When Buzz Williams arrived in Blacksburg, Hokie fans hoped that Virginia Tech would make its return to the NCAA Tournament by Buzz's fourth season, and a return to postseason play by his third season.
Entering year 4, both of those goals were achieved earlier than imagined and now, Buzz and the Hokies have their eyes focused on making NCAA Tournament appearances normal in Blacksburg. On top of that, Virginia Tech has a chance at being the Commonwealth's best basketball for the first time in a long time with both UVA and VT starting right outside the top 25.
The fourth year of the Buzz Williams is here with Virginia Tech looking to make NCAA Tournament appearances the standard in Blacksburg.
With all of that said, here is a look at what you need to know and what to watch ahead of the fourth year of the Buzz Williams era.
Kentucky Headlines Interesting Non-Conference Schedule
Virginia Tech's non-conference schedule is fairly weak, but has the potential to not be as weak as some other non-conference slates VT has had in recent years. Much of that is due to the Hokies' big game in mid-December at Rupp Arena against a top 5 Kentucky team.
Virginia Tech will be the underdog against a Kentucky team loaded with more one-and-done talent. John Calipari has plenty of elite talent headlined by multiple five-star recruits including Kevin Knox, PJ Washington, and Hamidou Diallo. Kentucky has plenty of athleticism, and likely will try to use that to their advantage.
However, this is also one of the youngest Kentucky teams that Calipari has had. If there's a time to face a team loaded with so much one-and-done talent, the first two months are the most preferable time. Kentucky should be one of college basketball's best teams, but they also won't be near their peak at this point. Virginia Tech will be underdogs and rightfully so, but the Hokies have a better chance of pulling off the upset in December than they would in February or March.
Before then, the Hokies have a chance to pick up some quality wins and enter that game unbeaten. Virginia Tech will have four opportunities to do so and if they want to not have too many worries about making the NCAA Tournament, they need to win at least three. However, the Hokies should be favored in all four of these games.
The first two will come at Madison Square Garden next week in the 2K Classic. Virginia Tech will face Saint Louis in the semifinals before playing the winner of Providence-Washington in the finals if they beat the Billikens. Saint Louis is expected to improve in their second season under former Oklahoma State head coach Travis Ford, but this is a game VT should comfortably win.
In the finals, VT would most likely face Providence. Yes, Providence has lost a few pieces, but Ed Cooley has proven that he can rebuild the Friars quickly, and they are projected to be an NCAA Tournament team. This has the chance to be a signature non-conference win for the Hokies if they can get the job done.
After this, the Hokies have two more significant non-conference games before the trip to Rupp Arena: Iowa at Cassell Coliseum in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge, and a road game at Ole Miss. Iowa likely presents the larger challenge based purely on talent, but the game against Ole Miss could be tricky with the Hokies having to go on the road for this game. Virginia Tech should be the favorite in both of these games, and could have a chance to rise in the polls if they can win both and be undefeated.
The rest of the schedule isn't great, but Friday night's opener against Detroit Mercy is the Hokies' best chance at getting a win over a RPI top 150 team. The Radford game should also be well-received by Hokie fans as a chance to beat the nearby low-major program who could turn out to be a solid win.
A Loaded ACC Schedule
While the non-conference schedule may be relatively weak, the Hokies' ACC schedule is among the toughest in the ACC and their home slate may be their best since joining the conference. The Hokies will welcome North Carolina, Duke, Louisville, Miami, Virginia, and Florida State to Cassell Coliseum as a part of their tough ACC schedule.
Where their strength of schedule shows the most is in the four ACC teams that they play twice this season: Duke, Louisville, Miami, and Virginia. Both Duke and Miami are top 15 teams entering this season while Virginia is right outside the top 25 and should be a top 30-35 team again this season.
Virginia Tech may have the ACC's toughest road slate headlined by the four teams they play twice and a game at Notre Dame. The Hokies also have a pair of road games at two teams looking to breakthrough and make the NCAA Tournament this season: Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.
Throughout ACC play, the Hokies will have plenty of opportunities to pick up quality wins that can help their resume. However, the Hokies' tough conference schedule reduces the margin for error for the Hokies against weaker competition and in non-conference play.
The Hokies will be tested in ACC play and if they can finish above .500 in conference play this season, they'll have earned it and put themselves in position to be seeded higher than last season.
Who Steps Up As The Star Player
With Seth Allen and Zach LeDay gone, the biggest question with this team is who will step up and be the star for the Hokies? Virginia Tech has a deep roster with plenty of quality players, but there isn't one obvious pick to take up the mantle as the Hokies' star player.
