BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) - Buzz Williams’ first season at Virginia Tech has been perhaps the most difficult of his career.
Presented with an undermanned, undersized young team that includes five freshmen, winning has taken a backseat to focusing on laying the groundwork for what he expects will become a winning formula.
“You want to win, and you want your kids to be rewarded for winning, but the culture and foundation of what you want to be about on and off the floor, those things have to be established,” Williams recently told The Associated Press.
The early stages of the process has been painful for Hokie fans.
Virginia Tech (10-21, 2-16 Atlantic Coast Conference) is last in the ACC and will take a seven-game losing streak into the league tournament, which they begin on Tuesday afternoon against 11th-seeded Wake Forest (13-18, 5-13).
Still, Williams isn’t discouraged and has players focusing on their “jenga,” the Swahili word meaning “to build.”
It has been his approach since preseason camp, followed by a three-day boot camp that may have been the toughest he’s ever put a team through in seven seasons as a head coach.
The building process also has been the foundation of some Williams’ decisions that may have raised questions, including dismissing his best big man, Joey van Zegeren, from the team, and benching players for not working hard enough.
No one was immune, not even on a team where freshman play more than half the minutes and have scored more than half the points.
It happened to Satchel Pierce, a 7-foot freshman and the Hokies’ tallest player, and guard Jalen Hudson against North Carolina State. Pierce never left the bench, and Hudson played just 7 seconds.
Williams has often described Hudson, a 6-5 freshman, as the team’s most talented player, but said he never shared his plan with either player until after the Hokies’ 12th loss in 14 ACC games.
“I told him, ‘You’re never going to hold me hostage, Jalen. Most talented guy on the team. Not taking your scholarship. Never going to be held hostage by your talent. Not yours. Not anybody else’s that comes in here because if I am, then I’m not teaching you what you need to learn for your life,’” Williams said. “And I told Satch, ‘You’re the only guy on our team that wears a double XL shirt. Don’t care.’”
In Virginia Tech’s next game, at home against the third-ranked Blue Devils, Hudson played 30 minutes, scored a career-best 23 points and grabbed six rebounds.
“Some days I don’t go as hard as I should, and it shows definitely in the games,” Hudson said. “It’s pretty much all on me because I know if I work hard and play as hard as I can, I’ll be in the game.
“Definitely message received.”
And not just by Hudson, but everyone else on the roster, including transfers Seth Allen and Zach LeDay. Allen, the Hokies’ most accomplished player, and LeDay are sitting out the season per NCAA rules.
“When stuff like that happens,” Allen said of the benchings, “it really opens the eyes of everybody.”
Williams will use the ACC tournament, whether the Hokies make a run or are one and done, as another teaching opportunity.
“Obviously the most important metric you use in athletics is, ‘Did you win or did you lose?’, but there’s a lot of other metrics that are really important - some that are important while they’re eligible, and some that are important for the rest of their lives,” Williams said.
“We talk about all of those metrics, and that does not justify that we’ve lost as many games as we have,” Williams said. “But I think it’s important, as some of these kids that are freshmen, to think they will grow into some of the leaders of the change that we anticipate that we’ll have here. it’s important as they are going through all of these lessons that we’re making sure that they’re learning what they need to learn, not only for now, but more importantly, for the future.”
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