Virginia Tech guard Nickeil Alexander Walker and head coach Buzz Williams were Monday’s guests.
On why this season has felt different…
Life has just slowed down for me. As a freshman, you come into the college world not really knowing what to expect. Things move fast. The time management, in high school you have a schedule where you have to be somewhere every hour. Now, when you have to be accountable for your own time, it was different for me. Now that I’m in my second year and I’ve gone through the ringer and know what it’s like to play a full season of conference play and into the NCAA Tournament, it’s a blessing.
I just used what I did well and tried to continue to do that and improve my game. We lost two great players, Devin [Wilson] and [Justin] Bibbs, so I knew that my role was going to change. I tried to get better within my role and what my role was going to be and do what I can to help my team be successful.
On how moving to the U.S. as a sophomore in high school molded him into who he is today…
It made me grow up faster. I was sixteen doing my own grocery shopping, laundry, and things that my mom didn’t have to tell me to do. I kind of had to rely on myself more. It was a little bit of a culture shock. When my mom was there, she practically did everything for me. Having to do that on my own, making sure I was doing my homework and keeping up with things, I felt like I’ve lived the college life since my sophomore year of high school. I’m away from home and I’m at school all the time. I have to balance being a teenager, but also having fun.
On how he has handled the expectations for him…
With my cousin [Shai Gilgeous-Alexander] making it to the NBA, it brought a lot of expectation and a lot of questions. Am I leaving? Am I staying? Am I going to go? It was my mom being proud of my cousin, but also, her wishing that her son can be there. Me and my cousin are really close. I see him as a twin brother and our bond is inseparable. To see him reach our childhood dream, and it’s like, I would love to be there, but at the same time it’s just, everyone has a different path in life. I’m just embracing mine, and mine is here at Tech.
I love it here at Tech. God has given me the chance to do things that I never thought I’d be able to do. I’m just embracing what I have and not what I don’t have. That’s what has opened up a lot for me. I know expectations are going to come with being a good player, but it’s how you approach every day. I try to take it one day at a time. I know who I am, and I’m confident within myself and my ability as a player. I just stick to who I am.
On Justin Robinson’s big game…
It was well-deserved. He’s worked so hard and people kind of overlook him. Now that he’s shown what he can really do and taking the ACC by storm last year with his tremendous run, and making the All-ACC team, and coming out last time and breaking almost every record we had here. It was really cool to be a part of that. I feel like now I’m a part of history. I’ll get to live through him. Not too many people can say that they played with Bimbo Coles, who holds a lot of school records. Now I’ve played with the assists school-record holder.
On what he wears on gamedays…
Credit to my mom. I got good genes from my mom. I just tried to take a different approach. Me and [Wabissa] Bede had talked about what we saw in the playoffs when Lebron had his team wearing the suits and everything. Me and Bede originally thought of doing something like that. I know that we had suits made for our Hokies Tipoff event. So, instead of having it sit in the closet and collect dust, I figured I would wear them for away games like a business trip sort of thing. Ever since then, I just got comfortable with it and started rolling with it. I enjoyed it because now I feel professional in some sense. It’s pretty cool.
On what type of road atmosphere he prefers…
Honestly, I just love the game. As long as there is a ball, that’s pretty much it for me. As a kid, you definitely watch UNC and those big schools and think, ‘It must be amazing to play there.’ I grew up a fan of Kobe Bryant and he had this whole Nike campaign of, ‘Hero or Villain.’ I thought it was cool how he would go on the road and be a villain. He embodied self-confidence. He didn’t change because he was on the road and he was afraid of what a fan might say to him. He was a fierce competitor and he brought his A-game on the road.
That’s why I kind of looked up to him. I tried to do that. When I go on the road, I try to be me. I try to do what I do and play within myself. If the crowd talks, I’ll talk back here and there. I’m blessed to have this opportunity. To say that I’ve played at Chapel Hill, just a kid from Toronto, it’s amazing.
On his role in the middle of the Syracuse zone on Saturday…
First, I just want to thank God and Coach Buzz for giving me a role to have in the first place. As far as the scouting report goes, I wanted to win. We came off a bad loss, and a reporter had said something that stuck with me. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but it was kind of disregarding us, saying, ‘Tech cannot be at the top-tier’ because we lost two away games in two hostile environments.
