It's baaaaaaaaaaaack. Year three of Buzzketball tips off tomorrow night in Cassell Coliseum against the University of Maine Black Bears. Last season's dramatic improvement from Buzz's first year on campus — which included five consecutive wins to close out the regular season — has helped Virginia Tech earn national attention as a potential NCAA Tournament team. Despite the raised expectations, the Hokies are not without their concerns.
For the second straight season, Brian, Joey and I played a rousing game of Buzzketball Fill-In-The-Blank. You may be caught up in the excitement of the football program's resurgence, but we're here to tell you that it's time to add another mistress to your sports viewing rotation.
There's nowhere near the amount of change we've grown accustomed to seeing from the Tech basketball program. The Hokies return virtually their entire roster, which finished 10-8 in the ACC last season. But many openly wonder whether last year's performance can be improved upon. We did our best to fill in some of the most important and interesting unknowns that face this squad, and simultaneously tried not to get too hung up on Kerry Blackshear's injured right leg.
The storyline I'm most interested in is ______.
Brian: Are the Hokies any better than they were last year? The team's sprint to the sixth seed in the ACC in 2015-16 was great. They saw big time showings from Zach LeDay and Seth Allen, a steady performance from Justin Bibbs, and ups and downs from everyone else. If Tech wants to improve and earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament, they'll need each player to be consistently better than they were last season.
It may seem like an obvious point, but the squad's margin for error is already small. Nearly half of their conference games came down to five points or less, which means they fell into a decent amount of good luck. There's no guarantee luck will be on their side this time around, so if the team isn't any better we could not only see stagnation, but regression.
Pierson: Can the Hokies repeat last year's magic despite once again being terrifyingly undersized? We discussed at length last season how Buzz Williams would address his lack of frontcourt depth. Here we are, one year later, and the issue continues to dominate many of our thoughts. With the off-season transfer of Satchel Pierce and surgery for rising sophomore Kerry Blackshear, an already nervy situation has become even direr. Can Blackshear return sometime during ACC play and make an impact? Is Khadim Sy able to find his sea legs during out-of-conference play and turn into a consistent rotation player? Can Johnny Hamilton provide 5-8 good minutes when called upon?
Dating back to his days at Marquette, the beauty of Buzz's system has always been its ability to thrive with a group of wing players. During the Hokies late-season six-game win streak, they were outrebounded in each contest and still took down Florida State (twice), Miami and Pitt. Last year, Zach LeDay was able to use good positioning, tenacity and his big backside to pull down 8 boards per game. Blackshear was able to provide some length inside. Chris Clarke was able to use his incredible physical ability to snatch balls out of the paws of taller foes. And the guards were active on the glass, pulling down long rebounds and immediately turning up court on the break. Despite the loss of Blackshear, this system can thrive once more. The question is whether or not the Hokies can execute when it matters most.
Joey: Pierson hit the nail on the head with this one. This seems like a classic Buzz Williams team, one with an abundance of athletic wings who can defend multiple positions and run in transition. With that being said, depth inside remains a glaring weakness. If Blackshear misses extended time, that leaves the Hokies with no proven interior options outside of LeDay. I tend to think Sy is at least a year away from contributing, and Hamilton was underwhelming in his first season in Blacksburg. Buzz has played small before, but a lineup sans Blackshear could certainly get hairy on the defensive glass.
Tech will improve from 2015-16 if ______.
Brian: If the young players get better. At different times last year we saw growth from Justin Robinson, Chris Clarke, and Kerry Blackshear. Now, with Blackshear likely out for the year, the Hokies will rely on a small lineup centered around both Clarke and Robinson. Buzz Williams and company will have to consistently play four guards, which means a ton of minutes for the two sophomores.
Can Clarke play a hybrid forward position alongside either Ahmed Hill or Ty Outlaw? Will Robinson not only be able to push the tempo at times, but hit threes and guard opposing point guards? If both of those guys take large steps forward, the Hokies have a legitimately threatening small-ball team.
