After making their second-straight NCAA Tournament last season, Virginia Tech returns arguably their best team in program history and was recognized in the preseason rankings coming in at #15.
Now, the Hokies not only have their eyes set on making the third-straight NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history, but have higher expectations than any Virginia Tech team in recent memory with VT being considered a potential second weekend team while also being a possible sleeper for the Final Four.
So with all of that said, here’s our preview of the biggest questions, breakout player candidate, best games, and our season prediction.
3 Big Questions
1. Will Nickeil Alexander-Walker take the next step?
Nickeil Alexander-Walker had plenty of excitement surrounding him last season and while he was solid last season, he didn’t live up to all the hype that made you think he could even contend for All-ACC recognition after the season.
Entering this season, Justin Robinson is the Hokies’ star, but the Hokies will be looking for a high-end second option to separate themselves and Alexander-Walker is the top candidate to do just that.
Alexander-Walker showed some improvement as ACC play went along, but the Hokies will need him to take the next step if they want to make a jump into the top 16 seeds of the NCAA Tournament and become a sleeper candidate to make a Final Four run this year, something that most Hokie fans couldn’t have imagined being possible during the doldrums of the James Johnson era.
2. How do the Hokies approach having only one player over 6’7”?
One of the biggest questions for Virginia Tech surrounds the situation in the frontcourt with Kerry Blackshear being the only true big man for the Hokies after Khadim Sy’s second departure from VT and Nick Fullard’s transfer. While Blackshear likely will play 30 minutes a game during ACC play and other major competitions, the Hokies will have to go small for 10 minutes or so throughout the season.
The likely option will be to use the undersized PJ Horne in that role. While Horne is only 6’5”, he has proven that he is a very good rebounder for someone his size though you have to wonder how much better he could be in the frontcourt if he was a couple inches taller. Either way, Horne now has a year under his belt and as more of a frontcourt player, he seems like the top candidate to fill that 10-minute role.
However, the Hokies could also use Ty Outlaw in that role as they did at times two years ago. Outlaw may have some struggles in that role, but using Outlaw would create lots of space on the offensive end for guys like Justin Robinson to attack the rim with the Hokies likely having 5 guys who would be considered legitimate three-point threats on the floor. In addition, VT could use Landers Nolley like Outlaw would be used though it remains to be seen how well Nolley could hold up defending at the 5.
Whichever way the Hokies go in regards to the minutes Blackshear isn’t on the floor, they will have options which could also depend on the game situation.
3. How good can Justin Robinson be?
Justin Robinson has steadily gotten better and now, the Northern Virginia native is poised for a big year as one of the nation’s top point guards and one of the ACC’s best players, earning Preseason All-ACC Second Team honors and earning spots on the Naismith Trophy and Wooden Award watch lists.
The hype is more than proven with Robinson as the Hokies were able to turn to Robinson down the stretch of last season to carry the Hokies to a safe spot in the NCAA Tournament even after their ACC Tournament collapse against Notre Dame.
Now, Robinson seems poise for national stardom on a top 15 team after career highs in points (14.0), assists (5.6), and steals (1.2) despite averaging slightly less minutes. In addition, Robinson averaged 2.5 more shots and 0.6 more three-pointers per game and saw increases in his field goal shooting (41.3% to 46.4%) and three-point shooting (35.7% to 39.8%).
Robinson has developed into an all-around playmaker that can score in a variety of ways while also improving as a defender. The Hokies have had some great guards over the past two decades like Zabian Dowdell, Malcolm Delaney, and Erick Green; and Robinson has the talent to not only join that group but also do what those players couldn’t and take the Hokies to at least the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
By the end of the season, expect Justin Robinson to be well-known across the country and possibly go down as one of the best Hokie basketball players of the 21st Century.
Breakout Player Candidate: Wabissa Bede
While most the attention was rightfully given to Nickeil Alexander-Walker for last year’s freshman class, Wabissa Bede was a well-rated recruit in his own right with Bede being at minimum a consensus top 80 recruit nationally. The four-star point guard from the Northeast had a limited role as a true freshman last season averaging only 2.5 points and 0.8 assists on 8.3 minutes per game.
However, Bede seems poised for a much larger role this season as the first guard off the bench. Bede looks poised for at minimum, a 15-20 minute role this season with it being possible that Bede and Justin Robinson share the floor at times similar to how Robinson did so early in his career with Seth Allen.