I thought that my teammates work too hard to be disrespected like that. It was about winning. J-Rob had a really hot hand and I tried to take advantage of it. I wanted to prove that we are a top-tier team. We work so hard to even have the right to be ranked in the Top-10, and I’m not going to let anybody take that from us. That’s what I really wanted to enforce. If J-Rob is going to get us that win, then I’m going to go with him until the well runs dry.
On whether he gets a feeling before he has a big game…
Usually, it’s when I feel like things are going bad. The Boston College game, that morning nothing was going well. I thought this was about to be a rough one and it turned out to be really good. The 50-point game I had (in high school), my friend had come down from Canada and I hadn’t seen him in a while. It was kind of random and he just said, ‘What do you got for me tonight?’ I said, ‘I’m going to get 50,’ and it just kind of happened. It was pretty cool. That was the only time I felt like I had something there. Usually, if something is going bad in that day, that’s when I get excited because I know I’m about to play well.\
On when the game plan is able to come together early like it did against Syracuse…
[The first possession] was a shot clock violation, wasn’t it? I think the first shot that they made was the type of three that we want to give up, right where you guys sit. I think a lot of that has to do with the people that were there. They don’t know about the game plan, and the ones that do are the ones on twitter, but those people care. As our program has changed and evolved, and in some respects grown, I think so has the support. I think there has been a genuine groundswell of people who care about Nickeil and care about Five [Justin Robinson].
Maybe because it’s basketball and you can actually see their face and it’s not football, that could be a part of it. I think our guys do a good job within the community of letting people know who they are. When you walk into that kind of environment, it’s an unspoken motivator to execute the game plan. Obviously when you start that way, it gives you a little bit of momentum, but I think the crowd was as good as it had been all season long. We’re happy to have the students there, that matters. It doesn’t necessarily matter more than the old people that were there, but sometimes the young people have more energy. We love old and young people.
On Justin Robinson…
I think, obviously, it was his best offensive game so far this season, but unequivocally, it was his best defensive game all season. I think in some respects, it was against a zone, so it’s hard to pinpoint one specific thing, but I thought defensively, particularly Five because of his intellect, when he executes what he knows he is supposed to do defensively, it helps our team. We watched clips this morning in early bird, and he was as good as he has ever been defensively. I’m not saying that the guy I talk to likes ball, but I think that when you do what you’re supposed on one end, he rewards you on the other end. I think that’s what happened on Saturday.
On how the mood of the team has changed in the past week…
I thought our team played really well for the first twelve minutes at Carolina. You could argue that the next three or four minutes were just okay, and then the last four minutes of the first half are the difference in the game. Five wasn’t in the game, except to pick up his third foul, and Nickeil wasn’t in the game. Those are two really good players, but we don’t have a margin to be able to endure drastic change. We need things to stay as linear as we had planned. We can adapt, but when the whole game plan relative to personnel is out of sorts, it is hard for us to overcome it.
I do think in the second half when Nickeil and K.J. [Blackshear] had three fouls, I thought that mix-match group was so much better. It’s hard to win on the road, it’s hard to win at home, but it’s for sure hard to win on the road in any league, particularly this league. We’ve proven that in our time here, but three games in seven days, and all of that is TV related, we don’t want to complain about that. We’re excited that, considering where we started, that anybody even wants us to be on TV. So, those three games, they were all nationally televised games. I don’t even know what the question was, but it wasn’t a very good question, so that’s why I’m just talking the way I want to talk.
On the upcoming week with three games in six days…
We kind of break it down in months. When we played Maryland-Eastern Shore, that was on the 28th of December, I had planned out the entire month in terms of what days were our off days, what days were two-days before, what days were one-day before, and what days were gamedays. We have ‘get better’ days. I planned it all out and I gave it to them. Some of our guys don’t care, some of our guys like to see it and think through it, Ty [Outlaw] being one of them, Five has a little bit of it in him, Nickel is 1000% like that. They want to understand the why, they want to see it.
In the month of January, we play eight games, four at home and four on the road. In February, we play four games at home and four games on the road. What ends up happening is, you don’t see it unless you live it, it’s the timing of those games that becomes very important. Selfishly, some of it, like Coach Boeheim was saying in his postgame, ‘Hey, we played Thursday night, traveled here Friday, and played here Saturday night.’ It’s because of TV, that’s part of why there is so much money, including us being overpaid-as-heck coaches. That’s part of the deal, so on Saturday night when we get home, we’ll be at the turn. We’ll have played nine games, but what we’ve been focusing on is that in the history of Virginia Tech basketball, we have never won six games in a month.
