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

No. 22 Tennessee beats No. 3 Kansas 64-50 for Atlantis title

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Tennessee’s players proved to be determined defenders and relentless rebounders, along with having the kind of toughness to ensure the reigning national champions would have little chance to get comfortable.

It was all enough to give the 22nd-ranked Volunteers a title of their own, along with the blueprint that coach Rick Barnes hopes they follow the rest of the year.

Santiago Vescovi scored 20 points while Tennessee locked down on third-ranked Kansas in a 64-50 win Friday night in the championship game at the Battle 4 Atlantis, snapping the Jayhawks’ 17-game winning streak.

Vescovi hit five 3-pointers as the tournament’s most valuable player for the Volunteers (5-1), who dominated the glass, overcame their own turnover troubles and made the Jayhawks work for clean looks. And for the third time in as many days, Tennessee won without leading scorer Josiah-Jordan James (knee soreness).

Perhaps that’s why reserve guard Zakai Zeigler, who had 14 points and four steals, showed up wearing sunglasses to the postgame news conference after the Volunteers had danced and hollered through the on-court trophy ceremony.

“We know if you can’t stop the man in front of you, then you’ll have no shot at winning the game,” Zeigler said, adding: “We just like to play defense, and we just happen to be good at it.”

The Vols held the Jayhawks to 32.1% shooting, bothering them with size and length around the rim. They also took the ball right at the Jayhawks with 5-foot-9 Zeigler leading the way, down to him refusing to let go of a jump ball and trading words with 6-8 forward Jalen Wilson.

Zeigler’s night included a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock at the 7-minute mark to push Tennessee’s lead to 56-38. He followed with another big one from the right wing with 4:42 left after Kansas had closed within 11.

Wilson and Joseph Yesefu each scored 14 points to lead the Jayhawks (6-1), who shot 28.6% in the first half and never warmed up. They made 5 of 21 3-pointers in what was an all-around rough night, from losing starting guard Dajuan Harris to fouls with 9 minutes left to failing to keep the Vols off the glass (45-27).

“We played a team tonight that was older and more mature and obviously played stronger and tougher,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We didn’t handle the situation near as well as what I would hope a poised team would.”

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers opened the tournament with a win over Butler, then grinded through an overtime win against Southern California in Thursday’s semifinals. This time, Tennessee played in front the entire way en route to its first title in three tries at the Atlantis resort.

“I think the main thing from the whole week was stay together through tough times, that’s what you’ve got to do,” Vescovi said.

Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have an easy first two days in the Bahamas. First came a battle to the final minutes with North Carolina State. Then came Thursday’s overtime win against Wisconsin on Bobby Pettiford Jr.’s last-second putback. But they never looked in any type of offensive flow this time with their smaller lineup.

“I feel like if we were able to get them out of place and not just have them standing there, waiting to contest a layup, that could’ve gave us some better chances at finishing at the rim,” Wilson said.

STRONG RUN

Tennessee held its three Atlantis opponents to 36.9% shooting and 15 of 59 (25.4%) from 3-point range. The Volunteers also averaged a +9 rebounding margin, ending with having Jonas Aidoo (nine) leading five players snagging at least six rebounds against Kansas.

“You can be a good defensive team but if you can’t be a great one if you give them second and third shots,” Barnes said.

SIDELINED

Beyond Harris’ foul trouble, the Jayhawks played most of the way without Pettiford, who exited midway through the first half grabbing at his right leg.

Afterward, Self said he would be out “for a while” with a hamstring strain.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers return home to host McNeese State on Wednesday.

Kansas: The Jayhawks host Texas Southern on Monday.

BYU erases 23-point deficit, beats Dayton in overtime 79-75

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NASSAU, Bahamas – Gideon George scored 21 points and combined with Jaxson Robinson and Rudi Williams for BYU’s 15 overtime points as the Cougars came back from a 23-point deficit to beat Dayton 79-75 in overtime Friday.

BYU’s victory came in the seventh-place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.

George’s 3-pointer with 2:19 left in regulation gave BYU (4-3) its first lead after Dayton scored the first 10 points of the game and led 32-9 with six minutes left in the first half.

