Virginia Tech has advanced to the NCAA Tournament the last two years after missing out the previous nine seasons. A third consecutive trip would be impressive and unprecedented at a school known more for football, but would it be enough for the Hokies?
Tech basketball, while not steeped in tradition, has reached a point where simply making the tournament isn’t enough. After losing their NCAA openers the last two years, the Hokies will now be judged on how far they advance in the postseason.
“The trajectory obviously has been very steep. But then obviously the higher you get, the maneuverability becomes more difficult. And that is the next step that we have to take,” Tech coach Buzz Williams told reporters after the Hokies’ NCAA Tournament loss to Alabama last season.
Tech returns five of its top six scorers and its top five rebounders, so expectations are high. Anything less than the first three-year NCAA Tournament streak in school history would be a disappointment. The goal is to make it to the second weekend.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Buzz Williams
2017-18 RECORD (ACC): 21-12 (10-8)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Alabama 86-83 in the first round
G Justin Bibbs (13.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg)
Forwards Kerry Blackshear and Chris Clarke have star potential, but they’ll need help from a cast of unproven front-line teammates.
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Blackshear and Clarke spent a healthy season together in 2017-18 after both missed significant time in the past with injuries. Blackshear averaged 12.5 points and 5.9 rebounds and led the Hokies in blocks (30) last season, and Clarke paced the team in rebounding (6.3 rpg) while shooting 42.4 percent from 3-point range.
Tech will be bolstered by the returns of Ty Outlaw and Khadim Sy, both of whom redshirted last season. Both saw playing time in 2016-17, with Sy averaging 4.0 points and 2.7 rebounds and Outlaw averaging 6.3 points and 2.8 rebounds.
Heralded recruit Landers Nolley — a top-75 national prospect — possesses the versatility and athleticism to contribute right away, and reserves P.J. Horne and Nick Fullard could have expanded roles. The Hokies can use all the help they can get after finishing near the bottom of the ACC last season in rebounding percentage (14th) and field goal percentage defense (10th).
What Tech lacked in defense and rebounding, it made up for with offense. The Hokies, who led the ACC in field goal percentage (49.9) and 3-pointers (289), return the bulk of their scoring.
Senior point guard Justin Robinson will lead the way after pacing the Hokies in scoring average (14.0 ppg) and assists (185) last season. Robinson was especially effective in league play, with averages of 16.2 points and 5.4 assists while shooting 40.0 from 3. He will be one of the top point guards in the country.
Ahmed Hill returns as well after averaging 10.6 points with 64 3-point field goals. Hill got to the foul line only 42 times last season after averaging 89.5 trips during his first two years.
Sophomore Nickeil Alexander-Walker, a 6'5" Canadian, is hoping to build on a strong debut season that saw him average 10.7 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.
Freshman point guard Jonathan Kabongo has the skills to make an impact. If nothing else, he’ll be a strong addition to a bench that will also include Wabissa Bede, Justin Ammerman and late signee Isaiah Wilkins.
Led by Robinson, Hill, Blackshear and Clarke, the Hokies have a strong nucleus that has achieved a lot already. This is a group of players who can make school history with a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance. But the Hokies are in search of more this season. They’ll measure their success by how far they go in the NCAAs.
Postseason Prediction: Sweet 16
ACC Prediction: 4th