It’s no secret that Virginia Tech struggled defensively for most of last season. In fact, defense hasn’t been their strong suit in any of the past three seasons despite their postseason appearances.
Here are the Hokies’ defensive efficiency rankings for the past three years…
2017-18: No. 142 out of 351
2016-17: No. 243 out of 351
2015-16: No. 137 out of 351
After an 84-75 home loss to Miami on February 4, 2018, Buzz Williams had seen enough. He inserted senior guard Devin Wilson into the starting lineup and made major changes schematically and philosophically. Tech stuck with a man-to-man, but used more zone principles, and more help defense.
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“Making that wholesale defensive change that we did, it’s not what you want to do as a coach,” Williams said recently at this year’s Virginia Tech Basketball Media Day. “Our offensive numbers at that point were stellar in many regards. Our defensive numbers were what they had always been, if not slightly below. I thought it was the only chance we had, maybe, to do better.”
The Hokies did do better. After the loss to Miami, the Hokies closed the regular season with a 5-3 record and allowed an average of just 66.3 points per game during that stretch. During those eight games, the Hokies beat No. 2 Virginia, No. 5 Duke and No. 15 Clemson. Those three key wins helped Tech qualify for its second consecutive NCAA Tournament.
The 2018-19 season is almost upon us, and this is a different team. Gone are Devin Wilson and Justin Bibbs, the two best defenders from last year’s team, and the two main players who helped that defense work.
“I don’t know that any player I’ve ever coached had the defensive instincts that Devin did,” Williams said.
How will the Hokies replace those two key seniors? They aren’t quite sure yet.
“I don’t know who on our current team will be able to do what Bibbs and Devin did,” Williams said. “I think we can figure out what they gave us offensively, but who is going to be able to maybe right a wrong in front of them, I don’t know yet. I think all of them having a better understanding, and more reps hopefully helps somebody come to the forefront. But thus far we don’t have evidence of that.”
Defense has been the team’s main focus from the end of last season into this season. The coaching staff has pointed out the deficiencies of last year’s team on the defensive end of the court, and they are working hard to correct them.
“That’s one of the biggest things we worked on this spring and summer,” sophomore guard Wabissa Bede noted. “We watched a lot of film, and realized we can’t replace [Wilson and Bibbs], but we can try our best and be in the right spots at all times so we can help each other at all times. So be in the right spot, slide our feet, and play hard.”
In fact, in the days leading up to Media Day, the Hokies had devoted nearly all of their practice time to team defense.
“They’re taking a different approach this year, so we haven’t done much offense because of that,” senior forward Ty Outlaw said. “We’re working more on defense. We’re sticking with what we had success with last year, and we’re focusing on that. We know we can shoot. We work on it, and we all work on our game individually, but we can’t work on defense individually. So he pushes us to work on our offense on our own, and when we’re together we’re going to work on everything of course, but mainly defense, because that’s our Achilles Heel.”
Outlaw missed last season with a torn ACL, but he knows he was viewed as a defensive liability during the previous season. According to him, it was an accurate viewpoint, and in the future he doesn’t want to be labeled that way again.
“I don’t want to be a liability on defense,” he said.
But saying you need to improve and actually taking the steps needed to improve are two different things. In Outlaw’s case, he spent the offseason attempting to lose weight and get himself in better physical condition. The noticeably slimmer North Carolina native has lost over 20 pounds since May, and he’ll enter his sixth collegiate season looking like a brand new man.
“I’ve lost like 20 pounds since May. [I was] 214, this morning. In May, it was like 238. I wanted to move better.”
Whether it’s by weight loss, individual improvement, or a better understanding of team defensive concepts, Virginia Tech must make defensive improvements this season. They were knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two seasons because of poor defensive performances, allowing 86 points against Alabama this past season and 84 against Wisconsin in the previous season. With so much experience returning, they have a deeper run in mind for the upcoming campaign, but they’ll need better defensive play to accomplish that goal.