There's been four seasons of Buzzketball. The fourth iteration of the Virginia Tech men's basketball team under the guidance of Buzz Williams beat Virginia in Charlottesville, upset Duke at home, clobbered North Carolina in Cassell, and clinched a second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth. Let's reflect on the Hokies.
Let's start with this quote from Buzz Williams after Tech's 83-86 season-ending loss to Alabama. "When they hired us, we were 244. After Year 1, we were 221. After Year 2, we were 80. After Year 3, on the seed line we were 36. Then on the seed line this year we were 31". What are your thoughts regarding the status of the program after four seasons?
Brian: There's no way to see anything but positives. Even after another March Madness flameout, Hokie basketball is more talented now than it's ever been. Now that Buzz has been through a full cycle of players (Bibbs was the first senior who played for him as a freshman), I'm fascinated to see how sustainable this caliber of player is. Because if Williams and company keep bringing guys in the way they have — especially on the wing, which has turned the Hokies into a small ball force in just two years — Tech seems to be on the path of annual tournament contender, similar to a Maryland or Pittsburgh pre-Kevin Stallings.
And on one hand there's nothing wrong with that. But on the other, with bigger wins comes bigger expectations, and closing the season with three straight losses didn't exactly leave the best taste in the mouth of the fanbase. There's a boatload of talent on the roster, and eventually it'd be nice to see that ability translate to more success in the tournament.
Henry: As Brian said, the end of the season left a weird taste in my mouth. Covering the team this year was a roller coaster. After certain games (hello, Syracuse, Virginia, and the first Miami loss), I would've taken a tournament appearance in a heartbeat. But by the end of the season, it felt like bowing out after one game in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments wasn't good enough.
Buzz has done a great job getting this program turned around, in a hurry. However, I'm at the point where I want to see more. The talent is absolutely there. As a person who will continue to cover the team, I'm curious to see the message from the team heading into next season. Do they feel the same way?
Pierson: I'll channel my inner Joel and state that it sure looks like the program is trending upwards! I can't help but feel like eventually the program will hit what seems to be a built-in ceiling and plateau for some time. I'm not sure what that figure is, but it very well could be in the 20-30 range. Looking back over the past few years — especially the last two — it's hard not to feel like the roster had a bit of unrealized potential due to injuries. Three years ago, Ahmed Hill took a medical redshirt after off-season knee surgery. Two years ago, KJ Blackshear took a medical redshirt after a leg injury and Chris Clarke blew out his knee in the closing weeks of the regular season. This past season, Ty Outlaw donned the medical redshirt, Clarke was working his way back, Khadim Sy left the program and then returned and ultimately redshirted. Each of those absences were key contributors, and losing KJ and Dream in back-to-back seasons made an already thin front court incredibly delicate.
Injuries are going to happen over the course of a season, but the Hokies have largely been forced to eat an important scholarship on an annual basis before play even started. As talent continues to develop within the program and Buzzketball's profile maintains its ascent, it's hard not to see a healthy squad improve upon Year 4 during the upcoming season.
Who was the most-improved player for Tech this season?
Brian: It may feel a bit like cheating, but there's no one on the roster more improved from the last time we saw them than Kerry Blackshear Jr, right? Two years ago he was a pigeon toed baby who struggled to finish at the rim and played with too much finesse. Now he's one of the most skilled bigs in the conference, one part ballet dancer, one part bowling ball.
Not only that, but as the lone rotation player over 6'5", Kerry had a spotlight on him each time he stepped on the floor. And he handled it perfectly. Teams attacked him as much as they could, knowing that foul trouble spelled danger for the Hokies. But he (for the most part) persevered, and became the central cog in an offense that needed him to do everything from set screens to stretch the floor. With another offseason of conditioning (and an actual backup behind him), Blackshear could average a double-double next year.
Henry: Robinson? I guess? It felt like everybody played up to their expectations this season, but Robinson was the noticeable standout. His addition as a genuine shooting threat helped open up the offense even more than it already was. And his improvement as the floor general really quelled some concerns fans had.
I think what confirms this for me was that when Robinson was on the bench, the team really struggled. It was clear that he was the steady presence for this team. I wouldn't have said that last year. As such, I'm saying he was the most improved.
Pierson: Justin Robinson. JRob improved in virtually every statistical category in his first season as the undisputed leader of the Tech offense. His 4.3 Win Shares was the highest on the team and a 1.7 WS improvement over his sophomore campaign. His 525 Points Produced were 126 more than any other Hokie, and he scored in double figures in all but one conference game. The Hokies became known for their ability to breakdown defenses off the dribble, which was largely due in part to Robinson's penetration and knack for finishing near the rim. Many worried that the Hokies would sorely miss Seth Allen's presence this season — myself included — but Robinson was able to steadily allay some of those fears as he improved month after month.
Who didn't live up to the preseason hype?
Brian: Is it weird if I say Buzz?
