Two big events happened to Virginia Tech basketball over the course of a week. One grabbed headlines and flew as an example of an advancing program. The other was a blip of breaking news covered by a few tweets and a series of 300-word newspaper blurbs.
In the first week of May, Buzz Williams' staff received a commitment from Nickeil Alexander-Walker, a highly regarded 4-star guard in the 2017 class. If he stays, he is Buzzketball's biggest get to date. Though Chris Clarke and Ahmed Hill were also well touted prepsters, Alexander-Walker is the face of a new era of basketball in Blacksburg.
Coaches early in their tenure have convinced many-a four- and five-star product to follow them. Promise of culture change and early playing time are easy to pitch, and readily digestible by 17- and 18-year-olds who want to make a difference right away. What, you think new Mississippi State coach Ben Howland's been selling academics and the bumping Starkville nightlife? New is sexy, you can always talk yourself into it.
But after their first two seasons, these snake oil salesmen need some sort of result. No one's going to play for a terrible team at a football school if things look like they can't change. It's here, a few years in, where a program can tell if a head coach is going to stick. It's the difference between Brian Gregory and Jim Larranaga. Gregory brought in a wave of talent to Atlanta right away, yet as it became clear his Yellow Jackets plateaued quickly, he was never able to bring in those kind of difference makers again.
In contrast, Larranaga took over a tumultuous situation from predecessor Frank Haith. His Hurricanes went on a run in year two, won both the regular season title and the ACC tournament, and has attracted a higher caliber player ever since.
So while Hokie Nation was blown away by Williams and company pulling in the top player in the commonwealth last recruiting cycle (Clarke), they face a bigger challenge in the upcoming (2017) class. To show enough to keep getting good prospects in the door after two years of improvement. Has the program made incredible strides since the spring of 2014? Absolutely. But was it enough to pull in the kind of talent required to make the next leap? That remains unclear.
Alexander-Walker may not be the best person in his class by the time signing day comes along, but his pledge signifies Buzz's turnaround in Blacksburg resonates with recruits.
"It's not what you'd call a prestigious school — It's not a Duke, it's not a Kentucky," Alexander-Walker told the Roanoke Times. "But it's something you can build on, leave your mark. It's going to give me a great chance to come in as a freshman and do great things."
Though not a surprise to people closely following Hokie hoops, it's a pleasant relief to see it confirmed by someone outside Hokie Nation's bubble.
We've watched the Buzzketball era so closely, it's second nature to think everyone sees the program just like us. But it's understandable if someone doesn't want to run the risk of committing to a school whose biggest accomplishment during the last half decade was making it to the second round of the NIT. Alexander-Walker did, and by doing so shows confidence in the viability of Tech's future.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. A few days after the team's big signing, they announced the departure of lead assistant Isaac Chew to the same position at Texas A&M. The coach's exit drew an interesting reaction from fans, who fell into one of two camps.
The first understood Chew's decision, and saw it as an upgrade in both salary (assumed) and in profile (A&M is a better job than Tech). I'd count myself in this camp. To me it made all the sense in the world for him to bolt, especially to a school with SEC cash coming off a regular season title. And as a person who's primarily lived in the middle of the country his whole life —he's from Chicago, and coached at Murray State and Missouri before joining Williams at Marquette — it's a return to an area he's familiar with.
The second camp, however, was puzzled by the choice. In general, they question the decision to leave the ACC for a "lateral move" in an inferior league, money be damned. There's problem in this logic for many reasons, with the biggest being an overvaluation of the way Virginia Tech stacks up versus other teams across the country.
Chew's travel to College Station is absolutely a step up, and anyone who can't see it as such is far too engrained within Buzzketball. And it's not just because of a raise. In fact, money may be less of a factor than many assume.
Yes, A&M has deep pockets. Remember when they gave tweet master Aaron Moorehead a nearly $100,000 bump? It may not be great on morale, or quarterbacks, but it certainly pays to be a SEC punching bag and I'd assume they gave Chew a nice check.
But Buzz currently has $725,000 allotted in his assistant pool, which isn't chump change. And yes, Texas has no state income tax and cost of living is lower, but Tech still has a sizeable amount to dole out to the guys on their bench.
Instead, this move goes beyond money. There are serious things going against the Hokies in a fight for their former assistant. And while Tech has improved greatly as a program, losing Chew illustrates just how much Williams and his staff have to deal with in the bigger picture:
Location: College Station is 90 minutes from Houston, two hours from Dallas and three from San Antonio. Simply put, it's in an amazing spot to reel in talent. Blacksburg, on the other hand, is at least three hours from any basketball hub (Charlotte, Washington D.C., Richmond) and not the easiest place to get to. It may seem inconsequential, but that matters. Williams and his staff will never, I repeat never, luck into a prep star in their backyard, because they don't really have one. Assistants log more miles on the road, and have to consistently effort to get kids on campus. A player in D.C. or Baltimore could visit Maryland any Saturday he wanted, and a guy in North Carolina could borrow hair gel from Mark Gottfried at the drop of an iMessage. To get to Tech? They and their families have to make plans, buy a hotel room and burn a whole weekend.
It's not like every school is located in an urban hot bed, Syracuse might as well be in Siberia and has anyone who doesn't live there actually been to Kansas? But the difference between their situations and the Hokies' plays to my other point.
Results: Virginia Tech basketball hasn't won anything yet. Texas A&M got to the Sweet 16 this season and saw two assistants get head coaching gigs. This isn't to put down the team's progress —it's amazing what's taken place in just two years— but compared to places where NCAA Tournament appearances are commonplace? It's far inferior.
If you're a coach or player, you know there are a lot of places where winning comes easier than Tech. You need to be more creative and passionate to get and keep people there. Buzz knows it, which is what makes him so damn good. It's how he brought Chew to Blacksburg in the first place, and how guys like Alexander-Walker end up in orange and maroon sweats.
But as simple as the rebuild seems, it's been anything but. And each win comes as a testament to the effort put in by every person under Cassell Coliseum's roof.
Chew leaving isn't as big a deal as it seems on the surface. Sure, he was a good recruiter who followed Williams from Marquette, but it's not like they'd been coaching together for a decade. Assistants bounce around, and Buzz expected this (on a Tech Talk Live in February, he guessed Chew would be a head coach in 2016-17).
But the move is a microcosm of exactly what kind of odds are against the ascension of Virginia Tech basketball. It's still not a great job, with very visible limitations today. And while we can all celebrate each win, each big time recruit, there's always a reminder that Buzzketball still has a long way to go.