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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

Iowa basketball coach admits to sexually exploiting 400 boys

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A prominent Iowa youth basketball coach faces potentially decades in prison after admitting to a yearslong pattern of sexually exploiting and abusing at least 400 boys, including former players, their friends and other young athletes.

Greg Stephen, 42, posed as girls on social media to trick the boys into making live videos masturbating. He secretly recorded them showering during trips to tournaments. In some cases he recorded himself fondling nude players as they slept.

The massive scope of Stephen’s abuse was revealed in a plea agreement filed Thursday after the former Iowa Barnstormers coach pleaded guilty to seven charges, including sexually exploiting minors and possessing and transporting child pornography, in federal court in Cedar Rapids.

Stephen’s arrest in March shocked the basketball community in Iowa, where he for years was a coach and co-director of the Adidas-sponsored traveling program for the state’s top youth players. The case has played out amid heightened awareness of sexual abuse in sports triggered by the arrest of disgraced gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who is serving decades in prison after hundreds of women and girls accused him of sexually assaulting them under the guise of medical treatment.

Stephen acknowledged that he had a hard drive containing folders named for 400 different boys, each containing explicit photos and videos that he had amassed over the years through his involvement in the program for children ages 9 to 17. Many former Barnstormers have gone on to play college basketball at Division 1 programs.

Some images were of boys undressing and showering, captured by recording devices that Stephen secretly placed in hotel bathrooms. Devices designed to look like a bath towel hook and a smoke detector were used at his home in Monticello, Iowa, and his lake cabin in nearby Delhi.

Stephen also took photos and videos of sleeping boys with their pants pulled down, including recordings of himself touching their genitals with his hands and, in at least one case, his mouth.

One such recording involved a boy who was 11 or 12 and had been given medication by Stephen that made him drowsy beforehand. Stephen would share beds with players during trips in which players competed in American Athletic Union tournaments or attended NBA games.

When they weren’t traveling together, Stephen often posed as teenage girls on Facebook and Snapchat and used those profiles to trick boys into giving him explicit images. He would offer to exchange nude videos and photos, telling the boys the types of images to produce. He used software to record live transmissions of the boys without their knowledge, and saved those images as well as their chats.

Prosecutors said the victims’ folders included at least one explicit video or photo of each, with some containing many different types. The plea agreement says that Stephen “committed sexual acts and sexual contact” on an unspecified number of boys.

The conduct occurred in 2018 and in “past seasons going back several years,” according to the plea agreement, which notes Stephen had been involved with the Barnstormers since 2008.

Stephen had initially offered an innocent explanation of the videos of boys showering, telling investigators they were intended to monitor their physical development and were not sexual in nature.

Stephen’s conduct was exposed after his former brother-in-law, Vaughn Ellison, discovered a recording device while remodeling Stephen’s home in February. Ellison gave the device to police after seeing that it contained several videos of boys showering in hotels in Lombard, Illinois, and Ankeny, Iowa. Investigators obtained warrants to search Stephen’s homes , where they found the hard drive and other devices.

Stephen’s attorneys have argued that the evidence should be suppressed because it was based on Ellison’s unlawful seizure of a device. A judge rejected that argument earlier this month . The plea agreement allows Stephen to appeal that decision to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

If his conviction stands on appeal, Stephen will face a minimum of 15 years in prison and a maximum of 180 at sentencing, which hasn’t been scheduled. He has been in custody since his arrest and will remain jailed pending sentencing.

The agreement notes that the potential sentence he faces will be lengthened due to the number and age of victims, the fact that he engaged in sexual acts and contact with multiple boys, and that he had supervisory control over them.

NCAA denies Oregon State forward’s request for immediate eligibility

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While Virginia received good news on Monday regarding its immediate eligibility appeal on behalf of Alabama transfer Braxton Key, Oregon State was not as fortunate.

Tuesday afternoon it was announced that the school’s appeal of the NCAA’s initial refusal to grant power forward Payton Dastrup immediate eligibility has also been denied. As a result Dastrup, who began his collegiate career at BYU, will have to sit out the 2018-19 season and Oregon State will be short a big as it looks to account for the early departure of Drew Eubanks.

Dastrup will have two seasons of eligibility at Oregon State, beginning with the 2019-20 campaign, and he will be able to practice with the team this season.

Senior Gligorije Rakocevic and junior Ben Koné are Oregon State’s most experienced interior players, with the former having averaged 2.7 points and 2.2 rebounds in 10.6 minutes per game in 2017-18. Koné was limited to just 16 games as a sophomore, as he underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee last October.

Junior Kylor Kelley and freshmen Warren Washington and Jack Wilson will also factor into the Beavers’ post rotation, with the 7-foot tall Kelley having averaged 9.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.6 blocks per game at Lane (Oregon) CC last season.

