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No. 12 Virginia Tech: Is this the year Buzz Williams wins tourney game?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 12 Virginia Tech.


When Buzz Williams left Marquette to take over for James Johnson as the head coach at Virginia Tech more than four years ago, it was considered by many to be a coup.

Williams had built the Golden Eagles into one of the best programs in the Big East. His last season in Milwaukee was a down year, but prior to that he had reached five straight NCAA tournaments, three straight Sweet 16s and, in 2013, reached the Elite 8. He was quirky, beloved by the media and willing to share his rags-to-riches story with anyone and everyone.

He also had a falling out with his administration at the same time as realignment was turning the Big East into a conference that, financially, would not be able to compete with football’s Power 5 leagues in terms of television revenue.

It was a perfect storm, and the perfect time for the Hokies — a historically moribund program — to hire the guy to turn their program around.

Four years in, and the project is undeniably successful. The Hokies have reached back-to-back NCAA tournaments for the first time since 1985 and 1986 and just the third time in program history. They’ve reached as many NCAA tournaments in the last two years as they did in the 28 years prior to Williams’ arrival in Blacksburg.

This is all the context you need: Buzz Williams has not finished better than 22-11 overall or 10-8 in the league in any of the last three years. He has posted three straight seventh-place finishes in the ACC and been knocked out of the NCAA tournament’s first round in each of the last two seasons, and this has been the most dominant stretch of Virginia Tech basketball in at least 20 years — they won the NIT in 1995 and following that up by winning the Atlantic 10 in 1996.

Hell, if Williams’ team lives up to the hype this season, it will be the best three-year run in the history of the program.

I guess that hire worked out pretty well.

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VIRGINIA TECH WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

Prior to last season, the Hokies saw their two leading scorers — Zach LeDay and Seth Allen — graduate, but they still managed to find a way to win 20 games, finishing above .500 in the ACC and earn a trip to the NCAA tournament.

This year, the Hokies will return seven of their top eight players from last season, and there’s no reason to believe that any of those pieces got worse this summer.

If anything, they got better.

And — this is the key — there is still room for most of them to improve.

Let’s start with Chris Clarke, who is the glue that holds this all together. He’s the prototype small-ball four, a tenacious 6-foot-6 forward that can do it all. He averaged 8.2 points (down from 11.4), 6.3 boards and 3.0 assists, and he is the kind of athlete that can guard up or down in size. In the past, Buzz’s best teams have had a player in this role (Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, Wes Matthews, Lazar Hayward) and I fully expect Clarke to live up to that hype this year. He tore his ACL in February of 2017, and while he played in every game last year, he did so coming off the bench. With an offseason that doesn’t solely consist of rehab under his belt, this could be a big year for him.

Kerry Blackshear Jr., a 6-foot-11 center, is in something of the same boat, as he missed the entire 2016-17 season before becoming VT’s third-leading scorer last year.

Then there is the sophomore class. Both Wabissa Bede and P.J. Horne saw somewhat limited roles as freshmen, and while I don’t think this is the year they will fully breakout, the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. The really interesting name to know here is Nickeil Alexander-Walker. A 6-foot-5 wing and the cousin of Clippers lottery pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Alexander-Walker is a guy that had some NBA hype heading into last season. It would be unfair to call his freshman season a disappointment — he was good,  averaging 10.5 points and shot 39.2 percent from three — but it wasn;t enough to make him a one-and-done.

And that is good for VT, because Alexander-Walker looks primed to soak up the shots that were left behind by Justin Bibbs. He’s a potential breakout star in the ACC and could end up being an all-ACC player when the season is said and done.

That leaves Ahmed Hill — who we’ll discuss at length below — and Justin Robinson, who is an all-ACC point guard that averaged 14.0 points, 5.6 assists and 1.3 steals, all team-highs. He’s the anchor, and if everyone around him should be better, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Hokies aren’t better as a result.

Justin Robinson (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
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BUT VIRGINIA TECH IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

Virginia Tech really doesn’t have much of a frontcourt. Blackshear is 6-foot-10, and while he is a pretty good rebounder, he really isn’t known for being a shot-blocking presence.

Beyond that, the rest of the Hokies “frontline” is made up of combo-forwards that are more wing than they are typical big. Clarke is the tallest returnee at 6-foot-6 while Horne (6-foot-5) and freshman Landers Nolley (6-foot-7, but more of a guard than a forward) will see minutes up front. There are going to be times when Clarke is playing the five and Alexander-Walker will play the four.