The first name that comes up this discussion is the versatile Chris Clarke who is healthy and ready to go. Clarke had 5 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists in 15 minutes in the South Carolina exhibition, a fitting stat line for Clarke who does it all as shown by him averaging 11.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.3 steals in 28.9 minutes per game last season.
Chris Clarke has star potential, and could be one of the ACC's elite player if he can develop his shot. Clarke can be a big piece in the puzzle, but his scoring ability is limited and will need to improve for him to be the Hokies' scoring star. However, Clarke does everything else at a high level on offense and defense which could make him an All-ACC player this season.
Ahmed Hill shined early last season before becoming the fourth or fifth best scorer during non-conference play while Justin Bibbs returns as one of the ACC's best three-point shooters. Hill and Bibbs have shown at times the potential to be leading scorers, but it will be interesting to see if either step up. However, both will definitely be looked to as two of the Hokies' most important shooters, especially with Ty Outlaw out for the season.
Justin Robinson and Kerry Blackshear will also have big roles with Robinson being the Hokies' featured point guard with Seth Allen gone, and Blackshear becoming the Hokies' starting big man with LeDay gone. However, don't be surprised to see Robinson among the ACC leaders in assists while Blackshear will be critical to the Hokies' success on the glass.
Lastly, any discussion about the next star for the Hokies has to include five-star freshman Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
NAW was impressive in his debut against South Carolina with 18 points to lead all scorers. Alexander-Walker showed that he can be a complete scorer who could get to the glass or make the three. NAW will give opponents plenty of difficulties if he lives up to the hype.
However, the question that remains is can he live up to the hype? So far, it looks like Alexander-Walker might even be able to exceed it.
VT's Strong Freshman Class Arrives
Virginia Tech has brought in arguably the most talked about freshman class in program history with most of that being due to five-star Nickeil Alexander-Walker. NAW is the first five-star recruit to play for Virginia Tech since Dorian Finney-Smith, and the excitement around Alexander-Walker
is sky-high. Alexander-Walker started against South Carolina, and it seems likely that he will start against Detroit.
However, Alexander-Walker isn't the only freshman that will have a role on this team.
PJ Horne was very good in the South Carolina exhibition with 11 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 block in only 12 minutes. Horne did have three fouls, and that could be a concern for the Hokies along with the fact that he is undersized, but Horne showed lots of upside and will be a factor as a backup big man for VT this year.
Wabissa Bede had 4 points in his debut and will be a primary backup guard for the Hokies this week. Bede's role may be similar to what Justin Robinson's was as a freshman playing 10-15 minutes per game and sometimes coming on the floor with Robinson to work off the ball. Bede has plenty of excitement around himself as a top 75 recruit who, in a normal recruiting class for VT, would be the most hyped up recruit.
Tyrie Jackson redshirted last season, but should have a role as a backup guard this season. Jackson may be Virginia Tech's most athletic player and despite his size at 6'1'', his athleticism and vertical allow him to do things very few players of his stature can.
After Khadim Sy provided limited production last season, this year's freshmen should make a much larger impact.
Virginia Tech has the talent and coaching to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament this season. If they do as I predict, this would be only the third time in school history that Virginia Tech has made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.
The Hokies have the potential to be a top 25 team, but they should be no lower than a top 30 to 35 team that will comfortably make the NCAA Tournament this season. If I was a bracketologist, I would have the Hokies as either a 7 or 8 seed at this point.
Virginia Tech will face a couple tough challenges other than Kentucky in non-conference play, but I see the Hokies getting the job done and only losing one non-conference game. However, ACC play will provide a tougher gauntlet that will push the Hokies down some after their big start.
I project Virginia Tech goes 10-8 in the ACC and finishes in the upper middle tier alongside Virginia this season. The gap between the Hokies and Cavaliers is gone, and this season will show how both VT and UVA will be going to war over who is the Commonwealth's best basketball school.
Virginia Tech will return to the NCAA Tournament this season and be a threat to pull an upset to get to the second weekend of March Madness as a 7 or 8 seed. Virginia Tech is entering its best era of basketball in school history and going forward, VT should consistently be in the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever.
The Hokies are entering a golden age of men's basketball and are poised to make NCAA Tournament appearances the standard in Blacksburg.
If you would have told someone three years ago that this could become the standard by the fourth year of the Buzz Williams, they would have thought you were crazy. However, that's exactly what Virginia Tech is poised to do.
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