A special class of Virginia Tech men's basketball seniors were honored Friday night. Poised for a program first, third-straight dance engagement, Ahmed Hill, Ty Outlaw, and Justin Robinson formed the foundation for Tech's current success. And while Robinson might have only gotten one second of playing time, Hill and Outlaw paced the Hokies in their 84-70 win against the Miami Hurricanes.
This class of seniors will be remembered in Blacksburg for a long time. Robinson is the assists leader, and he could've really put some distance between himself and second place if he hadn't gotten hurt. Hill was the first marquee recruit of Buzz Williams era (247Sports Composite 4-star, 0.9754) and commands the respect of the locker room. Outlaw will be the team's best three-point shooter when it's all said and done, hovering right around 47%. The next closest is sharpshooter Justin Bibbs at 42%. The rise of the program directly correlates to the maturation of this senior class.
"The first thing I want to say specific to that is you understand upon arrival the only thing that led to their [the seniors] arrival here, a big part that led to their arrival here is based on trust and not evidence," explained Williams. "To have seen the metamorphosis of it all, the one thing that has really convicted my heart is Outlaw's mom sending my pages of texts and Robinson's mom calling me saying 'you are going to have to listen to me for a while'. I've known Hill and his mom even longer and his life story. I think more than the wins, it's real cool, but the experience of those relationships will last forever. The lessons that have been learned by all of us in this experience has made us all better. Because I have never been a part of something like this. I think the wisdom that comes from the experience is I didn't know to say that when I first met Robinson. I remember the first time I met Robinson and all of them, the things I have said to them have all come true. I was betting on the "come" in a lot of it but looking back at it I wish I would have been able to quantify what the experience would do for their life. That's the coolest thing."
It was a slow start for the Hokies which translated to a 16-8 Miami lead at the 14-minute mark of the first half. But from there, Buzzketball exploded for a 32-6 run. Fueled by none other than Hill and Outlaw. Fifteen of the 32 points, all of them three pointers, involved the two seniors and got the Cassell crowd back into the contest.
"Honestly, I'm relying on Ty and Med," Williams noted to the Virginia Tech radio crew post game. "My emotion is relied on those two guys. Because those two guys are so strong emotionally. They're so strong mentally. I told them that earlier today. I told them that as we were leaving the huddle where nobody else can hear, 'our team needs it, and I need it. So if you can feed me, I can try and feed the others relative to the emotion'. Those are two guys that, if there was a fight, I'm picking them."
Looking at the statistical side of the victory, the Hokies finished the regular season with a 23-7 (12-6) record. That conference mark is good for the No. 5 seed in the ACC Tournament next week. Additionally, with their win over the Hurricanes, Buzzketball guaranteed a single-digit loss campaign and set a program record for ACC. But that's the boring way of looking at it.
There's a famous quote in baseball that goes: "No matter how good you are, you're going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are you're going to win one-third of your games. It's the other third that makes the difference."
Virginia Tech swept that other third. And you're damn right they made a difference.
"I think it's off the charts, and I think if I was a little bit more media centric and I said "yes" to everybody that called, I think there would be a little bit more hubbub about it," noted Williams. "But I kind of like that there's no hubbub. And instead it's like 'Buzz is just a weirdo' and 'can you believe how they're doing this without Five'. At some point, I think maybe you should say 'well, look at what they're doing without him'".
The head honcho is right. There's something that should be said about the Hokies' effort this season. Heading into the 2018-19 campaign, expectations were high because of the talent on-hand. Take a look at what Virginia Tech had to work with while still (mostly) living up to expectations. No Chris Clarke. No Nolley. No P.J. Horne for a few weeks. No Robinson for at least a month (probably more, more on that later). If voters had known in the preseason that this is the hand Virginia Tech would be dealt, there's no way Buzzketball gets picked 5th in the conference. But regardless, that's what Tech pulled off. The growth that the Hokies demonstrated from the start of the season to now is quantifiable.