Mike Sharavjamts’ basket gave the lead back to Dayton but George’s free throw with a minute left sent the game into overtime.

Dayton got the first points in overtime but Robinson’s 3-pointer gave BYU the lead for good halfway through the extra period.

Robinson had 14 points, Dallin Hall 12 and Williams 11 to join George in double figures for BYU.

DaRon Holmes II scored 21 points and Sharavjamts 15 for Dayton (3-4). The Flyers lost starting guards Kobe Elvis and Malachi Smith to lower-body injuries in the second half, Smith with with just seconds left in regulation.

Portland beats Villanova 83-71 in Phil Knight Invitational

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Moses Wood scored 16 points and Portland beat Villanova 83-71 on Friday in the Phil Knight Invitational.

Villanova (2-4) has lost three straight games, including an overtime loss to Iowa State on Thursday to drop below .500 for the first time since March 7, 2012.

Vasilije Vucinic’s layup with 4:16 remaining in the first half gave Portland the lead for good. The Pilots had an eight-point lead at halftime and scored the first 10 points of the second half.

Wood added six rebounds and three blocks for the Pilots (5-3). Tyler Robertson scored 15 points while shooting 6 for 12 (1 for 5 from 3-point range) and added seven rebounds and eight assists. Kristian Sjolund recorded 14 points and shot 5 for 7 (2 for 3 from 3-point range).

Caleb Daniels finished with 18 points and seven rebounds for the Wildcats. Villanova also got 14 points from Jordan Longino. Brandon Slater had 11 points.

Caleb Grill, Iowa State topples No. 1 North Carolina 70-65

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Caleb Grill has followed T.J. Otzelberger from South Dakota State to UNLV and now back to Iowa State hoping the pair could share a moment like they did Friday.

Taking down the No. 1 team in the country was another bookmark moment in a long journey for the pair.

“I’m actually really enjoying sitting next to him from this moment right now just thinking about how long we’ve known each other and how cool this really was,” Otzelberger said.

Grill hit seven 3-pointers and scored a career-high 31 points and Iowa State rallied in the final five minutes to stun No. 1 North Carolina 70-65 in the semifinals of the Phil Knight Invitational.

Iowa State (5-0) picked up just its third win over a team ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25. The Cyclones are 3-22 against No. 1 teams, with the other wins coming against Kansas in 1957 and Oklahoma in 2016.

The Cyclones can now add North Carolina (5-1) to the list.

“I was just staying the course of the game. I never really thought about it and the game just kind of came to me,” Grill said.

Grill was averaging 7.3 points and had made just 4 of 24 3-point attempts for the season entering Friday. But he couldn’t be stopped from beyond the arc, hitting a pair of big 3s to spark Iowa State’s late rally. His deep fadeaway jumper just inside the 3-point line with 1:40 left gave Iowa State a 63-61 lead and the Cyclones did just enough at the free throw line in the final minute to close out the upset victory.

Grill’s previous career high was 27 points while playing for UNLV in the 2020-21 season against Alabama. He also hit seven 3-pointers in that game.

Grill originally signed with South Dakota State when Otzelberger was the coach there. He was released from his commitment when Otzelberger took the head job at UNLV and started his career at Iowa State before deciding to join his coach in Las Vegas.

When Otzelberger returned to Ames, Grill followed again.

“Just having him be the first person that really had belief in me, it’s just really special what he’s done for me and my family and everything we’ve done,” Grill said.

Jaren Holmes added 22 points and the Cyclones withstood off shooting games from Aljaz Kunc and Gabe Kalscheur, who combined for three points and missed all eight of their shot attempts. Both were averaging double figures scoring for Iowa State.

RJ Davis led North Carolina with 15 points, Armando Bacot added 14 and Caleb Love scored 12. But the Tar Heels will lament a series of mistakes in the closing minutes that allowed Iowa State to rally.

“We had wide open threes. We were able to get to the basket. We were able to get whatever we wanted, we just didn’t make those shots,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said.

North Carolina led 57-49 after Leaky Black’s layup with 5:43 left, but missed four of its final six shots and had four turnovers during that span.

