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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

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.