Buzzketball Doesn't Have a Big Man Problem

They have an assumed big man problem.

[Mark Umansky]

It hasn't been a great summer for the Virginia Tech men's basketball frontcourt. First, they lose three-point marksman Ty Outlaw to a knee injury suffered in offseason workouts. And then, after some speculation (depending on who you talked to, at least), the Hokies lost rising sophomore center Khadim Sy.

And then right before media day, this bizarre story surfaces:

Sy heads down to junior college, but then ghosts, leaving the coach at Tallahassee Community College wondering if the young man is heading back to Blacksburg. This lead to a good two hours of speculation as to whether or not Sy would be back in the fold come November. Never one to mince words, head coach Buzz Williams gave a clear answer as to his former player's status.

People started to get nervous the moment the Sy news was announced. Offseason stories tend to bring a fan's anxieties to the surface, and losing a big man from an already undersized squad lead to a lot of hand-wringing.

And it makes sense, look at the roster. There are two players listed above 6'6", and one of them (Nick Fullard) earned a scholarship exactly one day before the Sy news became official.

(Side note: isn't that an amazing way for Buzz to throw shade while still celebrating one of his own? He might as well have said "due to the departure of someone, we're able to award a real part of our #family for all of his #effort." Yes, in my imagination Buzz converses in hashtags.)

The Hokies' lineup is currently made up of three healthy forwards, eight guards, and whatever you want to call Chris Clarke (I lean forward, if only because no guard should have a jump shot like his.) This makes people anxious. They're small! They'll get killed on the glass! They need Sy to help protect the rim!

Before we dive into this, let me ask a question. Do you remember Tech's best lineup last year? The five-man unit that did the most damage down the stretch of ACC play?

It didn't include Sy, or any center for that matter. Even against bigger opponents like Louisville and Wake Forest, Buzz rolled out Zach LeDay as the team's lone big. All 6'7" (cough, 6'5") of LeDay patrolled the paint, flanked by four shooters. They spaced the floor very well, bombed away from three, and effectively peer pressured other coaches to go small.

This isn't a slight to Sy in any way. He came into his debut season as more of a project than anything, a late bloomer in high school who still needed work to transition into an ACC caliber big man. And despite those hurdles he still saw double-digit minutes in nine conference games, and showed flashes of potential that made you understand why Williams offered him in the first place.

But considering the return of Kerry Blackshear Jr. and the arrival of freshman forward P.J. Horne, Sy's role in the rotation was unlikely to change much. In fact, "Khadim Sy: big man" may have been less important the the program than "Khadim Sy: Oak Hill Academy graduate."

But the sophomore's early departure, and the public reaction that followed, bring up an interesting shift in the way we think about basketball in Blacksburg. The immediate conversation became about the way Buzz handled his roster, and how unbalanced it had become. Again, with eight guards to just four forwards, it's less than ideal.

But as basketball moves further and further away from the hoop, centers become less important. Yes, rebounding against larger teams will be a problem — especially with Clarke still on his way back from an ACL tear and his return date indefinite — but that would be the case with or without Sy. The Hokies played small last season, and they'll do it again, regardless of who's on the bench.

And just to put further concerns at ease, let's look at the biggest holes Tech has to fill this coming year. Last winter, LeDay played a ton, with Sy seeing just enough of the floor to give his counterpart a breather. Seth Allen saw a reduced, but much more efficient role as an off-the-bench scorer. Every other piece from an eight seed in the NCAA Tournament is back.

This year? Horne is built directly out of the LeDay/Jae Crowder mold. He's undersized, yet a tenacious rebounder and hustler who will play power forward. If we assume he can take Sy's minutes (about 11 a game), and Blackshear can slide into the heavier role of LeDay, the front court is already covered. Buzz also has Tyrie Jackson, Wabissa Bede, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker to fill Allen's role off the bench, and provide the extra wing depth Tech lacked down the stretch.

This doesn't even factor in Clarke's return, a potential Devin Wilson revival, and anything the staff can get out of Fullard. The Hokies are deeper now than they were in October of 2016, and though it'll take some time for the new group to gel, they're more talented than ever.

