2016-17 is not just a year of improvement for the Virginia Tech men's basketball team, it's also one of systematically exorcising the demons in the program's recent past.
Coming into the night, Buzz Williams' team had played Syracuse three times. The first was his ACC debut, and saw a scorching comeback fall just short with a Malik Mueller shot at the buzzer. Tech lost 68-66.
The second time the two met in 2015, Buzz's bunch let a double digit lead slip away in the second half. Tech lost 72-70.
In the third matchup a year ago? The Hokies blew another late lead, and collapsed down the stretch into overtime. Just in case you're missing the pattern here, Tech lost. 68-60.
So when Syracuse came into Cassell Coliseum on Tuesday night, history was on their side. The problem for the Orange, however, is that history can't guard Hokie forward Zach LeDay on a baseline dunk. And the redshirt senior had plenty of them during Virginia Tech's 83-73 win.
LeDay and company were in dire need of a turnaround after losing to NC State and Florida State, and played with intensity from the jump. The big man had 22 points, and continuously broke into Jim Boeheim's vaunted 2-3 zone for easy dunks.
Fellow senior Seth Allen came back from the concussion that forced him to miss action against the Seminoles, and chipped in with 11 points and 5 assists of his own. Even more importantly, Allen acted as the team's primary ball handler for most of the night, as point guard Justin Robinson struggled with foul trouble.
"I thought he (Allen) played with great poise," Williams said. "I told he and Zach, I thought tonight they both played like redshirt seniors, and that's what we need from them."
And while the elder statesmen of the group had big nights, they were far from the only ones who contributed to their squad's success.
Ahmed Hill and Chris Clarke constantly broke out in transition. Clarke also played the vital high post position on offense, winging the ball quickly around the opposing zone. The old adage about attacking Boeheim's defense is that you either have to shoot over it or directly attack it, and the sophomore was set to do the latter.
He consistently found LeDay roaming the baseline and wings cutting to the basket, who then attacked the rim vigorously. All but three of Tech's second half field goals were made close to the basket, success which left longtime Cuse coach befuddled.
"They were making a direct pass from the perimeter which has never happened to us," a less-than-loquacious Boeheim said postgame. "Our center just wasn't in good position."
Up next, the Hokies stay home and host 20th ranked Notre Dame on Saturday, who Tech fell to in heartbreaking fashion in 2016. Another chance for Buzz and company to prove themselves against a ranked opponent, and yet another demon to put behind them.
A Few Quick Thoughts
Syracuse is the perfect example of sanctions hitting a program hard and fast. The Orange's schedule is littered with high profile blowouts, and took a turn for the abysmal when they fell to Boston College by 15 earlier in the year.
Let me rephrase, when they fell to the worst team ACC team we've possibly ever seen by double digits. I was under the impression that anyone who loses to BC by more than 10 was automatically relegated to the CAA.
Remember, Cuse may have gone to a Final Four last year but that masked the impact NCAA penalties had on the program. The Hokies are a good team, but Boeheim's team simply didn't have the length, quickness, and wherewithal to contain on the defensive end.
And when they switched to a full court press in the second half? Forget about it.
Tech continuously shredded it, ripping open their lead for good.
One last note. It's hard to understate how important LeDay is to the Hokies, but this extended quote from Williams is a decent indicator:
"Zach doesn't come across as if he's really intelligent, but he's a really good kid and he's smarter than you think. You just have to spend some time around him to realize that he knows what's going on.
"He cares so much. Obviously his first two years (at South Florida) he lost, a lot, and was considered a bad player. He worked incredibly hard in his sit out year, and then we had an 8 game ACC improvement in his first year here. He just cares about winning."
It's good that he cares about winning, because he's doing a lot of it during his last run in Blacksburg.