That’s how Virginia Tech ended up as one of the nation’s worst rebounding and shot-blocking teams last season.

But, frankly, that’s by design. Williams prefers to have shooters, skilled players and switchable defenders all over the court. It lets the Hokies play fast and create mismatches.

Where the bigger concern lies is that the core of this team is more or less the same core that we’ve seen in the last two seasons, and that’s churned out back-to-back seasons with 10-plus losses and first round tournament exits. Sometimes returning everyone from a team that was just pretty good means that next year’s team is … just pretty good.

THE X-FACTOR

Ahmed Hill.

Through the first two months of last season, Hill not only looked like the best player on the Virginia Tech roster, he was playing like one of the single-best shooters in all of college basketball. The Hokies played 13 games in their non-conference schedule, and in those 13 games, Hill shot 52.5 percent from three and averaged 16.3 points.

Then he forgot how to shoot.

In the final 20 games of the season, Hill shot 29.5 percent from three. He averaged just 7.0 points during that stretch, falling out of the starting lineup and, essentially, entirely out of the rotation. He played eight minutes in the overtime win at Virginia. He played eight minutes in VT’s home win over Duke. He managed just 22 total minutes in the postseason.

The reasons why are not readily obvious. The Hokies played a pretty unimpressive non-conference schedule, so it’s possible that Hill was just feasting on lesser competition. Once he got into ACC play, where the defenders were bigger and more athletic and the coaching staffs more prepared to run him off the three-point line, he found himself in a slump. Maybe his confidence was torched, and that certainly wouldn’t have been helped by getting benched.

Whatever the case is, the Hokies are much more dangerous when Hill is playing well and making shots, and if he can find something close to the form he had early on last season, Buzz Williams should finally make it out of the first weekend of the tournament with this program.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Chris Clarke (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

2018-19 OUTLOOK

I am more bullish on Virginia Tech than most people are going to be.

I love the style they play, I think all of their pieces fit together and there is still meat on the bone here; Alexander-Walker, Clarke, Blackshear, Horne and Bede all have room to improve.

Remember, this is a team that beat North Carolina, Duke and Virginia — on the road, no less — last season. They had their ups-and-downs throughout the year, but when they were at their best, they were as good as anyone.

And I expect them to be at their best more often this year.

There is a clear-cut top three in the ACC, but the Hokies appear to be the best of the rest.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Four-star 2019 forward flips commitment from Big Ten to SEC program

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Four-star 2019 forward Tray Jackson flipped his verbal commitment from Minnesota to Missouri on Friday night.

The 6-foot-8 forward announced his decommitment from the Golden Gophers on Twitter and then announced a commitment to Missouri a little more than two hours later. Regarded as the No. 96 overall prospect in the Class of 2019, Jackson reclassified from the Class of 2018 and saw his recruitment blossom in the summer.

While decommitting happens in basketball recruiting semi-frequently, flipping a commitment to a new school within a matter of hours is a very uncommon practice. Typically associated with football recruiting, Jackson’s switch is a big deal for Missouri.

His pledge gives head coach Cuonzo Martin an athletic and versatile frontcourt player with upside as Jackson could play multiple positions. The Tigers missed on E.J. Liddell, but Jackson is a nice prize to land instead. Missouri now has two four-star prospects in the Class of 2019 as Jackson joins four-star guard Mario McKinney.

Minnesota needs to replenish its recruiting efforts as they are now without a commitment in the Class of 2019. With head coach Richard Pitino facing pressure to win this season, this isn’t good for the future of Golden Gopher basketball either.

West Virginia lands five-star 2019 center Oscar Tshiebwe

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West Virginia pulled in a major commitment on Saturday as five-star 2019 center Oscar Tshiebwe pledged to the Mountaineers.

A late-developing, high-motor big man who ascended into a national recruit this summer, the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Tshiebwe represents an important grab for West Virginia. Tshiebwe represents a potential replacement for Sagaba Konate in the middle as the Mountaineers beat some pretty impressive programs to land him. That includes Baylor and Kentucky.