And one final point. Basketball isn't like football where if you need a tackle, you go out and sign a tackle. With just 13 scholarships per school, coaches have to go out and get the best players. Going small isn't about a reliance on system, Buzz isn't a four-guard whiz who builds his program specifically around guards. He just recruits guys who fit his predilection for toughness, hustle, and multi-positional ability.

And does he have an undersized team right now? Sure. But would you rather have a group of 12 dudes who can all play at a NCAA Tournament level, or an extra big man or two who may not be able to get off the bench?

Give me the 12 dudes, and we'll figure out the rest.

Comments

Damn Brian I can only get hype for one sport at a time, I don't have capacity for any more hype

Great perspective Brian. I think Sy was a blossoming player but definitely not a game changing big man like Blackshear is. I think we will continue with the upward trajectory in wins and trips to the tourney (think Sweet 16!) if Blackshear can stay healthy and we can get Clarke back in time for ACC play.

I salivate thinking about all the weapons we have at guard (5, NAW, and Hill/Bibbs is a ridiculous 1/2/3 all with solid backups) but if continue to rebound like we did last year, I think #4 or 5 in the ACC is our ceiling. If Clarke, Blackshear, and Horne can play big enough to keep teams from second and third chances, I wouldn't be surprised by a 12-6 or 11-7 ACC record.

I still see an issue with replacing LeDay with Blackshear. Even if you assume that the defense is equal, I don't see Blackshear as someone you can throw the ball to on the block or the elbow and watch them go to work 15-20 times a game. LeDay did a lot of bailing VT out when the dribble penetration, or drive and kick game wasn't working, and he was great at it. Blackshear is coming off an injury and was still very raw on creating his own shot. IMHO not as easily replaced as swapping a person out to fit a size role.

I can't remember a single play where Sy did more than catch and dunk or rebound the ball and throw it back off the glass (probably because he wasn't asked to do anything more than that). If he has any polish on the block or can play with his back to the basket on offense, our lineup with Blackshear at the 4 and Clark at the 3 could be deadly.

Still leaves us very thin on bench height, but like you said, Buzz has ballplayers.

The Dude Abides

We should absolutely be a better defensive team this season. Allen and Leday were great leaders and great offensive guys, but they both struggled on D, especially Allen. I can't count the numbers of time Allen's man would blow by him and Allen would just turn and watch or Allen would go for a steal and get out of position. Leday wasn't quite as bad, but he wasn't that good either.

But I agree with what you said, I don't think KJ can fill the offensive void left by Leday. JRob should take over as the slasher/driver that Allen was. Hopefully Clarke can be better in the post this season and take some of the load off KJ.

I'm hoping PJ can slide into a JT Thompson type role. Great hustle and drive and a knack for getting rebounds over bigger guys.

Buzz said Blackshear might be the most skilled player on the team. That says a lot, and in Buzz I trust (the first time I typed it, my subconcious typed Bud instead of Buzz). I take that to mean that Blackshear has just as good if not better ball skills and moves than LeDay, plus a few inches. LeDay was a veteran player, Blackshear has a very high ceiling.

--
"It's time to go play Virginia Tech Football longer and harder than anybody else in America!!" -- Justin Fuente
"I put a brick in Sacksburg today." -- Cam Phillips

I'm full on in Team Blackshear. I thought that losing him was an immense loss because of what he did show during his freshman year, his ahtleticism, size, and versatility. I just was thinking that shouldering more of the interior scoring load is a big leap, not that he couldn't make it.

The Dude Abides

That quote stuck out big time. I agree with the posters above who say Blackshear won't necessarily be able to bailout tons of possessions by muscling around down low, but he has way better shooting touch than many people realize... and will be able to post-up too, not as much as Leday; I agree. One big point though is that a lot of those erratic dribble-drive's were by Seth Allen (and Clarke early in his career too; he's shown improvement there & should keep that trend upward). So better ball-movement and less silly dribble iso's will negate the need for most of the "bailout" game.