The question is can Bede take the next step similar to how Robinson did in his sophomore season. Now Robinson did have a much larger role as a freshman, but Robinson saw his assists increase significantly while his efficiency didn’t go down despite the increased minutes and shots.
If there’s any Hokie who may be poised to make a big jump this season, it’s the sophomore Bede who will be a critical part of future Virginia Tech teams.
Non-Conference Game to Watch: Virginia Tech vs. Purdue (Potential Charleston Classic Game)
Now this game is farm from official as Virginia Tech and Purdue would both have to reach the Charleston Classic final, but these two are considered the favorites just that. Of course, the Hokies will have to get past Ball State and likely Alabama to get there while Purdue will have to get through Wichita State or Davidson in the semifinals in addition to their opening round game.
If they do, this should be the toughest game for the Hokies on their non-conference schedule against a Purdue team that isn’t as good as the second-seeded Boilermakers were last year, but still have plenty of talent headlined by All-American candidate Carsen Edwards. A Virginia Tech-Purdue game would also provide us with one of the best point guard matchups of the year between Edwards and Justin Robinson, both of whom could push for All-American honors at the end of the season especially Edwards considered by many one of the top 10-15 players in college basketball.
Outside of that, a possible Virginia Tech-Alabama semifinal in the Charleston Classic has plenty of intrigue after last year’s NCAA Tournament matchup, though the Hokies fortunately won’t have to face Collin Sexton this time. In addition, the Hokies have an intriguing mid-December game against Washington in Atlantic City that is another rematch of a blowout in the third-place game of last year’s 2K Classic with both teams being ranked preseason top 25.
ACC Game to Watch: Duke at Virginia Tech
Could there possibly be any other game than this one? After last year’s stunning upset in late February in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech will once again host Duke in late February (2/26). However, Duke may be even more talented this year with the elite freshman trio of RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish facing a late season road test in Cassell Coliseum.
Beyond the simple fact that Duke looks like the early favorite in the ACC, this will also be Zion Williamson’s one stop in Blacksburg to see what sort of dunks he can pull off. Of course, the Hokies will be looking to spoil the national Zion party with a veteran team that won’t be intimidated by another five-star freshman loaded Duke team.
As normal, the Hokies will have a home-and-home with Virginia while also having to go on the road early in ACC play to North Carolina, one of the Hokies’ three Big Monday appearances along with their home games against UVA and Louisville.
The sleeper game may come a week after VT faces Duke as the Hokies have a potentially tricky trip to Florida State. That game could be important in deciding who receives a double bye at the ACC Tournament especially with how VT and FSU are considered in the second tier of ACC teams along with Syracuse and possibly Clemson.
As crazy as it seems, Virginia Tech has the potential to go unbeaten in non-conference due in part to the fact that the Hokies have a weak non-conference schedule. The Hokies will face some challenges against Washington and at the Charleston Classic though the Hokies should be favored in every single non-conference game they play. In addition, a trip to Penn State has the potential to be tricky but without Tony Carr, it’s hard to see the Nittany Lions taking a big step forward from last year’s team that won the NIT.
Looking to conference play, the Hokies should have one of the ACC’s top 6 teams whether Chris Clarke eventually returns from an indefinite suspension or not. Rebounding is a concern on paper once again given the size while the Hokies will need to make some improvements on defense. However, this team has the talent to score with plenty of shooters including Ty Outlaw, Ahmed Hill, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker along with a quality big man in Kerry Blackshear and a star in Justin Robinson who can score in a multitude of ways.
While the Hokies should be better defensively, this will still be an offensively-driven team that will be able to outscore teams in ACC play.
Depth could be a concern with only 10 scholarship players currently on the roster that aren’t suspended indefinitely. Even if Chris Clarke does return, the Hokies do have some depth concerns that could cause problems during the regular season, but can be masked in February and March when most teams shorten their rotations down to 7 or 8.
Virginia Tech will put together a strong season losing no more than 1 game during non-conference play before finishing in the 4-6 range of the ACC. In addition, the Hokies will get their first NCAA Tournament win under Buzz Williams and have the potential to not only get to the second weekend, but also play on the final Saturday of the season.
Buzz Williams has built something special with a veteran-loaded team ready for their best year of the Buzz Williams era.