Don't look now, but it's Buzzketball time!
Before you start to complain about the college basketball season starting too early, or that you can't give them the attention they deserve before the Tech football season ends, you need to remember one thing.
This team's exciting.
And, fresh off their first NCAA Tournament in a decade, they added one of the best recruiting classes in recent memory. And get three other guys back from injury. And (somehow) gave another year of eligibility to doctoral candidate Devin Wilson.
What I'm saying is this team will be fun to follow, so don't wait until bowl season to watch them play. And if you need any further explanation as to why they'll be entertaining, let's move on to our season preview.
The storyline I'm most interested in is ______.
Brian: How long (or not long) it'll take for everyone to realize that this team is better than the one a year ago. There's an obsession with pointing out how small they are, and make no mistake, they are quite undersized. But let me make something clear:
(gets out megaphone)
Just ask Jay Wright. Just ask Mike Krzyzewski, who won his most recent title with Jahlil Okafor and a bunch of wings and guards. You can succeed by being small, and the Hokies will be able to win a ton of games this year, no matter how many perimeter guys they have.
I do wonder how long it'll take for the team's performance to match their ability. The beginning of the schedule is predictably soft, outside of a potential outing against Providence in the final of the 2K Classic. A run of games against the Fryars, Iowa, Ole Miss, and (gulp) Kentucky could provide some challenges and have fans wondering about possible regression.
With four freshmen and two others who haven't played in over a year, things could start out a little bumpy. But when things get going with the youngsters? Look out. There could be some really fun basketball ahead.
Pierson: Are we overhyping this team? The question at least has to be asked.
After losing anchors Seth Allen and Zach LeDay to graduation, Buzz's bunch will need to step up to provide the leadership, grit and ice cold approach to each and every game. A seasoned group returns, with a number of talented newcomers that will be expected to step in and contribute from Day 1.
But what if PJ Horne and Nick Fullard play more like Satchel Pierce and struggle to complement KJ Blackshear? What if Chris Clarke redshirts or returns and isn't the same explosive player? What if no one steps up to carry the scoring load? Or (arguably) most importantly, what if Tech's three-point shooting is less effective than it was a season ago?
Every team enters the season with a multitude of questions, and the Hokies are no different. We're all expecting holdovers to progress and newcomers to integrate smoothly. But what if things don't go as planned? Do I think that this team will crater after such a promising 2016-17 season? No. But I am admittedly worried about this team's margin for error.
Joey: The emergence of Nickeil Alexander-Walker. It's not crazy to say he's the most talented player this program has seen since the Malcolm Delaney (or dare I say Jeff Allen) era, and that's on Day 1. This kid is that good.
Virginia Tech 86, South Carolina 67 in exhibition. Nickel Alexander-Walker led Hokies with 18. He'll be one of the best frosh in country.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) November 5, 2017
He's getting national hype already, and it'll continue to flow in as we get deeper into the season. He's got a legitimate shot at a one-and-done career in Blacksburg, and that's OK. It's probably even a good thing.
It might not materialize right out of the gates, but I think Alexander-Walker challenges Marvin Bagley's preseason title as the ACC's top newcomer.
I'm most concerned about ______.
Just kidding. Though it'll obviously be a concern against multiple big men, I have concerns about two things.
The first is youth being thrusted into important roles immediately. With Ty Outlaw out for the year with an ACL injury and Chris Clarke still making his way back from a knee surgery of his own, there's no time for Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Wabissa Bede, and P.J. Horne to be eased into action. After Sunday's scrimmage against South Carolina, Alexander-Walker looks like he's ready for prime time. And though I was pleasantly surprised with the showings from both Bede and Horne, they both looked like freshmen at times. They'll need to cut down on mistakes (turnovers for Bede, fouls for Horne) against the power five opponents early on.
Second? Who's making this face this year?
Or this one?
What about these?
He had his faults, but Zach LeDay was the soul of this team. It's one thing to replace production, but it's something else entirely to replace emotion. Not saying it can't be done, but whoever fills the void as the emotional leader has some mighty big shoes to step into.
Pierson: Dammit, Brian took my joke. In all seriousness, I'm most concerned about the emergence of a true alpha male on this team. The losses of dynamic guard Seth Allen and banger Zach LeDay leave a critical void on this team. Both players were known to score in bunches, carrying the team when they struggled to get things going offensively. More importantly, both players — especially Allen — made plays down the stretch or in the waning seconds to pull out a Tech victory.