Tshiebwe is quick off the floor and a good athlete, as he could be a very dangerous player in Bob Huggins’ system because of his brand of basketball. Regarded as the No. 21 overall prospect in the Rivals Class of 2019 national rankings, Tshiebwe also took official visits to Baylor, Illinois and Kentucky during the recruiting process.

Tshiebwe joins three-star guard Miles McBride in West Virginia’s 2019 recruiting haul.

VIDEO: Marshall’s Taevion Kinsey easily clears three teammates on ridiculous dunk

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Marshall freshman Taevion Kinsey put down one of the preseason’s best dunks on Friday night. With the Thundering Herd hosting Herd Madness, the 6-foot-5 Kinsey put down a ridiculous dunk that easily cleared three teammates.

Most dunkers use an arm on the shoulder during the dunk. Kinsey didn’t need any sort of help as he glided over his teammates.

Kinsey is going to be a dunker to keep an eye on in the future. His teammates certainly think highly of his dunking ability, as most of them projected Kinsey to win the dunk contest before the event even started.

VIDEO: Zion Williamson impresses Duke fans in Cameron Indoor debut, downplays link to trial

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Duke freshman Zion Williamson made some ridiculous dunks look effortless in his Cameron Indoor Stadium debut on Friday night. As part of Duke’s annual “Countdown to Craziness” event, Williamson took part in a scrimmage against his Blue Devil teammates.

That included Williamson going head-to-head with fellow freshman R.J. Barrett in a scrimmage. And more absurd dunks in the warm up line.

But besides for the on-court action, Williamson was also asked about his family’s link to the college basketball corruption trial. On Tuesday, a transcript of calls was read to the New York courtroom that allegedly included Williamson’s stepfather on FBI tapes asking for money and a job from Kansas men’s basketball coaches. The tapes were not admitted as evidence.

“Honestly, I’ve paid no attention to it,” Williamson said to reporters, including ESPN’s David M. Hale, about the trial. “I’m just a college kid, out here having fun with my classmates, looking forward to stuff like Countdown and our first game. You only get one chance at the college experience, and I want to enjoy it.”

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski also downplayed Williamson’s link to the trial, pointing to the NCAA eligibility center’s “exhaustive” process to vette incoming recruits.

“They have an eligibility center now that these kids and their parents go through — and they go through everything,” Krzyzewski said. “We feel very comfortable with him and all our freshmen.”

We’ll likely hear more about Williamson, Kansas and this trial, as time goes on. Williamson also might legitimately not know much about this if it was his stepfather on the call. For now, Williamson is making a huge impression with Duke fans every time he steps foot on the floor.

(H/t: Lawrence Davis III and Duke men’s basketball)

Louisville lands commitment from Irish basketball star

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For the sixth time since Chris Mack took over the Louisville program, the new Cardinal head coach has landed a commitment from a member of the Class of 2019.

On Friday, it was Aidon Igiehon, a top 50 recruit, that announced he will be playing his college basketball for the Cardinals.

He followed in the footsteps of fellow four-stars Samuell Williamson, David Johnson, Jaelyn Withers and Josh nickelberry, not to mention three-star forward Quinn Slazinski.

And all this has happened over the course of the last five months.

Mack got the job in April, after he finished his final run with a Xavier program that he had been in charge of for the last nine years. That came just six months after Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino was fired for a series of scandals that had enveloped the university in the last few years, not the least of which was their involvement with the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball.

That may be the most impressive part of all of this.

No one really knows what is going to happen with Louisville and the NCAA as a result of the way that they were able to entice Brian Bowen on campus. What we do know is that while Louisville was on probation due to the fact that a member of their coaching staff was paying for strippers and sex workers for players and recruits, an agreement was made for Adidas to pay the family of Brian Bowen $100,000 to get him to enroll at Louisville. Bowen’s father said under oath that, in addition to that money, he also accepted at least one $1,300 payment from former Louisville assistant Kenny Johnson.

Those are NCAA violations committed while the program was on probation.

And those are the kind of things that the NCAA does not take lightly.

Everyone involved with the reason that Louisville was on probation and that actually committed those violations has moved on, but that hasn’t stopped speculation that the Cardinals could be facing even more punishment from the NCAA, which is what has made this recruiting job by Mack so impressive.

He’s filled up an entire class of prospects before he’s even coached a game for the program all while this nonsense is swirling around his program.

Was there ever any doubt that the Cardinals hired the right guy?