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.
Buzz says he has not talked to Sy since Sept 9. Registrar told Buzz last month he had withdrawn.— Mark Berman (@BermanRoanoke) October 9, 2017
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.
(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.