LeDay would put on his eff you face and proceed to drop 10 points and grab 4 offensive boards in a 3 minute stretch just as you and I were about to throw an adult beverage through our television screens. Allen's ability to break down the defensive perimeter often created one of two opportunities: A clear lane to the rim or a kick-out to the perimeter, which immediately or eventually found a wide open three-point shooter. Their complementary nature provided some semblance of balance for an undersized team, and their ability to collapse a defense provided space for Tech's shooters.
So which player(s) are best suited to step into the role of Hokie Kobe? Justin Robinson is the obvious choice to be this team's Seth Allen clone, as he has essentially done so (with some inconsistency) during his tenure. Ahmed Hill flashed an improved inside-outside game after a year on the mend, but he was wildly inconsistent, game-to-game. Justin Bibbs, the Hokies' elder statesman, has proven he can shoot it but has never shown any evidence of a closer's mentality. Combo-guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker could be the guy, but that's a pretty large expectation to put on the freshman.
In short, there's a vacuum that must be filled; otherwise, a promising season could go terribly awry.
Joey: Lingering injuries.
At full strength, I'm bullish on this team's potential. But there's key questions to be answered surrounding the health of Chris Clarke and Kerry Blackshear Jr., questions that can't be fully answered in a single Sunday afternoon exhibition. If Clarke and Blackshear can stay healthy through March, I have no concerns regarding the Hokies' diminutive stature in the front-court. That said, an untimely injury could spell disaster.
Will Tech improve from 2016-17? They will or won't because ______.
Brian: The Hokies will play better basketball this season. Why? Because they've replaced everything they lost from last year in more than one way.
As the charter member of the Seth Allen fan club, he will be missed. But even I can admit that Seth was—let's just say an adventure—on the defensive end of the court. The three-headed monster of Robinson, Jackson, and Bede could be a terror if they all play together. And while Pierson has a valid point about missing Allen's alpha mentality, I'm quite confident that Robinson is ready to pick up the slack coming down the stretch.
LeDay was a folk hero in Blacksburg, but his size could be exposed at times. Kerry Blackshear Jr. is a 6'10" forward who can also shoot threes. Will he hold up in the post? Only time will tell, but the ability to drag an opposing big out of the paint on the threat of a pick-and-pop is invaluable. Add in Horne's destiny to be this decade's J.T. Thompson, and one could argue that the front court hasn't dropped off much at all.
And while Outlaw may be done for the year, he's replaced by Alexander-Walker, a wing who provides much more than a spot-up threat. Add the return of Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs, an (eventually) healthy Clarke, and Wilson, and the wing is also deep.
The Hokies are versatile, have multiple attacking options, and won't have to rely on unsustainable three-point barrages moving forward.
Pierson: Forgive me for parsing words here, but it depends how we measure improvement. If we're talking final regular season record, no, I believe that the Hokies take a small step backwards. But do I think that this team could make some noise in the postseason and progress deeper into the NCAA Tournament? Absolutely.
The non-conference slate is more challenging than a year ago — which is a testament to what Buzz Williams and his staff have accomplished in a short period — and the ACC schedule is always a grind. Last year's team was able to boost their profile by taking care of business against teams they were supposed to beat and knocking off some top ranked teams in Cassell.
This season's non-conference slate will surely test the Hokies: A road trip to Rupp Arena looms; a 2K Classic matchup with Providence would be a tough test in the Friars' backyard; and the Big Ten/ACC Challenge always seems to be tougher than expected. Not to mention Duke is loaded, Notre Dame is incredibly experienced, Miami and Louisville are oozing with talent, and North Carolina is North Carolina.
I think that the Hokies' record will take a step back because the schedule is set up to challenge them, as an elite team should. Win and improve your profile. Lose and learn from it. Regardless, by season's end I think that this team will have experienced a number of challenges that will set them up well for a successful postseason. Where past Tech teams have withered on the big stage, this team should be primed for the setting.
Joey: I actually think they'll have an eerily similar season. Losing Seth Allen and Zach LeDay certainly hurts, but bringing on a trio of talented freshmen along with the steadying influence of Devin Wilson* may end up equating to a net gain. As Pierson noted, the schedule appears slightly tougher, which could bring down the win total while doing little harm to the Hokies' NCAA Tournament resume.
All in all, they'll be far more well-rounded this year (i.e., not relying on Ty Outlaw to shoot 90% from three-point land), but I don't see it having a huge bottom-line impact given the overall strength of schedule.
