Buzz Williams has successfully built a winning culture at Virginia Tech. He’s recruited tough, unheralded players and turned them into a cohesive unit. He’s taken kids who might have been slept on by other schools, taken teams with little expectations and used it to motivate his group.
That tactic might not work as much this year. After two years of starting the season as the plucky underdog, the Hokies now find themselves near the top of the ACC food chain with a target on their backs.
“We consider it like poison because we don’t want to get a big head,” said Justin Bibbs. “It’s exciting, but we’re ready to work and to get better.”
The high expectations can be traced back to five straight regular season wins to finish last season, a win over Florida State in the opening round of the ACC Tournament and a win over Princeton in the NIT. Despite the hot finish to last season, and Virginia Tech returning almost their entire team, Williams is cautious in his optimism.
“I think how things transpired were for sure unexpected, but I think also they were earned,” Williams said. “I think our schedule is different. I haven’t studied all of the league schedule yet, for sure I feel like our non-conference is harder. I don’t know. I think it’s hard to predict, just like it was last year, but I think we’re going in the right direction.I think we’re going in the right direction relative to the guys, the talent, the experience.”
Williams said it doesn’t really matter if Virginia Tech finds itself ranked in the preseason for first time since the 2010-2011 season.
“Once you get past the top 10 or 15 teams, everyone is kind of searching, ‘Well, let me reach for this team. I like how they’re going,’” Williams said. “I think that’s probably what’s happening to us a little bit. We kind of finished semi on a good note over the last month of the season. It sounds good, it looks good, we play in a really, maybe the best league. It’s 25. Nobody cares about 25.”
Virginia Tech looking forward to return of Hill and Outlaw
While Tech returns everyone from last season except Shane Henry (graduation), Satchel Pierce and Jalen Hudson (transfer), they also get two players back that could have a big impact. Ahmed Hill, who missed the entire 2015-2016 season due to a knee injury, started 30 games in his freshman season and turned into a solid scorer and great defender. Williams said that he loved how hard Hill worked last season to improve his game, despite not being able to play.
“Ahmed, in my opinion, epitomizes what it’s supposed to be about on and off the floor,” Williams said. “He’s the toughest guy in our program. He’s the most respected guy in our program.”
Hill said that he tried to make the best out of the situation.
“It hurt, a lot, but you know, I helped these guys in practice, I watched them, I know how much they went through,” Hill said.
The Hokies will also have Ty Outlaw for this season. Outlaw transferred into the program before last season, but was held out due to an undisclosed medical issue. Outlaw was cleared this offseason.
“I think both of them will help us. I don’t know who Ty can guard yet,” Williams said. “We need to figure that out as soon as we can, and we will, but who he can guard is probably where he will help us the most offensively too. He can really shoot it.”
Blackshear to miss beginning of team practices, possibly the season
The biggest issue surrounding the team at the moment is the health of Kerry Blackshear. The team confirmed in late September that Blackshear would miss the beginning of team practices, and that he might not be ready for the season after having offseason surgery on his left ankle and having to recover from a stress injury in his right leg. Williams said on Monday that Blackshear will be reevaluated in three weeks, and that if things don’t improve soon, he could miss the rest of the season.
“I’ve been rehabbing every day, like multiple times a day,” Blackshear said. “It’s good, I feel a lot better now.”
Fortunately for Blackshear, a couple of his teammates have dealt with extended injuries. Along with Hill and Outlaw, Chris Clarke missed a significant chunk of last season due to a foot injury.
“I told him how when I had my injury, I was really depressed and I didn’t really talk to anybody,” Hill said. “After that, I had a conversation with Buzz and it changed right away. It helped me become a leader off the floor. I told (Blackshear) that he’s not really vocal that much, but by having this injury, it can help him become more vocal, just sitting on the bench and watching the game and help him develop a lot of things.”
With Blackshear possibly out for an extended period of time, Virginia Tech’s depth in the front court is thin at best. Zach LeDay and Johnny Hamilton are the only two players down low who have any experience. Khadim Sy is a true freshman and transfer walk-on Nick Fullard must sit out the season due to NCAA transfer rules.
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“Coach Buzz told us it’s next man up,” Hamilton said. “Hopefully we have him back soon enough. I’m just going to do the best I can to help the team.”
Hamilton played in just 17 games last season and struggled to play for long stretches of time. Hamilton says that last season’s experience has helped him adapt more to the NCAA level.
“I worked on my stamina, my ball control,” Hamilton said. “I understand the game more, because coming from junior college, it’s a whole other level. Now I’m understanding this level of the game.”
The depth issues up front can be minimized by playing smaller on the court, something that Williams has done since he arrived at Virginia Tech. Williams often plays three and sometimes four guards on the floor, without a true center.
“Buzz doesn’t recruit guys that have a position,” said Justin Robinson. “In the system, I could play the one, two or three, depending on who’s in and who brings the ball up. I think that’s really good about us, we’re really versatile. I think (Williams will) have a lot of guards on the floor again.”
Bibbs has played just about every position for Virginia Tech at some point and wouldn’t mind playing down low more if he’s needed there.
“If it comes to it, I’ll do it,” Bibbs said. “I feel comfortable doing it. I did it my freshman year a lot. I think I can do it again.”
Hokies’ team chemistry an asset
Maybe more important than the improvements each player has made to their game is the chemistry the Hokies have with one another.
“When you play for Buzz, you just know you’re a family,” Robinson said. “We just finished boot camp and that brings everybody together. It’s so hard and you have to rely on one another.”
LeDay said that the preseason boot camps that the players go through help bring the players closer together.
“It began last year, around this time,” LeDay said. “Everybody coming in, it was new and we did boot camp. We didn’t know what was going to happen and the chemistry just built out throughout the year.”
“I think some of the things we go through in practice force you to really bond with the people next to you,” said Devin Wilson. “It’s really, really hard to not like someone here.”
Once the season started, the bond between the players didn’t take long to grow into what it is now.
“It wasn’t hard, it just took time,” said Seth Allen. “You can call somebody your brother, but until you’ve been in a fight, starved, didn’t eat or had to go get your own food with them, you really don’t know what it’s like. We had to go through a whole season and feel what it was like, go through ups and downs, and the chemistry just forms throughout that.”
The players say that Williams’ leadership on and off the floor has pushed them closer and closer together.
“I think it was all on Buzz,” Hill said. “Buzz put us in the same apartment complex, we all live like five feet from each other. We’re always around each other all the time, whether it’s playing video games, watching movies, watching TV, we’re always around each other. Even when we go home for the break, we hit each other up.”
“I know if I listen to Coach Buzz, he’s never told me wrong,” LeDay said. “I just keep on listening to him, I think I’ll be straight.”