Wednesday night against Princeton was vintage Cassell Coliseum: full all the way up to the corners, a high-stakes back-and-forth game, fans screaming full throat, willing the Hokies to victory. When it was finally over after 45 minutes of basketball, fans, players, and coaches were all spent, and Virginia Tech had survived and advanced.
It’s not popular to love the NIT, but I love the NIT. As a game experience, it’s a level above a regular-season game, and in many ways it’s a better experience than an ACC Tournament game and yes, an NCAA Tournament game.
The Hokies have a problem filling seats in regular season games, and even when they do, the students, the biggest noisemakers the program has, are isolated to one end of Cassell Coliseum. It’s not a bad gig, and they’ve built their own north end zone-type experience down there, but it does compartmentalize the noise.
Not so with the NIT. The tickets — all of them — are general admission, meaning sit wherever you want. The students still flock to the north end of Cassell, but they also infiltrate the other areas of Cassell, and the noise and energy can be felt throughout.
As for general admission seating, I love what it does to the game experience. Though the game didn’t start until 8:00, the doors opened at 6:30, and about 3,000 fans filed into Cassell between 6:30 and 7:00, got good seats, and waited for the game to start.
Buzz Williams said later that seeing the fans lined up outside Cassell, and having them there for warmups, excited and energized his players. Indeed, as the players went through their warmups an hour or so before the game, hundreds of early student arrivals ooh’d and aah’d as the Hokies put on a little slam dunk show during their “layup” drills. The NCAA relaxed their rules a few years ago to allow dunking during warmups, so the players and fans had fun with it.
Did I forget to mention that tickets are only $15, and just $5 for students and kids under 18? Those prices are straight out of the 1990s, and kudos to the NIT for holding the line on price to help pack fans into arenas.
It all adds up to a special atmosphere, one that harkens back to the glory days of Cassell, when Virginia Tech distributed close to 5,000 student tickets for each game, and an entire side of Cassell rocked and rolled all game long.
Add in the fact that it’s tournament basketball, where a loss is sudden death, and Cassell winds up being electric, causing me to tweet this as the noise ramped up in the first half:
Psssst .. hey, young'uns … every game in the 80s was this raucous. Every one.
— Will Stewart (@WillStewartTSL) March 17, 2016
NCAA bids clearly advance your program, but if you’re a team on the way up, like the Hokies are, the NIT is a hell of a consolation prize, and it gives a team and its coaches a chance to connect with the fans that goes above and beyond the regular season and the ACC Tournament.
I’ve written before that for most of the first season and a half, Buzz Williams talked very little about Virginia Tech fans, and he didn’t seem to be making a connection with supporters of the program. That has changed in the last month or so, as the program has ignited, crowds have improved, and Buzz has acknowledged that the increased attendance is starting to make a difference on the court. Last night went to a whole new level.
“I thought the crowd was easily the best that it’s been since I’ve been here,” Buzz said after the game. “I want to give credit to the fans for the victory… the crowd was phenomenal. The crowd, the students, the season ticket holders, the community were fabulous.”
His post-game radio comments were very similar, and in talking to Tech radio announcer Jon Laaser, Buzz again flat-out gave credit for the win to the crowd.
Chris Coleman works the games on press row, so I attend as a fan, and I can report that with about six minutes to go in regulation, everyone in the Cassell stood … and they never really sat down again, through the rest of regulation and all five minutes of overtime. That just doesn’t happen these days, and it really doesn’t happen during the regular season games.
It was a really special atmosphere, and the NIT is the only place you get it. Buzz was so overwhelmed by it that he directed his players up into the stands after the game, leading to a cavalcade of selfies with the coach and players that threatened to break VT’s little corner of the Internet.
“I just wanted to mark the moment better than just waving at them,” Buzz said of the decision to go up into the seats.
This kind of scene creates a lasting connection between the program and the fans.
But let’s talk about the elephant in the room: The Oklahoma State job is going to be open soon, and Buzz has been linked with it as a possible candidate. Oklahoma State has six Final Four appearances in their history, T. Boone Pickens’ money is available, and Stillwater is much closer to Buzz’s hometown (and his wife’s hometown) than Blacksburg. So it’s a real threat.
On Kyle Bailey’s final show on SuperSports101.7 FM this week, he asked Buzz Williams to address the rumors, and Buzz would only say (a) that he’s focused on the NIT and doesn’t want to address the rumors, and (b) when it comes to things like this, he’s always going to do what’s best for his family. (The show is archived here – look for 3/15/16, Hour 1).
But what is right for Buzz’s family? Is it to move back closer to home, or is it to put down roots here in Blacksburg, which is a great community to raise a family? Buzz remains an enigma.
I do know this: I think that the Virginia Tech community, Hokies AD Whit Babcock, and Virginia Tech fans have done all they can do at this point to keep Buzz in Blacksburg. The only one of us who has any other cards to play is Whit, who has said that he’ll have a conversation with Buzz this week, and once again when the season ends.
Last night was special, and Buzz seems to be waking up to the idea that he can really connect with the fans here, and that he and his players have something special going. Buzz seemed taken aback and very appreciative of the high-level support and noise last night. He’s got to know deep down in his heart that he can build something special here, and that every new achievement vaults him to a new level with Hokie fans. He can walk on water here, if he plays his cards right. Is that true somewhere else? The answer is already given above: OK State has already been to Final Fours. Virginia Tech hasn’t, and an achievement like that will set Blacksburg on its ear and lead to talk of Buzz Williams statues being erected in the Cassell entryway.
The Hokies have a very tough, short turnaround to play at BYU Friday night. If they can get past the Cougars, they’ll return to Blacksburg for one more game, and I can guarantee that if that happens, the roof might just blow off Cassell Coliseum.