K-B also adds an element as a mid-range shooter that Leday didn't. I know Leday hit some 3's last year that were pretty crazy, but they were ugly haha. Blackshear is all-around a better offensive player than Leday was at the same age (pre-VT) imo. When I thought we had Sy & Blackshear I wasn't concerned about the post at all. Now I'm a little concerned about foul trouble, but think Brian nailed it in this article. I'd rather have Bede and NAW than a Lewis Witcher or whatever to just fill a seat on the bench. We have had a lot of success by going small against big teams (Clemson 2 years ago stands out, when we put Devin Wilson on their PF Blossomgame) instead of trying to match their height.

Guestimate of how the minutes may transition
(Iast year --> this year)
LeDay: 30 --> KJB (30)
Allen: 29 --> NAW (25), Jackson (5)
Clarke: 29 -->CC (25), Wilson (5)
Hill: 30 --> Hill (25), Wilson (5)
Rob: 32 --> Rob (30), Bede (2)
Bibbs: 31 --> Bibbs (31)
Outlaw: 18 --> Horne (15), Wilson (3)
Sy: 11 --> Horne (6), Fullard (5)

My guess is you see a lot more of Wilson than many are expecting and often not in a PG position. He may man up on 4-men sometimes (like he did with Blossomgame two years ago). Horne can fill Outlaw and Sy's spots. Don't expect much of Fullard besides grabbing some minutes against bigger lineups (and not playing at all in games vs. smaller lineups).

It's a good team, a good rotation. We will miss Outlaw a lot more than Sy. Horne can fill in for Sy and replace his rebounding with energy instead of height. But Horne probably can't replace Outlaws offense off the bench. NAW should replace Allen almost one-for-one. The most important player may be Hill, we need him to be a leader and to score consistently. He fell off big time last year, his jump shot went AWOL for 3/4 of the season. The most pressure clearly is on KJB, he's got to stay out of foul trouble (which he struggled with as a freshman) and provide consistent scoring. He needs to get to the line and finish from the line when he gets there (56% as a FR).

Lots of good, experienced leaders. Our style of play is going to be a real challenge for many big teams to match up with.

Bede is a stud- thinking he'll play 10+

'Its easy to grin, when your ship comes in, and you've got the stock market beat,
but the man worthwhile, is the man who can smile, when his shorts are too tight in the seat'

I hope so, especially if he can get to the rim and finish.

I wish KJ would play 30 minutes but I'm not certain that will happen.

Agreed, concerned about foul trouble.

Agreed on the Wilson bit. His defensive ability alone means he should see at least 5+ minutes a game. Plus I'm sure a year with Hilgart helped him out on the strength side of things. The real question mark with him is and always has been offense. Hopefully his shot has gotten a little bit better because if he's on the court with Clarke all a defense has to do is pack the paint. The counter point though is that with him and 5 together that should be some fantastic ball movement. Anyway, long story short it's a question mark but I think a pleasant surprise come November.

Here lies It's a Stroman Jersey I Swear, surpassed in life by no one because he intercepted it.

Wilson did make that awesome 3 against Princeton though.

Bede and Jackson are way too talented to get buried on the bench that way. I see them getting close to 15 minutes each. I doubt you will see much of Fullard unless we are so far ahead that Buzz clears the bench. NAW will probably get about 20 minutes, Wilson at least 10 minutes. 15 minutes is the over/under on Horne. Under if he is slow to adjust to the college game and over if he adjusts quickly and especially if he rebounds strong. All the vets average about 25 minutes as this could be a legit 10 deep team.

So 200 min/ game

Rob- 30
Bibbs- 28
Hill- 28
Clarke- 25
Blackshear- 28
NAW- 17
Bede- 14
Jackson- 8
Wilson- 5
Horne- 12
Fullard- 5

'Its easy to grin, when your ship comes in, and you've got the stock market beat,
but the man worthwhile, is the man who can smile, when his shorts are too tight in the seat'

I think that's pretty close, but Fullard isn't going to see the floor. Tack those 5min onto Blackshear's 28.