So, historically speaking, that’s what Wednesday night’s game is. Since we’ve been here, we’ve never won at Miami, so that would be historical. The other thing is, obviously, our last two road games, we’ve lost, so we’re 1-2 in road contests in the ACC and have a chance to get back to even. So, there’s a lot at stake, and the only thing that we can do is work today.
I thought our work was really good, we just finished, that’s why Nickeil was wearing flip-flops. We’ll start early in the morning tomorrow because free-shoot in Miami tomorrow is at six. Again, when you’re the road team, there’s a lot that goes into it. Yesterday was our off day for this week, and our compliance week runs Sunday through Saturday, so we’re going to work six consecutive days with both games this week being on the road. Then, we’ll play Saturday, then Sunday starts a new compliance week, but we play Monday. How you manage the emotional, mental, and physical gas tanks, it’s delicate and it becomes even more delicate with our roster in the condition that it’s in right now. From a maturity standpoint, I think our guys have managed all of that incredibly well.
On meeting the opposing coaches before the game…
I shake everybody’s hand. I’ve memorized every assistant coach. Every year, I memorize every assistant coach at every Division I school. I memorize the age of every head coach, how long they’ve been there, and what their overall record is. The NCAA says that Coach Boeheim has only won 936 games, but in truth, going into our game, he had coached in 1041 wins. He’s been a head coach for almost as long as I’ve been alive.
I shake all of the coaches’ hands, but I also shake the managers’ hands. I used to be a manager and I just introduce myself. Depending upon my relationship with the head coach, that decides what I’ll say. Coach Boeheim and I never spoke. I reintroduced myself to Coach Boeheim for eight consecutive years. He’s very intelligent. The one year I was not the head coach here and Syracuse had already been in the ACC, he had reached out to me like we were friends and he had never talked to me.
So, we would talk in that one year, but when I came here and we played the first time, I walked up to him and as I was about to say Buzz, he had a response letting me know that he actually knew who I was. It’s kind of comedy, he said it again on Saturday. I said, ‘Coach, what’s up?’ and he goes, ‘Jim Boeheim.’ He knows who I do that with within the league and he thinks it’s funny that I have the brashness to continue to introduce myself to some of the coaches in the league.
On trying to insulate himself for the upcoming moments over the rest of the season…
My wife has helped me a lot. I’ve done a lot better job since Christmas of keeping my circle a dot. The people that know me, obviously, I have some level of consistent communication with. I’ve insulated myself, she’s helped me. Lyle [Wolf] has helped me, Josh [Chambers] on our staff has helped me. I think the familiarity and long-term relationships that I have with people on my staff has helped in that regard a lot. I also think a part of it, I know it comes across wrong, is as I’ve aged, some of the things I used to give my time to, I just have no interest in whatsoever.
I know, publicly, that doesn’t come across the right way. It’s almost like I need to have an infomercial to prevent people from having a negative connotation of me like, ‘Well, why doesn’t Buzz do that?’ It’s just kind of because I’m aware of my energy level and where my energy needs to go. It’s not to be selfish, I know my energy needs to go into our program, or hopefully to my family as well. I have become much better at being insulated in 2019 so far in regard to what I look at, what I listen to, and what I read.
Bill Dyer, I love Dyer. To me, Dyer is perfect because he has a very good sense of, ‘I’ll ask Buzz about that,’ or he just answers it before it ever crosses my desk. He gives me stuff every day that he knows I want to read. Baylie [Stous], who is on our staff here now, she’s done an unbelievable job, not knowing me and how this whole circus goes, of knowing when to talk to me, when to come to my office, or when to text me. I think what has happened is, I’ve had more time to think, and I think more clearly, and because I think more clearly, my emotional level is better for our players and for our staff. That’s a good question and I think it’s something I have become more aware of, and I think I’ve been better so far, but obviously we still have weeks to go, I hope.
On Director of Player Personnel Ryan Nadeau…
The change has been really good. I miss those guys that left, but completely understand the trajectory of what they want their career to be. As you have success, you hope that those below you, if that’s the right word, have opportunities for advancement in their career, not only in title, but financially. Those people were very important in the build here, but for me, because I have a lot of voices in my head, I sometimes like new people because it’s a new voice and it makes me think about how I have to explain to Baylie, ‘Hey Baylie, I’m a weirdo and I like it like this.’ Then, leave her alone and let her grow in her job and grow in the ownership within our program.