Duquesne’s A.J. Palumbo Center getting $45 million makeover

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Duquesne is giving the A.J. Palumbo Center a major makeover after the upcoming basketball season.

The school announced Tuesday that the reimagined 30-year-old arena will be named UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse after former Duquesne basketball player Chuck Cooper. Cooper played for the Dukes from 1947-1950 before becoming the first African-American to be drafted by an NBA team. The Boston Celtics selected Cooper in the second round.

The renovation is expected to begin in March and cost an estimated $45 million. It is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2020-21 season. The school did not say where the Dukes would play in the meantime.

The Palumbo Center opened in 1988 and serves as the home for the Duquesne men’s and women’s basketball teams. While the updated arena will have wider concourses, a new video board and upgrades to premium seats, capacity is expected to stay around 4,400.

Former Cincinnati assistant charged with misdemeanor assault

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Former Cincinnati associate head coach Larry Davis, who abruptly announced his retirement after more than 30 years in college coaching, is now facing a federal misdemeanor assault charge in connection with an incident that occurred on an airplane in September 2017.

According to FOX 19 Cincinnati, Davis is alleged to have groped a female passenger during a flight from Milwaukee to Charlotte on September 12, 2017. The victim filed a report with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department that day. The charge is of the federal variety due to the fact that the alleged incident occurred on an airplane.

Davis served a 12-day, paid suspension as a result of the incident, with the punishment beginning on September 15, 2017, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Cincinnati athletic director Mike Bohn released a statement regarding the matter Tuesday, saying that the school had begun “the process for separation” shortly before Davis tendered his resignation last month.

“In Fall 2017, we learned of allegations against former employee Larry Davis regarding an off-campus incident which did not involve any member of the campus community. We immediately took proactive measures and suspended him from his duties while we took additional steps to ascertain more information. We could not substantiate the allegations at that time.

“We recently learned that the allegations may have additional support. Consistent with our guiding principles, we immediately commenced the process for separation.”

Davis, who had been a member of Mick Cronin’s coaching staff since 2006, was the head coach at Furman from 1997 to 2006. While Cronin was away from the team due to a health issue during the 2014-15 season, Davis served as interim head coach.

No. 4 Duke: Can Blue Devils avoid another disappointing season?

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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. 4 Duke.


Duke, once again, is going to enter a college basketball season with the best recruiting class in the sport.

The difference this year is that not only will the Blue Devils bring in the best crop of freshmen, they bring in the best freshmen — four of the top 15 prospects in 247 Sports’ composite rankings will suit up for Coach K this season, including three of the top five and the No. 1 and 2 players in the nation. There are some outlets that rank R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish as the three best recruits in the class, and there’s a chance that those three could end up being the top three picks in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Let’s ignore the how for now.

(The FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball has told us that everyone breaks NCAA rules, but the best players in the country turn down hundreds of thousands of dollars and jobs for family members of the prestige of spending nine months on Duke’s campus?)

The issue here has been the product on the court.

Duke has been a disappointment relative to expectation more or less every year since Coach K made the decision to go all-in on one-and-done prospects. The obvious exception was in 2015, when the Blue Devils figured out how to defend in late February and wound up winning the national title. The same happened last season, but Duke was bounced in the Elite 8 when a Grayson Allen floater spent six seconds on the rim before falling off.

It hasn’t been a total disaster, but it is clear that Duke is nowhere near as consistently dominant now as they have been in the past. The Blue Devils haven’t won an ACC regular season title since 2010. They’ve won just one ACC tournament title since 2011. They’ve reached the second weekend of the tournament just three times in the last eight years.

The biggest issue has been on the defensive end of the floor. It got to the point last season where Duke had no choice but to play zone full-time.

I don’t think that will be the issue this year. Duke, on paper, looks like a team that should be able to guard.

But this team still has some warts that Coach K is going to have to work out.

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DUKE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

The amount of talent on this roster makes it nearly impossible for the Blue Devils to fail.

Let’s start with R.J. Barrett. The 6-foot-7 point forward is the overwhelming favorite at this point in the calendar to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and rightfully so. He needs to continue to develop his jumpshot, but he has everything that you’re looking for in an NBA player in the modern NBA. He’s athletic, he’s big enough to be defensively versatile, he’s skilled enough to operate in ball-screens, he can get a bucket, he has impressive court-vision. As far as I’m concerned, all you need to know about Barrett is that, as a 17-year old, he put up 38 points, 13 boards and six assists for Canada in an upset of the United States — who were coached by John Calipari — en route to a gold medal in the U19 World Cup.

I don’t think Barrett is quite as good of a prospect as some of the elite prospects in past seasons, but I do think that it is clear he is the best player in this class.

