The last time the Virginia Tech men's basketball team had a downright staggering loss, one that befuddled fans and coaches alike, was in November of 2017. The Hokies were in a tournament, playing Saint Louis, and looking forward to grander aspirations against a good team (Providence, in the final) and a great team (a trip to Lexington to play Kentucky in the month that followed).
Had they picked up a win, Hokie fans (and probable team members) had dreams of being undefeated heading into Big Blue Nation, for their official coronation as a force in college basketball. But alas, none of it happened because the Billikens socked Tech right in the mouth. Saint Louis controlled things from the jump, and a team that ended the year 148th in KenPom rolled 77-71.
And now here we are, in the NCAA Tournament. Buzz Williams' squad the fourth seed, preparing for the possibility of playing a good team (Mississippi State) before looking ahead towards grander aspirations against a nearly unstoppable one (a certain Mack Truck in royal blue shorts). But to make matters even more look-aheadable, Liberty upset the Bulldogs and made Tech's path to the Sweet 16 all the more tangible.
But the first step was to not overlook the Billikens.
And to their credit, Tech did not let history repeat itself. At all.
The Hokies took control early, forcing six turnovers in the game's first nine minutes and sprinted out to a 22-point lead at halftime. Super sophomore Nickeil Alexander-Walker was rolling to the basket with ease, Kerry Blackshear caused problems down low, and...
...wait for it...
...takes a few deep breaths...
...climbs to top of mountains...
...yells to the heavens...
JUSTIN ROBINSON BACK Y'ALL:
In a matter of minutes, the senior drew a charge (classic OKG move amirite?), threw an oop (see above), drained a triple, and warmed the hearts of thousands of Hokies staying up past their bedtimes to watch him play for the first time in nearly two months. He looked rusty, he didn't move as quickly as he had before the injury, but he was out there.
But as emotionally beneficial as his return was, the catalyst of this win was Alexander-Walker. With the entire basketball world watching (including more than a few NBA scouts and GMs), the soon-to-be draft prospect put on a show. He scored 20 points on 62% shooting, pulled in six rebounds, and was as locked in defensively as he's been all year. He forced two steals within two minutes of each other to break things open in the first half, and was very obviously the most talented player on the floor.
Maybe the most interesting thing about the win? They came in with a game plan unlike anything they unveiled in ACC play. After averaging 25 three point attempts over their last five games, Tech shot just 10 triples against Saint Louis, preferring instead to punish their opponent down low.
It worked splendidly. Blackshear got to the line 12 times, and the Hokies made 27 trips to the stripe, showing that Buzz and the rest of the coaching have some twists stored in the pocket of their suit coats.
Don't be alarmed by the Billikens second half onslaught, though they cut the lead to 10 the game was hardly in doubt. When you get to the tournament, it's rare you see a team completely roll over, even from the smaller schools. Tech took a punch from a white hot conference tournament-winning program, and didn't let things get away from them. A solid performance from a veteran squad.
Up next, Liberty.
(Yes, I did I just embed my own tweet, thank you for asking. It's not self-serving at all.)
(Okay it's a little self serving.)
The Flames are the 12-seed, which should theoretically mean that they're another easy bump on Tech's way to the Sweet 16. But the two schools know each other, the coaches know each other, and they even scrimmaged at the beginning of the year. Does that matter? Probably not, but Liberty won't be scared and the Hokies shouldn't be surprised.
But no matter what happens, let's all take this moment in. A win is a win for a program that hasn't picked up a victory in the NCAA Tournament in over a decade. Let's all appreciate it for just one more second.
Okay good, because there's more basketball ahead.
Five things to watch moving forward
Fair warning: these aren't going to be observations filled with sunshine and rainbows. These are practical thoughts about what could get in the way of this team heading to at least the second weekend.
If you can't self scout, you can't win much. But if you're reading this still basking in the afterglow of a win, just stop here.
1. NAW, go-to scorer?
Even with Robinson back, the sophomore seems to be Tech's best bet for a bucket. I know I sound like a broken record, but the dude is NBA talent. He's the tenth rated prospect on The Ringer's NBA Draft board, and a first rounder across all mock drafts. And in these games, he's going to have to make some plays.