Another guy I'm keeping half an eye on? Johnny Hamilton. With Blackshear out I expect Buzz and his staff to plug in different big men into the lineup early, as a test to see if they can keep up with their faster, smaller teammates. Hamilton has everything you'd want as a shot blocking, athletic center. If he can become anything more than a zero on the offensive end (which is still a big ask), his contributing minutes could be huge.
Pierson: Two consistent jump shooters can emerge alongside Justin Bibbs. With the off-season transfer of Jalen Hudson, the Hokies were left with one established perimeter threat for teams to gameplan against. Sure, Hudson was wildly inconsistent during his time in Blacksburg. He would go 3 games without making a noticeable impact and then drop 20-plus against a premier opponent. Hudson was electric attacking the rim, but he had the ability to knock down mid- and long-range jumpers when he was locked in. Bibbs, on the other hand, struggled with consistency all year long. He would follow up four straight double-figure games with 2-3 consecutive lackluster performances. It was a season of peaks and valleys for a guy many pegged as the keystone of last season's offensive potential.
So who are the most likely candidates? Justin Robinson emerged during ACC play as a potential gunner at the point, utilizing a line drive three-point stroke to log eight double-figure games after the New Year. Three-and-D specialist Ahmed Hill returns from a season on the mend. If he can rediscover the outside touch that endeared him to many, he could be a major threat in the drive-and-kick game. Ty Outlaw averaged almost 22 points per game during his JUCO year and has the potential to slot in as another prototypical Buzz Williams wing. If at least two of these three can support Bibbs on the perimeter each night, it would not only relieve some of the burden but it would also make opposing defenses' task that much harder.
Joey: Justin Robinson continues his ascent to an All-ACC caliber player. It's no coincidence that Robinson's emergence last winter corresponded with the Hokies rattling off double-digit conference victories for the first time since the Seth Greenberg era. He really was that good. And if Robinson continues on this upward trend, expect Seth Allen to work more off the ball, limiting his turnover numbers while allowing him to focus on scoring the basketball.
The newcomer I'm most excited to watch is ______.
Brian: Ahmed Hill. Okay sure, he's not technically a newcomer. But everything I heard coming out of summer workouts a season ago was that Hill was returning a different player. If that's true, I'm excited to see Hill 2.0 and how he impacts Buzz's strategy with such a small roster.
Pierson: Ty Outlaw. Assuming he stays healthy, there is a lot of intrigue surrounding Outlaw. He came to Tech after averaging 21.8 PPG at Lee College — shooting 50.2% and 43.5% from distance — so we know he can fill up the score sheet. Is he able to adapt to the pace and physicality of ACC hoops? How does his game integrate into this system and what type of an impact can we expect from him night-in-and-night-out?
As the out-of-conference slate plays out, I will be paying close attention to Buzz's rotation and how Outlaw ultimately fits into this team. He has the size and shooting stroke to thrive in Buzz's system. My hope is that he is able to (at a minimum) assume the sparkplug role vacated by transfer Jalen Hudson — substituting one Tyrone for another — but with more consistency.
Joey: Ty Outlaw. Buzz has really talked him up over the last year, so I'm anxious to see what the 6'6" sharpshooter can bring to this Hokies squad.
The most improved player from a year ago will be ______.
Editor's Note: We agreed that Ahmed Hill doesn't qualify for consideration.
Brian: Chris Clarke has almost everything you need in a modern wing. He's athletic with an insane second jump; he's a scrapper on the boards; and he's just big enough to play as a combo forward without giving up too much size.
The thing he's missing? Any sort of ability to stretch the floor. Clarke's jumper was one of the ugliest things I've personally seen in Cassell Coliseum (which says a lot, considering I covered the James Johnson era). But it's unfair to judge any sort of in-season progress from Clarke, considering he missed a large chunk of time due to injury. Considering the state of his shot right now, it may seem outlandish to wonder if it could improve.