*We're officially starting a Devin Wilson drinking game. The rules are outlined below:
Someone mentions Devin Wilson's age or seemingly endless career.
Devin Wilson takes a charge.
Did you know Devin Wilson played football at Virginia Tech?
FINISH YOUR BEER:
Devin Wilson banks in a three.
Devin Wilson swishes a three.
The newcomer I'm most excited to watch is ______.
Brian: Obviously it's Alexander-Walker. I'm actually fascinated watching his evaluation as an NBA prospect change over the winter (he's currently viewed by many as a mid-first round pick). Hokie fans have never had to deal with the prospect of a freshman leaving Blacksburg after one season, but it's a reality that we'll probably have to accept come March.
But a close second is Tyrie Jackson. Reports from practice last year were that the dude can ball, and he would've made a big impact had his eligibility issues cleared up. If the scrimmage is any indication, Pig'll be the first guy off the bench. And if the box score is any indication, he's going to be ready to get his shots up the second he steps on the floor.
(I mean, nine shots in 18 minutes? The ghost of Seth Allen is still alive and well in the basketball practice facility).
If he and Bede can kick the asses of the reserve back courts they'll be matched up against, it could be one of the Hokies' biggest advantages.
Pierson: NAW is the obvious choice here. I'm all in on the PJ Horne hype train, but NAW is the newcomer that gets me hot and bothered. He's the second highest rated hoops signee ever according to the 247sports composite, but unlike defensive wizard/offensive muggle Dorian Finney-Smith, NAW can score. His game is still very much a work in progress and it remains to be seen how his body will stand up to the rigors of ACC play, but watch 90 seconds of his high school highlights and you'll see an extremely talented player.
While not an overly explosive player, he's comfortable driving to the basket with both hands. That ambidexterity will really help him create his own shot as his game evolves, as well as improve his ability to finish near the rim. For now he appears to be most dangerous as a spot-up shooter (which should fit in nicely with his teammates). Expectations amongst the fanbase are notably higher than any newcomer in memory, but NAW will have the luxury of integrating himself into a relatively experienced rotation. With a number of creative ball handlers and a system built to exploit poor defensive rotations, NAW could thrive in orange and maroon.
Joey: I think Alexander-Walker would be a cop out here given my previous (and forthcoming) answers, so I'll go with PJ Horne. The 6'5" frosh is largely an unknown for most Hokie fans, but he begins his Blacksburg career with the quintessential OKG reputation.
For those unindoctrinated in the quirks of our fearless leader, "OKG" stands for "Our Kinda Guy," an endearing label reserved for the blue-collar and under-appreciated that Buzz seems to so naturally attract. But make no mistake: the Hokies need Horne to contribute immediately. He figures to get significant time spelling Kerry Blackshear through the Hokies' non-conference slate, and if he delivers consistent production, there's no shortage of minutes for the undersized forward moving into 2018.
The most improved player from a year ago will be ______.
Brian: I'm going to die on the Kerry Blackshear hill.
During media day before his freshman season, Blackshear was just fooling around beyond the three-point line on the practice court. We had the following exchange:
ME: (playfully) What're you doing out here? Aren't you supposed to be down there? (nods towards the hoop)
KERRY: (laughs) Nah, I can hold my own out here.
ME: What? You think you have legit three point range?
KERRY: (in a tone more serious than he's ever been in his entire life) Yes. Yes I do.
The dude is so skilled in so many facets of the game. But the best part is that he's not soft. He's not a face-up big who'd prefer to float towards the perimeter rather than bang bodies down low. He's just well-rounded, and can adjust what he does game-by-game. Sure, some bigger centers will try to overpower him, but between his footwork and his confidence away from the rim, I think Blackshear will have an amazing comeback season.
Pierson: I'm going a little outside the box here and picking Tyrie Jackson. Younger brother of Georgia Tech guard Tadric Jackson and high school teammate of freshman PJ Horne, "Pig" enters the rotation after redshirting last season. An unheralded recruit, Pig is a shifty point guard whose high school highlights at times resemble an And-1 mixtape. The kid can thoroughly embarrass defenders with his handles and showed an ability in high school to light up the score sheet. A 60% three-point shooter his senior year at Tift High School (Ga.), it will be interesting to see how his stroke develops over the course of his first season on the court for Tech.