I'm not trying to hot take my way through this column, but when you think about it, who really let the team down in 2017-18? The starters were as good as advertised. Chris Clarke wrecked worlds off the bench, and the freshmen filled in the holes.
But think about some of the low points this winter. Tech flatlined at home not once, but twice against equal competition (nine point losses to both Florida State and Miami, both in Cassell on Saturdays). They were schemed off the court against Duke and UVA (though both losses were avenged), and ended the season in miserable fashion. The head Hokie drew an inexcusable technical foul against Alabama, was absolutely decapitated by Mike Brey in the second half of the ACC Tournament matchup against Notre Dame, and floundered down the stretch against the Hurricanes in Coral Gables.
Before the Buzz mob tries to run me out of the blog with pitchforks and torches, just think about how high this bar has to be for the head man to be considered. Without considering injuries, everyone at least played to the level we had seen the year before. (Some would say that Ahmed Hill falls in this category, but looking at his splits from 2017 and 2018, I'd say that there wasn't a ton of change.)
Buzz is a great coach. He's a great motivator. But the responsibility for losses to subpar Irish and Crimson Tide squads have to land somewhere, and I think it's only fair to put them on the big whistle.
Henry: Brian keeps stealing my answers, but I guess that's what I get for procrastinating writing this. Buzz let me down this season the most. Some of the home ACC games, and the end of the season frustrated me like crazy. Buzz's coaching style works 90% of the time. But that 10%?... Man. It's bad. It baffled the hell out of me when the head guy refused to adjust. Notre Dame tried news things in Brooklyn. Alabama made adjustments in Pittsburgh. And most, if not all, of Hokie Nation would agree Tech was the better squad on the respective courts those nights.
For how many questions there were heading into last season, all of them pretty much got answered. Justin Robinson filled in Allen's shoes. Blackshear Jr. was the bigman Tech fans wanted. NAW played pretty darn well for a 19-year-old. Chris Clarke filled that bench role. But all the bad moments turned around some less-than-ideal coaching.
Pierson: I had moments of frustration with Nickeil Alexander-Walker and his penchant for disappearing at times. With that being said, he was a solid contributor who showed his potential to go off when called upon. His season stats back that up. In a conference full of freshman phenoms, it's easy to forget that not all highly ranked recruits take the college game by storm in their first year on campus.
On the subject of consistency, I would have liked to have seen more from a veteran like Ahmed Hill. He was abysmal over the last six weeks of the season, and appeared to settle for lower percentage shots with maddening regularity. This coming season will be big for Med. If he can become more aggressive with the ball in his hands and attack the rim, rather than settle for 20-footers, he could completely transform his game. During his first few years in Durham, JJ Reddick was labeled as nothing more than a shooter. But as an upperclassman, he began to take the ball to the rack and it opened up the floor for both he and his teammates. I'm not trying to say that Med can transform into JJ, but rather to provide a case study in year-over-year development in one's game.
What were the highs and lows for the Hokies this past season?
Brian: I'm not bitter. I just want to get that out in the open before we get into this.
This spring, my brother and I had to plan my bachelor party to align with my grad school spring break. Which happened to align with the ACC Tournament. In which our beloved Hokies were coming into red hot. And so we all went to Brooklyn for a long weekend, with tickets to the final (we had no hope of seeing Tech, we just got a good deal), and a chance to see the Hokies at least once before they get bounced.
And all was going according to plan. The night before our trek north, Tech took a flamethrower to Notre Dame, and built a 21-point lead deep into the second half. We all shared in celebratory texts. I drank a (few) celebratory beverage(s).
And they lost.
I'm still not over it.
As for a high, take your pick between UVA and Duke. Both were amazing in their own right.
Henry: Is it cliche to say this whole season was a high? Yes? Ah well, it's true. Getting the opportunity to travel around and cover this team was awesome. Getting to see them knock off UVA, Duke, UNC was, of course, awesome.
But to also be in Brooklyn for the whole weekend, travel back, cover Selection Sunday, and head right up to Pittsburgh the next weekend was the best two-week stretch of my college life.
The low was probably the Miami loss at home. For the team to fight back and make it a game after getting curb stomped in the first half, and then just to give it away because of some really really bad defense was a crusher.
Pierson: The low was the absolute curb stomping UVa laid on the Hokies in Cassell. The high was giving UVa their lone ACC loss on their home floor.
What's your biggest concern for the team following this season's campaign?
Brian: How will the rest of the offense respond to their best scorer also being their point guard and best playmaker? Robinson is great, but it's easy for things to get stagnant when the primary ball handler is also the leading shot taker. The good thing is that J-Rob plays like a lead guard first, but Clarke and Alexander-Walker need to step up as secondary playmakers (especially when he's on the bench). Defensively, Bibbs' departure raises one huge question: who takes the reigns as the team's best one-on-one defender? It sure as hell won't be Robinson. Clarke is at his best as a freelancer, jumping into passing lanes for steals. Wabissa Bede has the build and Tyrie Jackson has the tenacity, but I think it has to land with Alexander-Walker. He has the size and the wingspan to become a lockdown defender if he wants it, and should he want it, his draft stock will only go up.
