, Buzz Williams did not have that many lineup options available to him last season. Tyrie Jackson is also available, and perhaps he could be featured in some type of pure scoring lineup that could look something like this…

1: Tyrie Jackson (r-Fr.)
2: Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Fr.)
3: Ahmed Hill (r-Jr.)
4: Justin Bibbs (Sr.)
5: Kerry Blackshear (r-So.)

Or, maybe this one…

1: Justin Robinson (Jr.)
2: Tyrie Jackson (r-Fr.)
3: Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Fr.)
4: Justin Bibbs (Sr.)
5: Kerry Blackshear (r-So.)

With Bibbs out and Clarke coming off the bench because of his knee, Tech’s lineup against South Carolina looked like this…

1: Justin Robinson (Jr.)
2: Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Fr.)
3: Devin Wilson (r-Sr.)
4: Ahmed Hill (r-Jr.)
5: Kerry Blackshear (r-So.)

To be honest, I’m not sure who was defending the four spot. It could have been Wilson or Hill. With Justin Bibbs apparently missing the first three games of the season, I’d expect this starting lineup against when the Hokies take on Detroit Mercy on Friday night.

Overall, I liked what I saw from the Hokies during Tech’s scrimmage with South Carolina, and remember, Tech was without Justin Bibbs. This team has a lot of new faces, but its ceiling is higher than last year’s team. I’ll return on Thursday with a TSL Pass column about my expectations and feelings about this team, and thoughts on where the program is in general right now.

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15 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Absolutely love the “magical length border” reference. Possibility this funniest thing ever posted to TSL . With Joe Spinks, man!

  2. Looking at your various lineup possibilities, seems as if Blackshear goes down for a game, or multiple games, VT is in the world of hurt.

    He’s listed in everyone of them.

  3. Chris, thanks for the great review! It sounds like we have a lot more help now around our nucleus of tough Hokies! Looking forwa d to watching them play.

  4. I believe most of the reason for our 3 point defense issues last year was lack of a post presence which caused other players to double down when the ball entered the defensive paint. Having Blackshear should alleviate that issue when he is on the court.

    1. I was thinking the same thing. NO basis for my opinion, just the first thing that came to mind. Then I remember the breakdown of Seth Allen floating in space in defense. So maybe it isn’t just the lack of post D.

    1. We did well. The defense was good. VT was hoping the good defense would carry over against South Carolina and it did for the most part.

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