Also Clarke (I hope) isn't going to start out playing 25 minutes a game, if he plays at all in the early season. My prediction would be more of an equal split between Clarke and NAW.

I only still have a craving for a deep rotation of bigs as a result of the trauma suffered when teams pull 14 offensive rebounds. It looks like our team gives up 10 points a game as a result of the offense getting too many second chances. If we can clean up the glass defensively, I don't care if the tallest guy is 6'5". Until then, please keep a set of reliable 6'8" forwards.

Come to Blacksburg and see what the Hokie Pokie is really all about

I really like the emphasis on multi-positional players. It seems like that fluidity really let's Buzz dictate the terms of the game to the other teams, which seems like the best way to mitigate the talent gap between us and some of the bigger ACC programs.

As long as they have a winning record and go a minimum of 1-1 against UVA, I don't care if we field a squad of midgets...

I don't care if we field a squad of midgets...

I'm sorry but I don't agree with this at all. A team of midgets that wins over half their games would be amazing to watch. I'd almost prefer it to making the final 4.

Agree, I would VERY MUCH CARE

Chem PhD '16

As I said, our midgets would have to a winning record. :)

Nobody would steal the ball from them...

Seems to be implied by this article that Sy's departure opened a scholarship for Fullard... Actually it was Seth Leday's departure in the spring that freed up the scholarship. When we didn't land any other '17 recruits (e.g MJ Walker) over the summer, Buzz awarded it to Fullard.

Love the upbeat take on how we don't really need a lot of depth at Forward, but with Sy's scholarship still available and Fullard really a walk-on, we are entering a season with only 11 recruited scholarship players. Two of whom are injured... So 9 players.. even with a 7 man rotation that's not a lot of room for error or injury.

......and Fullard really a walk-on, we are entering a season with only 11 recruited scholarship players. Two of whom are injured... So 9 players.. even with a 7 man rotation that's not a lot of room for error or injury.

....so a normal VT hoops season.

Buzz has done a phenomenal job in all aspects: coaching, recruiting, facility improvement, weird Twittering etc.

He's raised the expectations to a level where we should assume that they'll be competitive in the ACC, earn a NCAA bid and sooner rather than later start winning games in said tourney.

I think he's going to struggle doing so with a team this small, and I'm not sure I totally agree with this:

And one final point. Basketball isn't like football where if you need a tackle, you go out and sign a tackle. With just 13 scholarships per school, coaches have to go out and get the best players. Going small isn't about a reliance on system, Buzz isn't a four-guard whiz who builds his program specifically around guards. He just recruits guys who fit his predilection for toughness, hustle, and multi-positional ability.

I would have to think that Buzz (and most coaches) also recruit based on positional need instead of just BPA? Maybe I'm wrong here, but I figured I'd look at some of his previous success.

He had a 5 year run at Marquette where he made the NCAA tourney, and I looked at his 'bigs' (as a reminder, we currently have 2 players over 6'6" – Fullard and Blackshear):

2008-09: Second Round:
C Chris Otule: 6'10": 6.6 Mins/game (9 games)
F Dwight Burke: 6'8": 19.3 Mins/game (35 games)
F Joseph Fulce 6'7: 5.7 Mins/game (11 games)

2009-10: First Round
C Chris Otule: 6'10": 8.3 Mins/game (3 games)
F Joseph Fulce 6'7": 11.7 Mins/game (34 games)
F Erik Williams 6'7": 5.8 Mins/game (19 games)
C Youssoupha Mbao 7'2": 6 Mins/game (10 games)

2010-11: Sweet 16
C Chris Otule: 6'10": 17.6 Mins/game 17.6 Mins/game (37 games)
F Joseph Fulce 6'7": 8.8 Mins/game (29 games)
F Erik Williams 6'7": 7 Mins/game (24 games)
F Davante Gardner 6'8": 9.0 Mins/game (33 games)

2011-12: Sweet 16
C Chris Otule: 6'10": 17.8 Mins/game (8 games)
F Jamil Wilson 6'7": 24.1 Mins/game (26 games)
F Davante Gardner 6'8": 19.1 Mins/game (27 games)

2012-13: Elite Eight
C Chris Otule: 6'10": 17.8 Mins/game (35 games)
F Jamil Wilson 6'7": 25.1 Mins/game (35 games)
F Davante Gardner 6'8": 21.4 Mins/game (35 games)
F Steve Taylor, Jr. 6'7": 8.6 Mins/game (35 games)
---

There's definitely some size on those rosters that Buzz doesn't have here in Blacksburg.

