By now, you know the anecdote: Thursday night’s game against Alabama will be the first time Virginia Tech has played in consecutive NCAA Tournaments since 1985 and 1986. Going to the tournament for a second year in a row didn’t help the 1986 team – as a 7-seed, they lost in their opening NCAA game to 10-seed Villanova – but this year’s Hokies feel they have an advantage from having been on the big stage just last season.
It’s an advantage Virginia Tech’s last two tournament teams, the 1996 and 2007 squads, didn’t have. Players have to learn how to play on the big stage, and coaches have to learn how to coach on the big stage.
Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams already knows how to coach on the big stage. He’s no Roy Williams or Mike Krzyzewski when it comes to NCAA Tournament experience – few coaches are – but he has taken seven different teams to the NCAA Tournament, including this year’s Hokies.
But even a seasoned coach can learn a few more things.
“If there would be one thing that I would say specific to last year,” Williams said, in reference to Virginia Tech’s loss to Wisconsin in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. “I don’t know that we prepared for the event as much as we should have. I think we prepared for Wisconsin. I think we prepared for the opponent. But I don’t know that I did a good job helping prepare them for the event.”
Last season, the Hokies played seven players, only three of whom will play against the Crimson Tide: Justin Bibbs, Ahmed Hill, and Justin Robinson. The others were Ty Outlaw (redshirting due to knee injury this season), Khadim Sy (redshirting), and Zach LeDay and Seth Allen (eligibility expired).
Kerry Blackshear and Devin Wilson both redshirted last year, so they sat on the bench during the NCAA Tournament game, but they didn’t play. They will join Bibbs, Hill, Robinson and others against Alabama, as the Hokies are likely to play more than just seven players this time around.
“Only three guys in our program played last year [in the tournament], and we’re back again,” Williams said. “I think that says a lot, considering what’s transpired over the last four years.”
Buzz Williams better than anyone understands that each team has its own unique psychology, and different approaches work for different groups of players. It’s one of his strengths as a coach, as opposed to being a one-size-fits-all, my-way-or-the-highway kind of coach. When asked how to prepare this particular group of players for the tournament, he answered:
“So we’ve spent a little bit more time, me specifically, with our kids on preparing them for the event. The timeouts, what we’re about to do, why we’re practicing late, the tip time is not going to be what it says it’s going to be on the Internet, how the officials work, what is an NCAA Tournament share, what does that mean? All of those things, just so they understand, from an educational standpoint.
“There were some kids that watched it last year that were in our program that didn’t play [Wilson and Blackshear], so I hope that because some of us have had some level of a rep of doing this, we’ll be better than we were last year. Maybe not specific to the opponent, but specific to the event.”
Down at the player level, the comments from the athletes back up what Buzz Williams said: they weren’t really prepared for the event last year.
“We can’t get overwhelmed,” said Ahmed Hill, one of the three to play last year. “That was our first time coming here last year, so we didn’t know what to expect. It was overwhelming, but now I think that we have more poise. We know how to play and what to expect from the fans.”
Justin Robinson appreciates the magnitude of it. “It’s a whole different ballgame, and it’s a tournament. The mistakes are magnified.”
Buzz Williams mentioned timeouts in his comments, and though Robinson was talking in a completely different setting, not having heard Buzz’s comments, he echoed them. “In terms of timeout wise, you sit down a lot, and you have a lot of breaks. Give it your all.”
For a ball of energy who often has to pace himself during a game, knowing that he will get to sit more and recuperate is a big realization, one Robinson didn’t know before last year.
Freshman Nickeil Alexander-Walker is at the other end of the spectrum. He was in high school last year.
“I am crazy excited,” he said. “This is something I’ve always dreamed of, watching it as a kid, hoping I can be on that stage, and it’s crazy I’m finally here.”
Fortunately, he’s got older players who have been here to offer some advice. “They told me that warm-up times are kind of tight, and getting in the rhythm of things is going to be different than a normal, regular-season game. Also, just to make sure that you use every moment wisely, making sure you use your body right, and realize the little things do so much for you and will take you a long way.”
Buzz Williams will be coaching in his seventh NCAA Tournament. Alabama’s head coach, Avery Johnson, has never coached in the NCAA Tournament. Some of Virginia Tech’s best players have either played in the tournament or witnessed it from the bench. Alabama’s best player is a freshman, and none of their players have played in the NCAA Tournament. Alabama also has no seniors in their rotation.
Will all of this matter come tip time? We never really know. But if things go Virginia Tech’s way, you can look to the Hokies’ experience as one reason why.