“We turned the ball over a couple of times and you just can’t do that in late-game situations,” Davis said. “You have to be sound and discipline and you have to do that on both ends of the floor and we just didn’t do it.”

NO. 1 LOSSES

North Carolina lost as the No. 1 team in the country for the first time since Nov. 21, 2015 when it lost 71-67 at Northern Iowa. The Tar Heels also lost as No. 1 to UNLV in 2011 at a Thanksgiving tournament.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: Pete Nance wasn’t able to contribute in the same way he did in Thursday’s opening round. Nance, who tied his career high with 28 points against Portland, didn’t score for the first 27 minutes and finished with seven points.

Iowa State: The Cyclones were playing a No. 1 team from outside their conference for the first time since 1999 when they faced Cincinnati in the championship game of the Big Island Invitational.

UP NEXT

Iowa State will face either No. 18 Alabama or No. 20 UConn in the championship game while the Tar Heels will face the loser for third place.

No. 8 Duke locks down late, holds off Xavier 71-64

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PORTLAND, Ore. – After a shaky offensive performance in the opening round of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament, Duke coach Jon Scheyer wanted to see Jeremy Roach get back to playing more instinctively, especially at the offensive end of the floor.

Roach responded with a season-high 21 points, Mark Mitchell added 16 and No. 8 Duke withstood Xavier’s second-half comeback for a 71-64 win on Friday.

The Blue Devils (6-1) advanced to the championship game thanks to the play of their standout guard and another strong defensive effort. Roach came one point shy of matching his career high, and the Blue Devils rebounded after an unexpectedly tight victory over Oregon State in the opening round of the event.

Roach was 3 of 14 shooting against Oregon State as the Blue Devils scored a season-low 54 points. He made 9 of 15 shots and had five assists against Xavier.

“There’s a lot that falls on your shoulders so you can end up overthinking it a little bit,” Scheyer said. “The thing that I love for him today is he just was him. And when he’s that way, he is to me the best guard in the country.”

The Musketeers (4-2) were held to two points over the final five minutes and missed their last four shot attempts. Souley Boum scored 23 points and Adam Kunkel had 13. Kunkel didn’t play the last 11 minutes after taking a hard fall committing a foul.

Xavier leading scorer Jack Nudge was 1 of 13 shooting and finished with five points.

“Jack played a great effort. He really did. He was ready for the game. He just had one of those nights where the ball didn’t go in the basket,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said.

At the same time, Miller was disappointed in what he called the “fracturing” he saw from his team.

“There were spurts and segments of the game where I thought we reflected our style, how we’re trying to play, whether it be defense and offense. But there were way too many segments of the game, if not most of the game, where we were at times in our own way,” Miller said.

Mitchell scored seven points in the opening minutes of the second half, including a pair of layups, and he hit a 3-pointer from the wing that gave Duke a 49-36 lead, its largest of the game.

That’s when Xavier’s comeback started. The Musketeers pulled within three points on several occasions, but Duke answered each time. Desmond Claude’s driving layup pulled Xavier within 63-60 with 5:51 left, but Ryan Young scored for Duke and Xavier didn’t make another basket.

Roach’s jumper with 2:40 left pushed Duke’s lead to 69-62.

“We like to play inside out but I mean, when guys are hitting shots it just opens up for everybody else,” Roach said. “Just try to continue to be consistent hitting shots and I think we’ll be fine.”

Kyle Filipowski had 12 points and was not Duke’s leading scorer for the first time in five games.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: The Blue Devils’ dominance on the backboards finally came to an end. Duke had outrebounded each of its first six opponents by double figures, the longest such stretch in school history. But Xavier’s interior size limited Duke to a 33-32 advantage on the glass. The Blue Devils had 12 second-chance points.

Xavier: The Musketeers played an Atlantic Coast Conference team for the first time since beating Virginia Tech in last year’s NIT Season Tip-Off. Xavier dropped to 0-2 against ranked opponents this season, having lost to Indiana last week. The Musketeers will play another ranked foe in Sunday’s third-place game.

UP NEXT

Duke will face the Gonzaga-Purdue winner in the championship game on Sunday, while Xavier will play the loser.