Justin Robinson cannot be expected to play 40 minutes per game throughout the season, so it will be important for guys like Jackson, Wabissa Bede and Devin Wilson to lighten the load. The Hokies will need a spark plug off the bench this season, and Jackson looks like a solid candidate to make some noise. Or I could be completely wrong here...I mean, college is a trying time for a lot of kids. Balancing class, ball, love interests, playing 2K...
Joey: As much as Justin Bibbs has frustrated me over the years, I think he finally makes his big step. (Yes, I'm aware he's currently in Buzz's doghouse. I'm sure he's not alone.)
Bibbs has been the stereotypical spot-up shooter throughout his career in Blacksburg, a lefty assassin from deep that has offered little more than a one-dimensional offensive game. But as he's gotten older, Bibbs has shown aggression in spurts, and it's both beautiful and mind-numbingly frustrating to watch. At a rangy 6'5", he's an underrated athlete, one that meshes perfectly with the Hokies' desire to run — and finish — in transition. The mid-range pull-up game leaves something to be desired, but the stroke itself is there.
Does he put it all together this year? Maybe not. But I'm hopeful. And on the off chance I'm right, you can bet your bottom dollar we'll be linking to this column for years to come.
______ will lead the team in points per game.
Brian: Again, Alexander-Walker is going to be the runaway favorite. He's skilled, and can both score as a spot-up shooter and as a slasher heading towards the hoop. But I'm far more interested in his playmaking ability rather than how often he puts the ball in the basket.
A couple of scouting reports refer to him as a combo guard, aka a guy who can not only play off-ball, but can play some point as well. I'm not sure how much we'll see him take on traditional ball handler duties with four others competing for time, but that doesn't mean his ability to see the floor and make plays for others won't be on display.
When thinking about who'll score the most points, it often comes down to who will have the most opportunities with the ball in their hands. Alexander-Walker has some stiff competition from his fellow wings for attention. Bibbs will want to get his shots, Hill is perpetually open for a corner three, and Clarke will want to grab his own rebound four straight times before a putback. So if not NAW, then who?
Why not Justin Robinson? There are new faces at the guard spot, but no one in their right mind thinks that the junior's competing with any of them for playing time. In fact, having more bodies will lighten his load, giving him fresher legs to score in the closing minutes of the game.
I can see a recurring scenario where J-Rob has 10 points with seven minutes left in the second half, yet still finishes the game with 20 and six assists. He's going to get to the line to seal things late, he's going to decide who has the ball when the pressure mounts, and he'll consistently give himself (and the team) chances to succeed.
Pierson: NAW. That's right, I said it. On a team full of NCAA tournament players, a true freshman is going to slide right into the lineup and light up the score sheet. It's something Blacksburg hasn't seen since Malcolm Delaney was launching bombs from 22-feet (and Delaney finished fourth on the team in scoring that season). Justin Robinson and Ahmed Hill possess the requisite skillsets to lead the team in scoring, but neither is the pure scorer NAW projects to be.
I expect NAW to look solid during the non-conference slate, but his true talent will be tested once the Hokies transition into conference play. If he can hold up physically, weather hostile environments and hit his shots when defenses are keying on him, then watch out.
The reality is that Buzz's Tech teams have become more and more balanced as the years have gone on. The Hokies have gone from two to three to six double-figure scorers in Buzz's three seasons. NAW may lead the team, and he might not. What we should feel certain about is a shared burden, where guys like Robinson, Hill, Bibbs, KJ, PJ Horne, Tyrie Jackson and possibly Chris Clarke* could finish the year in double figures.
Joey: Pierson stole most of my intelligent thoughts here, so I'll just let my Twitter ramblings speak for themselves:
Alexander-Walker is going to be our leading scorer and I am so here for it.— BUZZKETBALL (@BUZZKETBALL_) November 5, 2017
______ is the person most vital to a successful season.
Brian: It may sound simple, but if Alexander-Walker is a true one-and-done talent and can seamlessly blend into the core of a team that went to the NCAA Tournament a year ago, this team will be different.
Robinson, Bibbs, Hill, and Blackshear will all improve. The other young guys are great accessories, and the thought of a healthy Clarke would change things dramatically. But NAW is the difference between a talented team and a great one. Between a season that goes well, and a season that goes great. If he lives up to the hype, he could help Williams and company hit a level we've never seen in Blacksburg before.