R.J. Barrett, Reagan Lunn/@DukeMBB

I said ‘player’ and not ‘prospect’ because there are some people that believe Reddish, and not Barrett, actually has a higher ceiling. At 6-foot-8, Reddish is more of a scorer at this point in his development, although he has played as a ball-handler at the high school and AAU level. He’s probably the best shooter out of Duke’s freshmen as well, and has the tools to be a really good defender.

I haven’t even gotten to Zion Williamson yet. The most famous player in college basketball in years, Williamson became a social media sensation thanks to his otherworldly athleticism. He is 6-foot-7 and 280 pounds, yet he dunks from the free throw line like a normal human being claps backboard on a layup and he set Duke’s school record for vertical leap. He’s quick, he’s fast, he has impressive footwork and he’s skilled enough — he’ll be the most dangerous grab-and-go big in the history of college basketball — to be able to handle the ball. He’s even a better shooter and a (much) better passer than he gets credit for.

Throw in Tre Jones, the younger brother of Tyus and the first true point guard Duke has had since the elder Jones finished cutting down the net in Indianapolis in 2015, and we don’t need to discuss anyone else on the roster to justify ranking the Blue Devils in the top five.

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BUT DUKE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

While I love all of the pieces in this freshmen class in a vacuum, I think there is reason to be concerned about how they all fit together.

Duke is going to try and play small this season. That’s not exactly breaking news here. Not only has Duke done this time and again in the past — Jabari Parker, Justise Winslow, Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum all played the for four the Blue Devils — but this group has three guys that can fill that role. In fact, this roster is the best-suited to playing that style. The ideal roster build for any team in this era of pace and space is having a point guard, a mobile five-man and three wings that can defend more than one position. That’s precisely what we see here.

It gets even more interesting when we start to think about the possibility of Zion Williamson playing the five a la Draymond Green.

The issue is the ability for the players on Duke to impact a game when they don’t have the ball in their hands.

What makes Golden State special in the NBA and what made Villanova so damn good in the college ranks last season is the same thing: The ability to shoot at every spot on the floor. Jalen Brunson was able to post-up and operate in ball-screens and beat a man one-on-one, but he was also a lethal catch-and-shoot guy. The same can be said for all of his teammates that played meaningful minutes, including center Omari Spellman, who scored 17 points and made four threes for the Atlanta Hawks this weekend.

Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, Reagan Lunn/@DukeMBB

The same thing is true with Golden State. Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala are the glue-guys on that team, but both of them cannot be left open from the three-point line. Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are two of the best isolation players in the NBA, but if you leave them open you will pay. Klay Thompson is one of the best three-point shooters in the history of the game.

Duke?

They have four freshmen that are all super-talented but that need to ball in their hands to be effective. Neither Zion nor Barrett are good enough from beyond the arc to force a defender to close out long on them. Reddish can make threes, but he’s known more as a scorer than a shooter at this point in his development than anything else. Jones is fine, but he’s more of a driver and playmaker than he is a shooter.

Without guys to space the floor, without someone willing to accept a role, running offense that doesn’t devolve into players going one-on-one into a crowded lane is difficult.

THE X-FACTOR

For me, the key here is going to be Reddish.

He has something of a reputation from the high school and AAU ranks as a talented kid that played on teams that lost far more games than they should have lost. He’s also going to be the guy that will likely end up having to make the most sacrifices for the good of the team.

Think about it like this: Jones is going to be the natural point guard on this team, and Barrett is going to be the guy that handles secondary ball-handling duties. Zion will be a grab-and-go threat and could lead the country in fast break buckets. In the halfcourt, his role will be pretty clearly defined — he’s going to be the guy attacking the glass and the player that gets isolated against slower and/or smaller defenders.

Reddish is the odd man out.

For a player that has spent his entire life as a lead guard, how will he take to being asked to play on a wing as something of a 3-and-D specialist?

2018-19 OUTLOOK

Duke’s outlook this season is no different than their outlook for the past four or five years.

They have as much raw talent as anyone in the sport of college basketball. They will enter the season as a consensus top four team that some folks are going to rank No. 1 overall. They are going to be the odds-on favorite to win the ACC regular season title, a favorite to get to the Final Four and one of the few true national title contenders in college basketball.

And there enough question marks about the talent, the youth, how the pieces fit and whether or not the pieces truly fit and how well Coach K is going to handle dealing with this much roster turnover to keep us from going all in on the Blue Devils.

Anything short of the Final Four will be yet another disappointment from this group.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 5 Villanova
No. 6 Nevada
No. 7 Tennessee
No. 8 Virginia
No. 9 North Carolina
No. 10 Auburn
No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
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