Key Returners: Justin Robinson, Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs, Chris Clarke*, Kerry Blackshear
Key Losses: Zach LeDay, Seth Allen, Ty Outlaw (missing season due to injury)
Key Newcomers: Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Wabissa Bede, PJ Horne
* - could miss some of the season
Postseason Projection: 6-9 seed
Outlook: Welcome to another year of the Buzz Williams Experience, always one of my favorites due to Buzz’s penchant for profusely sweating through his suit (stick to the T-shirt approach!) as well as his teams’ competitive fire and smallball tendencies. Buzz's boys always play their tails off on the defensive end and in chasing loose balls, despite size disadvantages. Indeed, through his career, Buzz has played such “beasts” as Lazar Hayward, Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Zach LeDay as the nominal center, attacking with speed and shooting in a way that foreshadowed the current smallball hoops revolution. With two true big men in Kerry Blackshear (back from injury) and Khadim Sy coupled with the loss of LeDay, the Hokies may be a more traditional squad this year, lineup-wise, but that won’t drastically alter their style of play.
Editor's note: A month after this was published, on 9/14/17, Khadim Sy left the program. Buzz Williams will once again be playing a lot of smallball (shocking).
Offensively, the Hokies will have plenty of weapons to execute Buzz’s preferred spread, slash-and-kick strategy. Justin Robinson returns at the point guard spot, a blur who excels at getting into the lane and either finding a shooter or getting to the free throw line. With Seth Allen’s graduation, he’ll be given the full-time keys to the offense, save for the possible exception of star freshman Nickeil Alexander-Walker taking some possessions as the lead ball-handler. Alexander-Walker, another of Canada’s ridiculously talented youngsters, is a silky shooter that also has the IQ and vision to play some point. Though Williams tends to favor experience, it would surprise no one to see Alexander-Walker crack the starting lineup from Day 1.
Robinson and Alexander-Walker will have deadly shooters spread around them at all times; unfortunately, one of these gunners was supposed to be Ty Outlaw. Outlaw turned into a human fireball after Chris Clarke tore his ACL in February (shot 33/53, 62% from deep), but unfortunately, he suffered the same injury as Clarke during the offseason and will miss the entire year.
Interestingly, the defense cratered with Outlaw on the floor – per hooplens.com, the Hokies gave up a ghastly 114 points per 100 possessions, a full 4 points worse than NC State’s ACC-worst defense. With Clarke on the floor, though, the defense stabilized to 102 points/100 poss., right around average, so perhaps Outlaw's injury is a blessing in disguise defensively. Clarke is the team’s best defensive rebounder and an athletic rim attacker, but he could also miss time early on this season as he returns from his own injury. That means the team may have to play some four-guard lineups, which would be nothing new to Buzz Williams. Justin Bibbs and Ahmed Hill are two potent wing shooters, similar 6'5" players who will rotate at any of the 2, 3, or 4 positions, but the team's rebounding will suffer mightily until Clarke returns.
Blackshear’s return from injury and Sy’s maturation will be crucial for repairing VT’s leaky defense. Opponents shot 62% at the rim against the Hokies per hoop-math, and while Sy deterred some of that when on the floor, he struggled with foul trouble and the speed of the game in his first ACC season. Blackshear wasn’t an elite shot-blocker in 2015-16, but opponents’ rim FG% dropped to 54% that year, so the return of his 6’10 frame should help stabilize the interior D.
Freshmen Wabissa Bede and PJ Horne will have to play roles as rookies due to the injury bug, and Bede may be more ready to do so than Horne. Bede is a true floor general at point, a pass-first player who makes teammates better and should let Williams run some lineups with both Robinson and Alexander-Walker spotting up on the wings. Horne is a versatile forward more in the LeDay mold, undersized but aggressive in the paint. He’ll see some playing time inside, particularly if Clarke is unable to give it a go for an extended period of time. Redshirt senior Devin Wilson will also be an option as a bigger guard, a former hoops starter who played for the Hokie football team last year.
Bottom Line: Virginia Tech once again has the perimeter talent to be both a fun team to watch and a pain in the ass to play against. Their collective ability to shoot from deep indicates that they’ll nab some major wins at home in front of a raucous Blacksburg crowd (I wouldn’t be shocked to see a 15/27 from deep day from the Hokies). Opponents may also think they're in a trippy version of Oz while wandering the Maroon Brick Road on the team's new court design. Ultimately, though, the team’s ceiling will come down to Clarke’s health and Alexander-Walker’s readiness to star. I am very concerned about the former but bullish on the latter, so a place right at the fringe of the Top 25 feels like a good spot for the Hokies. If their increased size at the rim helps the defense take a step forward, the upside for even more is there.