"I think we've all matured," explained Nickeil Alexander-Walker. "When you look from the beginning, or even from when J-Rob got hurt or when P.J. got hurt, that's when our character was tested. Everyone had to step up in a different way. I had to step up as a passer and a playmaker. Step down from trying to put the ball in the basket. When you're out of your comfort zone, things feel a little frantic, but I think everyone is sticking together. Our cohesiveness, the flow of the team, it really helped us because now we're comfortable where we are. We feel like we can go to the ACC Tournament and compete and have a chance to win. And we've missed an All-ACC guard. And when he comes back, it's just going to add to that. I think everyone has added to their game. Ty's been a terrific rebounder, more than a threat as a shooter. He creates for others, he creates for me sometimes. The fact that Isaiah [Wilkins] is coming in and playing great minutes and putting the ball on the floor, playing the one. It's great."
With time off until next Wednesday, the Hokies are able to reflect on the fact that they won a game after beating Duke. A task they weren't able to pull off last season. (Yes, really.)
"We don't want to feel like we beat a big opponent and then die off," explained Outlaw. "Mature teams have to be able to play their best against anybody, good or bad. It was good to get another win, especially after the tough FSU loss, going into the ACC tournament."
Triple Threat Thoughts
The elephant in the room. Let's talk about Robinson. During the early session of warm ups, he was in street clothes. When he came out for senior day festivities, he was in uniform. There was no glass shattering sound effect but for a split second it felt like the arrival of Stone Cold Austin into Cassell Coliseum. Robinson. Was. Back.
That feeling of shock and excitement quickly went away when the team ran out for official warmups a few minutes later and Robinson a) didn't run on to the court, instead electing to walk and b) didn't go through layup lines with the rest of the team.
The 10 minutes of pregame drama came to a head when Kerry Blackshear Jr. illegally, and intentionally, tipped off, stopping the game clock at 19:59. One second into the contest, and Robinson was done for the night.
Classy gesture tonight allowing injured @HokiesMBB guard Justin Robinson to get the start on Senior Night. #MustSeeACC #GetBetter @5Alive_ @TeamCoachBuzz @NewYorkLife #GoodAtLife #ad pic.twitter.com/DMzowne88Y
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) March 9, 2019
As his insertion into the starting lineup turned into a gesture of gratitude, excitement turned to worry. Williams confirmed such anxiety when asked if he expects to have Robinson for the ACC tournament.
"I think it's going to be close."
Williams went on to explain what he means by that.
"I appreciate you guys not badgering me," said Williams. "As I've said, I know saying 'a foot injury' and 'out indefinitely', what I've tried to do is be respectful and over the top protective of what has happened. And it's four weeks and six days since he got hurt, I believe. And we need a little more time. And I don't know. And I'm not keeping anything from anybody. He's had a foot injury, he's been out indefinitely. I did what I did tonight, and I mean this respectfully, I think it caught everyone off guard. And that was on purpose because I wanted it to stay within our group."
When watching Williams answer those questions, it was very clear how frustrated he was. When he said "we need a little more time", his face just sank. He looked defeated. It's hard to come out of that press conference feeling confident that Robinson will play for the Hokies ever again.
Déjà vu in Charlotte? With their own seeding all locked up, the Hokies can look ahead to their possible next opponent. Unless Danny Manning manages to pull off a miracle and produce a competent basketball team from Winston-Salem, Virginia Tech will be playing... Miami on Wednesday afternoon.
It's a tough situation for Buzzketball to be in. Instinct says that the Hokies will want to play a team they just manhandled. But maybe not.
"I don't know how many coaches like playing the same team two teams in a row," said Williams. "Maybe that's a myth. I haven't really thought about it."
When the seeding situation was explained to Williams during his interview (Wake Forest and Miami playing on Tuesday), he took a long pause as if to take inventory of those two opponents before just muttering "interesting". It was clear he isn't taking any opponent lightly now that it's postseason play.
Hill is hot
Ahmed Hill is 5 for 5 from deep tonight.
Wouldn't that be nice to have during tournament play? #Hokies
— This Is March (@henryskutt) March 9, 2019
But on the flip side of that...
Henry has jinxed a possible thing. https://t.co/0VNuc6vS3k
— THE KEY PLAY (@thekeyplay) March 9, 2019
It's hard to predict which Hill the Hokies are going to get every night. But in the past three games he's gone 17 for 30 (56%) from the field and 11 for 15 (73%) from deep while averaging 17.3 points per game. If he's able to keep producing that type of output in the tournaments, Buzzketball will be in good shape.