Ryan was the last guy we hired. What happened with Ryan was that we brought four people in for an interview and I did not have peace when those interviews were over. I’m not really good at asking people questions. I don’t like saying hi, bye, and how are you doing? It’s all just kind of a waste of time to me. Let’s just get to it on the things that matter. So, I told Lyle later, and I told Corey [Williams] the same thing, Corey talks to them because she’s kind of the front-man for me to say, ‘He’s a weirdo, but he’s really an okay guy.’ I told Corey and Lyle that I don’t like any of them and we’ll just leave the job open and the rest of my staff kind of got involved and said we have to fill that position.
Ryan was the last one and he has done an incredible job. He’s a specialist in his role, but he’s done a really, really good job with our kids because our kids have now realized how great he is at his role. He’s similar to Josh. Josh has a specific role, and no one on our staff can do what Josh does. Baylie has a specific role, and nobody can do what she does. Ryan has turned into that in six months and our kids, Five, Nickeil, Bede a lot, Ty is with him now. He has really impacted our program in a good way and he’s a worker. He’s in there every morning when I get there, and he was there when I left a while ago. It’s a talent to know when to speak and when to shut up, and his dad is ultra-successful, and he’s been raised the right way. He’s very young, but he’s had a very important role that I think is continuing to grow, and it’s helping us on the floor.
Editor’s Note: Nadeau came to Virginia Tech from the Chicago Bulls.
On how the team is preparing for Miami…
When we played them here last year, it was on a Saturday. It was my daughter’s sixteenth birthday, I had a 104-degree fever or, so I felt. She had her party right over here. We got beat, we were awful, I was a bad dad. I said, ‘Hey, happy sixteenth birthday, I’m going to bed and going to sleep.’
Of course, I can’t sleep. Then, Cover-2 (Virginia Tech’s much-publicized defensive change) started the next day on Sunday. In essence, approaching one full year of Cover-2, it’s continued to grow and evolve; our staff has done an incredible job. That’s kind of spurred how we have gone about preparing for an opponent. It’s almost football-like in terms of, Devin [Johnson] is in charge of personnel, Jaime [McNeilly] is huge defensively, Lyle helps Jaime, Jaime still helps me offensively, Coach Layer is doing rebounding effort now and studies the defense of the opponent and gives me the cliff notes, Ryan is doing the video notes for me to study.
It feels like it has been 39 years, but I feel like we have completely changed. Miami’s style of play has not changed. We lost at Miami in what would have been our eleventh [ACC win] and what would have been the highest seed Virginia Tech would have ever had in the NCAA tournament. We would have been the three seed in the ACC tournament if we had won. They called a foul about 42-feet from the basket with four seconds left on the clock at Miami and we lost 69-68.
We’ll have to be a lot better than we ever have been at Miami on both ends of the floor. A lot of what we did on Saturday night will have to come to life. Being that there were in essence 200-300 people there cheering for Syracuse, we’ll have about 200-300 people cheering for us in Miami. We’ll have to be just as good, if not better, in Miami for us to be able to win.
On the game against Syracuse overall…
I was just so excited, it takes me such a long time to regroup after that game. I was so thankful and so happy for the kids. I mentioned this on the teleconference today, it’s sad, I know where my wife and kids are during the game, but I’m so locked in. I don’t speak to our kids when I’m subbing them out, I just stay locked in on the floor. I noticed when I was watching tape yesterday that they announced when Five broke the all-time assists record. When they announced it, he’s no further than me to you, and I don’t even know who our announcer is, I know the lady that puts my water next to me, and Thom Jones.
Everyone is hugging Five and giving him daps and I walk right past him. Then Dyer tells me postgame, you know Dyer, he’s nervous to talk to me, Justin is the all-time leader in assists. I go, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘They announced it.’ I go, ‘Dyer, that doesn’t mean I know. Just because they announced it doesn’t mean I heard it.’ I apologized to Five and he goes, ‘Coach, it never even crossed my mind because I know you didn’t know.’ Our kids know that I’m not dealing with any drama. I didn’t know. Congratulations Five. I don’t mean to say it like I’m weird, but I just didn’t know.
Virginia Tech has held the Commonwealth Cup for 5175 days. #Hokies
— Commonwealth Cup (@CommonwlthCup) January 28, 2019