But think about how Hill grew during his freshman year. He was an athletic wing who played out of control (sound familiar?), but eventually developed a consistent three-point shot from the corners. I think we see that kind of jump from Clarke, and he'll be vital to the team's small-ball success.
Pierson: For the sake of being different, I'm going to say Justin Robinson. Chris Clarke has freakish athleticism and a ton of promise, but I worry about the lengths his jump shot needs to improve to overtake a surging Justin Robinson. As a freshman, Robinson came on strong during the Hokies' remarkable stretch run. He was able to effectively run the offense as the primary ball handler — he assisted on nearly one quarter of his team's field goals while on the floor, tops on the team — and paired well with Seth Allen to form a dynamic inside-outside combination. He finished last season second on the team in PER (behind Zach LeDay), first in True Shooting Percentage and third in Win Shares.
His game developed as last season progressed and I fully expect to see him take another big step forward this year. If he can improve his defensive footwork, Robinson has the ability to become one of the top point guards in the ACC. He has that much potential. We know Seth Allen is going to absorb a lot of the focus, and teams will always be keeping an eye on Justin Bibbs. And there will be Robinson, laying in the weeds ready to make plays from all over the floor.
Joey: Chris Clarke. I think I speak for both Brian and myself when I say we're all aboard the Chris Clarke hype train. And it's not hard to see why. The athleticism, the versatility, the quick-jumping ability, it's all reminiscent of a (far) less-polished Andrew Wiggins. Clarke was limited last season by an untimely foot injury, but I think he starts to put it together this winter. And if the jump shot ever materializes — admittedly, a big if — Clarke can be really special.
______ will lead the team in points per game.
Brian: Seth Allen. If we're talking pure volume, Allen's your guy. LeDay will struggle a bit more than a year ago due to the lack of depth in the front court. The extra minutes and facing a consistent wave of top opposing bigs is likely to take a toll on him, physically. And also think about this: The Hokies could presumably play a lineup where all five guys have three-point range. If that's the case, it'll open more driving lanes for Allen and Robinson to exploit (which Seth will have no problem doing.)
Pierson: Seth Allen. He's the most dynamic player on the roster and the clear alpha dog on this team. Period. But after the performances we saw last season, part of me wonders whether it really even matters who leads this team. There is a lot of depth on this year's squad, one that is a year older and more experienced playing under such a unique head whistle. Robinson, Allen, Bibbs, Hill and/or Zach LeDay could drop 20-plus points on a given night. Chris Clarke may be ready to make that leap, and Ty Outlaw certainly has the pedigree to surprise. That diversity is an incredible asset, but one maddening constant last season was the lack of consistency. In order for this team to reach its potential, Bibbs can't disappear once every four games; Allen can't continue to force low-percentage shots; and LeDay needs to stay out of foul trouble.
Joey: This may sound bad, but I don't think it really matters. Much like last year, I expect Allen and LeDay to lead the way, with Bibbs and Robinson trailing right behind them. It'll be interesting to see what Buzz gets out of Hill and Outlaw, and don't be shocked if Clarke ends up averaging double-digit points. That's the thing with this Hokies team — there are just so many weapons. Allen and Robinson can take you off the dribble; Outlaw and Bibbs can make their living behind the arc; and Hill, Clarke, and LeDay can clean up the mess with more than a few garbage points. We may never know who the Hokies' leading scorer will be heading into a game, and that's a good thing.
______ is the person most vital to a successful season.
Brian: Seth Allen was solid last year (for the most part, at least), but as the senior guard on a young team, he needs to be better. Many teams will only go so far as their ball dominant player, and I don't think the Hokies are any exception. The Hokies can't afford as many wasted offensive chances as they had last year, and Allen was one of the biggest culprits in the category due to both turnovers and ill-advised shots. Should he clean things up a little bit and be an explosive cog in a well-run machine, both Allen's point totals and the team's offensive efficiency will improve.