If you look at the size on some of the teams that are expected to compete for the ACC crown as well as some of our marquee out of conference opponents (Iowa, Kentucky) – we're going to have some trouble in the paint.

So, I'd say I'm a bit on the concerned side.

Hokies United l Ut Prosim

Good contribution, thanks for doing some work.

Love this research. I do think basketball has changed a lot in the last 5 years, and Villanova has shown elite talent + small ball can take you to the top of the mountain. My concern about lack of a big man is minimal ATM, as KJ who plays at or above the end of his freshman year level should be a boost over last season at least.

I agree, I'm not suggesting this will be a lost season but it will be a match-up concern.

I know that if I were coaching against this team I'd be playing my bigs and just telling them to get to the rack.

Hokies United l Ut Prosim

Yeah, and having my bigs doing clean up duty with the offensive rebounds and stick backs. Like they have been doing to us.

I'd have my bigs off the floor for long stretches because the dynamic guards and forwards they couldn't guard if I were other coaches.

Always choose joy.

^Here, here. Teams like Duke and Kentucky have been able to play their own game against Buzz in his first few seasons, but many good, talented, tourney teams have been forced to play a different game than they prefer due to what Buzz has does with his line-ups. As mentioned above, there were years where we had SOME height and we went even smaller than normal.... i.e. against teams like Clemson in-order to throw a wrench in their game. And it worked.

The addition of KJ can't be stressed enough. He was averaging 19 minutes a game before he got hurt, and was looking good too. There's no perfect mold for a March Madness team. The VCU Final Four team had two guys over 6'8 who averaged more than 10 minutes per game. The most minutes anyone over 6'9 got on that team was 7.6

Buzz has himself a top 25 team talent wise and he's definitely a good enough coach to get us back in the Dance. Anything can happen from there

Edited for accuracy

Ehhhh hold up a sec tho. Size, yes. But starters typically play 25ish mpg, with significant contributers at 10+ mpg. 2008-2011 there's only one guy per year who is taller than 6'7 with significant PT. Even in 2011-2012, Otule was only in 8 games.

I agree that the more post depth the better, but really I don't think our size is that much different than these teams outside of his Elite Eight squad. I'm not optimistic about this year's team making the Elite Eight, but I'm not concerned with playing up to the level that we did last season.

That's fair.

But Kerry Blackshear (19 mins/game) is really the only big we can rely on at all. Fullard is a nice story but he averaged a little better than 3 rebounds and 3 points with 18 mins/game at Belmont Abbey. I hope he turns into a star but I don't think we can set our expectations too high.

Hokies United l Ut Prosim

I agree with that. I'm hoping PJ can be a 10-12 mpg guy and Clarke comes back sooner rather than later, then we should be ok. NAW might also be athletic enough to be an effective rebounder.

How did this Otule guy play for 5 years? Was he redshirted the season he only played 3 games?

I wondered the same thing.

He actually played 6 seasons. Had two early season ending injuries and must have received medical hardship waivers.

Points for the column.

Minus points for using a picture of Kyle Guy and that ridiculous top knot/manbun/douchedo which fills me with rage every time I see it

He's cut it off since. Even wrote a good-bye letter to it on twitter....and I will refrain from making any further comment because if you can't say something nice, fuck uva and kyle guy.

Wrote a goodbye letter to his man bun!?? Only at LOLUVA.

In Bud we trust

Sadly, without the douchedo he still screams "UVA"

Tyrod did it Mikey, Tyrod did it!!