There are only a few times I distinctly remember a Hokie freshman's debut. When Tyrod Taylor jogged onto the field at Death Valley in 2007, I held my breath. When Ryan Williams scored twice against Alabama, I knew the guy I was watching was special. When Dorian Finney-Smith grabbed 16 rebounds against East Tennessee State, I knew he was a program changing player.
I never said I was always right.
But Nickeil Alexander-Walker scored his first basket 38 seconds into his first game as a Virginia Tech basketball player. Over the next four minutes, the five-star freshman ran point on a fast break, had a block, and hit another layup.
By the under 16 of the Hokies' 111-79 win over Detroit Mercy, Alexander-Walker established his destiny as the greatest NBA prospect in school history.
Despite missing the final 11 minutes of the first half with two fouls, Alexander-Walker lead the team with 24 points on 9-14 shooting. He got to the basket comfortably, looked to push the tempo with every rebound, and looked just as sharp from behind the arc as he did inside it.
Yes, this was the first game of Buzz Williams' fourth season in Blacksburg. It was also an introduction to the next generation of Hokie basketball.
After a year off, Kerry Blackshear Jr. scored a wildly efficient 23. Tech's starting center ran the floor with ease, drained a three, and consistently went to the line. After finally being cleared to play, Tyrie Jackson was all over the place. He grabbed eight rebounds (as a guard), hit a couple of nice shots, and sent one opposing attempt into the stratosphere. And in their first career games, freshmen Wabissa Bede and P.J. Horne also showed well.
And those are only the new (and reintroduced) faces.
Ahmed Hill had an incredibly quiet 19 and nine. Fresh off knee surgery, Chris Clarke had an even quieter nine point, five rebound, four assist night. 45-year-old Devin Wilson started, had 10 points, and looked comfortable in his role as a guard who defends big guys.
Yes, it's only game one. And yes, there are still major things to correct. Former blue chip recruit and Michigan transfer Kameron Chatman had 23 points for the Titans. The tempo that Tech wants to play will create more possessions for their opponents, and could be exploited by better teams. And of course, Detroit Mercy had 12 offensive rebounds and 22 free throws, which speak to the lack of size the Hokies have.
But there are so many more positives to see that it's hard to even think about what went wrong. Tech got out and ran at every chance they could, which lead to prolific dunks and 27 fast break points. They also attacked the rim with vigor, and got into the lane on nearly every possession. That lead to 70 points in the paint (70!!!), and shooting 57% from the field. Offensively, they were potent.
And those positives need to stay, because the Hokies don't have a ton of time before their first big opponent. After Sunday's battle against the Citadel in Blacksburg, Tech goes up to New York to take part in the 2K Classic. A two-game series against St. Louis and either Providence or Washington will test the team early.
But if we learned anything in game one, the Hokies (at least offensively) will be ready.
A few quick notes
Clarke's nine month return from the ACL injury gives this team an extra layer that I wasn't expecting so soon. The junior's ability to play forward, grab a rebound on defense, and immediately put in on the floor in transition is devastating (particularly if he remains on the bench).
Does the quick return make you hold your breath every time he makes a cut? Of course. His herky-jerky style seems predestined for physical ailments. But should he stay healthy, Clarke's ability on the break (especially when running it with Alexander-Walker) is deadly.
There were so many open threes in transition that weren't capitalized on, especially in the first half. I won't use this space to presume that we know why Justin Bibbs isn't playing (though if you look deep enough through Buzzketball comments you'll see a theory about a certain "10% of the season" suspension). But when he comes back, the senior will have so many open chances. Dude might shoot 60% from behind the arc in non-conference play.
One thing that's so cool about Williams is the way he empowers his young players. They may not always capitalize on their opportunities, but his freshmen are rarely scared of, or overwhelmed by, the moment. Alexander-Walker was ready to go from the jump. Jackson was shooting the moment he got into the game. Bede checked in for the first time with 5:52 to go in the first half. He scored his first career basket at 5:34.
It often flirts with disaster, how many out of control drives have we seen from Hill and Clarke early in their careers? And though it doesn't always produce great results —cough, P.J. Horne's 2-6 first half performance, cough— it's a great selling point on the recruiting trail. If you're a youngster, you know that Buzz has your back.
And finally? I can't wait for the Citadel. Bring on game two.