But the main thing to watch is him owning it. He's averaging nearly 20 points since the Duke game, ending a midseason shooting slump. When Saint Louis came out with an eight-point run to start the second half, Alexander-Walker took it personally. He scored seven points in 37 seconds to put the Tech faithful at ease. And later, when the Billikens cut the lead to 13 in their last gasp of competitiveness, he put his head down and got to the basket for an easy two.
It was the nasty streak you look for in an alpha dog. And while this has always been Robinson's team, it seems like Tech's orbit revolves around Nickeil.
2. What happens when opponents' threes fall?
This one's simple. The Billikens were 4-23 (17%) from deep, and though it's not their strength that's abhorrent for any team. The Hokies are going to let their opponents shoot a ton of threes (they gave up the most three point attempts in ACC play), which isn't a bad move considering:
1. Three point attempts across the sport are up.
2. College kids can't hit their increased number of three point attempts any more consistently than they could when they were shooting fewer of them.
But it's still concerning, considering one of the classic recipes for a March Madness upset is a small school getting hot from deep. Liberty hit 12 of 25 (a tremendous 48%) of their triples against Mississippi State, is that going to cause a problem?
And, when facing adversity against another team they're not supposed to lose to, can Tech persevere and not drown in the moment?
Probably, but it's at least a concern.
3. Does familiarity mean anything?
The Hokies and Flames scrimmaged each other November 4th, with Tech winning 86-70. In my eyes this should benefit Tech, because it'll be harder to look past a lower ranked opponent that they know (as opposed to playing someone like UC Irvine), and Liberty will have less of an element of surprise.
But, should they win, they'll likely play Duke. A team that (as you may or definitely may remember) lost to Tech last month. Will beating them in the regular season actually work to the Hokies' disadvantage, as the Blue Devils will come in with extra motivation?
Maybe, maybe not. Maybe none of this matters and I'm just a person behind a keyboard making up a storyline.
(But it definitely feels like it matters.)
4. Will there be any "Buzz to A&M" blowback?
I know, I know, I know.
"Something about the maturity of an older team that's dealt with this before!"
"You're too negative! He might not even leave!"*
"What about this tweet!"
#Hokies Justin Robinson said he's not worried about rumors of who might be interested in hiring Buzz Williams: "Ever since Ive been here they've talked about him leaving." Senior Ahmed Hill said it's not something team ever talks about and said Williams is just focused on winning— Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) March 17, 2019
*haha okay, sure
At some point, this might become an issue. Have you ever been around a couple who's been together for years but things start to fall apart? And while all may seem fine from the inside—they go on like normal, take trips, hang out with friends—there comes a moment where they just can't do it anymore. And usually, the thing that sparks the separation doesn't come right away. It just festers until something breaks.
I'm not saying that will happen to the Hokies, but I'm definitely saying it could. This team has real potential to make the Sweet 16, and go even further should things break right. And it would be a shame to see a potential run in front of a pro-Tech crowd in DC go to waste because the team feels like their coach is about to quit on them.
Most of me thinks that if this was going to happen, it would have come to a head in an embarrassing first round loss. But there's still a chance for things to go wrong.
(Please don't @ me about my negativity or just "enjoying the moment." Look, I'm enjoying the damn moment. These are just things to watch out for. If you don't think the A&M rumors are lingering around the program regardless of if he leaves or not, you're delusional.)
5. Tech's down four with two minutes left. Who gets the ball?
When shit hits the fan and Tech needs a few buckets, where does the offense look? You know where I stand (see point number one), but it might be more awkward of a decision than that. It's the Justin Robinson dilemma. Has the senior knocked off enough rust to be the number one option? Does he have the shot—and more importantly, the legs—to carry the Hokies down the stretch?
It's not that I don't trust him, but I'd worry a bit putting him in that situation. Especially after a month and a half watching NAW and Blackshear carry the team in tight games. It may be a nice problem to have, but Tech may have too many guys who'll want the ball in crunch time.
My gut says Robinson will know when to take the shot and when to set up his guys/act as a decoy in the corner. But will his desire and competitiveness overtake the rational part of his point guard brain? Will he be content watching Alexander-Walker go one-on-one to the hoop with 30 seconds left?
Again, probably. But there could be a little tension there.
Happy hoops watching, and let's do this again on Sunday.