Pierson: Justin Robinson. As the diminutive point guard goes, so do the Hokies. Robinson will be tasked with acting as this team's floor general while utilizing his skill set to keep the offense humming. Whereas Robinson was able to share the burden with Seth Allen the past two seasons, it's the JRob show from hereon. Freshmen Tyrie Jackson and Wabissa Bede will step into Allen's place — along with twelfth year senior
wide receiver Devin Wilson. Look for Jackson to provide the offensive spark, while Bede provides balance and some much-needed perimeter defense.
As I've noted earlier, Robinson's first step off the dribble and prowess in pick-and-roll situations will drive the Hokies offense. With athletic bigs KJ Blackshear and Nick Fullard, as well as freshman OKG PJ Horne, the pick-and-roll game could be a dangerous weapon for a team full of perimeter threats. Robinson's ability to drive-and-kick, finish around the rim, and nail open jumpers make him an incredibly valuable asset for the Hokies. And his play should provide younger guys like Jackson and Bede time to deputize before being asked to carry the load, similar to Robinson's experience alongside Seth Allen.
Joey: I also think Robinson is the obvious answer here. Seth Allen's absence leaves the Hokies with a noticeable void at the lead guard position, one that can't be filled by a traditional pass-heavy game-manager. Thankfully for the Hokies, Robinson fits the bill. He's incredibly dynamic off the dribble, flashes outstanding vision in transition, and consistently finishes at the rim with the same reckless abandon we came to admire from Allen.
That said, there's room for growth in Robinson's jump shot. He was decent enough from three-point range as a sophomore — 36% from deep is nothing to scoff at — but consistently knocking down open looks will only make Robinson a more taxing matchup for opposing defenses. That's what was so tough about Allen last year — you knew if he was open, he was splashing it in your face. Did he force shots at times? Absolutely. But all else equal, Allen was deadly from deep as a senior — especially in big spots. If Robinson can start to approach that level of effectiveness, he's an All-ACC caliber player.
Year four of Buzzketball will finish (RECORD) ______. Will they make it back to the NCAA Tournament?
Brian: They're going dancing. They're going to win a game in the tournament. They could even threaten to go to the Sweet 16.
The schedule is tough, but it's not impossible to navigate. Iowa, Ole Miss, and Providence are all nice OOC games that should also be very winnable. Kentucky is a probable loss, but rest of the non-ACC slate is a cake walk.
And when you get to conference play, who the hell knows how good some of these teams are. What does UVA look like without London Perrantes running the show? How does Wake replace John Collins, or how does Florida State replace everyone? Will Miami's young guns live up to the hype?
And no, Tech's conference slate isn't easy. Home-and-homes with Virginia, Duke, Miami, and Louisville aren't exactly promising, nor is the prospect of going on the road to Notre Dame and Syracuse. But if you look hard enough, there are definitely 10 ACC wins in this schedule. I say they go 21-10 (10-8 ACC).
Pierson: 20-11 (9-9 ACC), and yes they will make it back to the NCAA Tournament. As I mentioned above, the schedule is designed to challenge this team. The recent addition of a mid-December trip to Kentucky tells me that Buzz wanted to kick things up a notch. I think that the Hokies drop two non-conference games and finish with a .500 record in conference play.
Let's face it, the ACC is a meat grinder, and the conference schedulers did not do the Hokies any favors. Road trips to Wake and Louisville in a three-day span are followed by home games against Florida State and North Carolina with one day off in between. Five days later is a trip to Notre Dame, followed by Boston College in the same week. Ignore for a second the projected prowess of the six teams: Given the travel and short rest, that's a brutal stretch. Then you've got consecutive road trips to UVa, Duke and Georgia Tech in an 8-day span. Yeesh.
Last season played out about as well as you could imagine. The Hokies cleaned up in non-conference play, beat the teams below them in the ACC and picked up some profile boosting wins against Duke and UVa at Cassell. With a tougher non-conference slate, if the Hokies can replicate last season's outcome they should be well positioned for a Top-8 seed and a possible Sweet Sixteen run.
Joey: 19-12 (9-9 ACC). Taking a quick glance at the schedule, I'd expect a 10-3 non-conference record. That's assuming losses to Kentucky, either Ole Miss or Iowa, and Providence. I think that's fair. Could Tech go 11-2? Sure. Are we going to fight about it endlessly in the comments section? Probably.
Moving into conference play, things get significantly hairier. Much like Pierson, I think Tech takes a minor step back and finishes at .500 in the league. That should be more than enough to lock up a second-straight NCAA Tournament bid, and at that point, all bets are off. I mean, South Carolina went to the Final Four last year. Yeah, that South Carolina.
Happy Buzzketball season, Hokies.