Pierson: I am conflicted about where to go with this. On one hand, I feel like Ahmed Hill could be pivotal in determining how successful this season will be. He proved during his freshman season that he is a perfect fit for Buzz's system, is incredibly reliable on both ends of the floor and can knock down corner threes and attack the baseline unlike any other player on the roster. He adds a different dimension to the lineup that was sorely lacking last season: A calming force. Whereas Seth Allen operates on unadulterated raw emotion, Hill is a rock that has the leadership ability to help his teammates weather a tough atmosphere or situation.
On the other hand, there's Big Play Zach LeDay. Were it not for his completely unexpected performance, last season would have transpired very differently. With Blackshear out for the foreseeable future, an even bigger burden will be placed on LeDay's back. If he gets hurt, sees an uptick in his foul totals or has a significant drop off in his senior season, Buzz will be forced to go uncomfortably small at times. A lineup relying on the likes of Chris Clarke, Khadim Sy and Johnny Hamilton will struggle to match last year's record. For that reason, I think LeDay is the player most vital to this team's success.
Joey: I'm with Pierson again on this one. I'm an unabashed Ahmed Hill supporter, but given the Hokies' depth at the guard position, this team should have no problem withstanding a slow start from Hill. On the other hand, Zach LeDay is absolutely critical to this team's success. Say what you will about Satchel Pierce and Shane Henry — and I said plenty — but they were warm bodies, and Henry was always good for a handful of high-energy minutes off the bench. Buzz may not have that luxury this season. Without another stellar year from LeDay, I don't see any way the Hokies even approach a second-straight twenty-win season.
Year three of Buzzketball will finish (RECORD) ______.
Brian: 17-13. They'll do enough to put themselves in the NCAA Tournament conversation, but won't have the horses to bring it home at the end of the year. I'm not as concerned with the Blackshear injury as my colleagues here. Buzz still has a rotation of seven very good players (Allen, Robinson, Bibbs, Clarke, LeDay, Outlaw, and Hill). If he can get decent minutes out of two more (Hamilton, Devin Wilson, freshmen Khadim Sy and Tyrie Jackson), he'll have a very solid squad.
Solid enough to go dancing, however? I'd pump the breaks.
Pierson: 18-12 (8-10 ACC). The injury and long-term of availability of Kerry Blackshear has had a huge impact on our outlook for this year's team. Despite returning virtually every key contributor, the Hokies enter the 2016-17 season arguably worse off in the post than a year ago. Blackshear's emergence was a welcome development over much maligned Satchel Pierce and undersized Shane Henry. His loss leaves the Hokies with a rotation of freshman Khadim Sy and Johnny Hamilton to relieve the burden from guys like Chris Clarke and Zach LeDay.
We have a pretty solid understanding of how Buzz will look to exploit his team's athleticism along the perimeter and attack the rim to counter the height disadvantage. But we learned last season that the successfulness of their aggression attacking the paint is predicated on the officials' willingness to partake. When the whistles went silent, the Hokies had an uphill climb.
I think Buzz's Bunch will drop two out-of-conference games but struggle to consistently matchup with the ACC's alpha dogs. If Ahmed Hill and Ty Outlaw emerge as consistent weapons at the wing alongside Justin Bibbs, the Hokies will have a dangerous dimension that can really elevate them. Hold onto your butts, we should all be in for one heck of a ride this year.
Joey: I think the Hokies are a NCAA tournament team with Kerry Blackshear. Unfortunately, I don't expect Blackshear to suit up this season. That leaves us in a strange position, because while the Hokies are absolutely loaded at guard, they'll be woefully outmanned inside. I hope I'm wrong, but Khadim Sy and Johnny Hamilton don't strike me as ready to contribute in the ACC. Chris Clarke has the ability to eat up some minutes in the stretch four role, but it's still worrisome to go into any season with three healthy big men (and that's counting a less than 100% LeDay). For now, I'll go with 15-15 (7-11 ACC), with the caveat being I do think the Hokies can finally get on the right side of the bubble with a healthy Blackshear.