Henry: What does this team do to move up? They've finished with a single bye in the ACC tournament three years in a row now. Each season has felt progressively better, but the ACC standings say otherwise. Does this team have the ability and composure to play good enough ACC basketball to get the double-bye? It's got to happen soon if Tech wants to stake their claim in the ACC.
I'll add that the rumblings of Ty Outlaw transferring concerns me as well. He's involved in all discussions regarding next year's squad. If he's not there, who will Tech's next elite shooter be?
Pierson: Who replaces Justin Bibbs' consistency? In my head, Bibbs' legacy is his knack for scoring in bunches. Sometimes I would forget he had gone on one of his trademark runs — maybe it was because Zach LeDay had capped off one of his own with an emphatic LeDunk that was considerably more memorable — and then I'd scroll through the game log a day later to find that Bibbs had two spurts of 8 unanswered points. He was lethal on the catch-and-shoot from distance, and steadily improved his ability to shoot off the screen. With Bibbs' departure, is Ty Outlaw the Hokies' most consistent threat from three? Statistically, this team is far from lacking in shooting talent, so maybe I shouldn't worry too much on that front. Consider the fact that both Bibbs and super-duper senior Devin Wilson — the Hokies' two best on-ball defenders — are gone. Now we're talking about an important multifaceted role to fill. Who fills that void night-in-and-night-out? I'd love to anoint Ahmed Hill; he certainly seemed like a solid 3-and-D guy his freshman year, but that player hasn't returned since the injury two years ago. I suppose time will tell.
Who has the ability to break out next year?
Brian Clarke was all over the place as he made his way back from knee surgery. He didn't get to the line nearly as much per game, despite playing the most minutes of his career. He turned it over at a borderline absurd rate (25.9 TOV%). But he was also the most dynamic player each time he stepped on the floor. And while he didn't shoot them a ton, he hit threes at a clip that I personally never thought we'd see.
If he gets to the basket a bit more and cleans up the turnovers, he could combine his raw gifts with an improved shot to become a legitimate offensive weapon.
Henry: Hot take: Landers Nolley. The 4-star signee has the capability of bursting onto the scene with his shooting ability. Buzzketball's system will open up all kinds of looks for him. If he can get in a groove early on, before opponents treat him as a threat, I'm all aboard the Nolley hype train.
I'm either going to be really right or really wrong about this by the end of next season. I've just got this gut feeling. It might be the Moe's I ate earlier though.
Pierson Is it weird that my first thought is to say no one? I mean, I guess recruits Landers Nolley and Jarren McAllister could make some noise and that would technically qualify. However, when it comes to the existing roster, I can't get over the fact that we have a pretty solid grasp on the potential of each player in the rotation.
I don't want to punt this question, so I'll go with Alexander-Walker. We would all love to see NAW make "the leap", and the flashes of talent that we caught glimpses of this past season should make all of our hearts flutter. He's shown an ability to effortlessly score in transition and from behind the arc, but he really struggled against bigger and stronger foes as the season wore on. My hope is that an offseason spent in Tech's dining halls and Buzz's Bootcamp will make NAW better equipped to handle the rigors of ACC hoops.
It's early, but looking ahead to Buzzketball Year Five, what's your outlook for the team and the program?
Brian: As long as Buzz Williams is the head coach, the Hokies will finish in the top half of the conference and have a great shot at reaching the NCAA Tournament. Next season's squad is a deeper, longer, bigger version of the one that had a pretty decent outing in 2017-18. Outlaw can replace Bibbs' shooting, Sy is a valuable rim protector off the bench, and Bede came on over the last five games. Sprinkle in a little Landers Nolley and whatever they can get from the other two freshmen, and this has all the makings of another March Madness trip.
Henry: I mean, it has to a positive outlook right? I don't see how this team could end up worse than they did in 2017-18. Tech brings back basically everyone of importance and adds some talented freshman as well. The schedule is as "good" as it can be when 18 games are in conference play.
But to be completely honest, I'm not sure what to expect. Maybe it's skewed because of how badly the season ended. But I'm just... uncomfortable for some reason. I'll chalk it up to being a seasoned follower of the Hokies who knows that nothing good comes of high expectations for the basketball program.
Pierson: Tech will probably lose one player from the current roster to injury, transfer or some heated exchange with Buzz. With that being said, this team has become conditioned to dealing with a thin roster (as chronicled above) and should continue their steady ascent to the top of the Division I mountain. The ACC matchups broke pretty well for the Hokies, but without knowing how the schedule will ultimately shake out (and which home games occur during student breaks) it's tough to project with much confidence. If healthy, this team could be incredibly dangerous. With two healthy bigs (!!!), an experienced roster and even more wings added to the mix, look out. I'll say that they finish Top 6 in the ACC and earn a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament.