Virginia Tech will have a new challenge to contend with this season: Expectations.
The Hokies are ranked 15th to start the season, matching the highest preseason ranking in program history.
This is coach Buzz Williams fifth season and the high expectations are warranted.
Virginia Tech finished 21-12 last season and won 10 games in the Atlantic Coast Conference for the third consecutive season. They also advanced to the NCAA Tournament in consecutive years for the first time in more than three decades and defeated a program-record four teams that were ranked in the Top 25, including three in the top 10.
Not bad for a program that went 11-22 and won just two league games in Williams’ first season.
“And … if we have a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament again this year - I don’t know that we do, but we have a chance as of today - it’s never happened in the history of the school,” Williams recently said.
The success has turned Cassell Coliseum into one of the more difficult venues to play in for visiting teams in the ACC, one where boisterous fans are virtually on top of the court.
“I remember freshman year, it was probably 600, 700 people in the stands,” senior Ahmed Hill said. “Now the younger guys come in and all they know is that the gym is packed and sold out. When you have to bring your own energy at 12 o’clock against North Carolina, it’s really hard. But nowadays, since we have built kind of a good culture of winning, and we want to continue that, 12 o’clock games (are) sold out within the first few minutes.”
Williams begins each season with a “boot camp” that tests his players to their limits physically and mentally, figuring lessons learned there will carry over at tense moments in games, and he insists on the same kind of intensity in practice, shooting guard Ty Outlaw, who returns after missing last season with a torn ACL, said.
“It’s not much difference between the game and practice as far as our energy. As soon as the energy drops off, if we don’t get it straight, Coach (is) going to get it straight,” he said. “It’s the same in the game. We just practice that, take it to the game and can’t let it be any drop-off because that’s a moment we’re going to slip.”
Here are some other things to watch with Virginia Tech this season:
HERE’S TO YOU, MR. ROBINSON
At 6-foot-2, he’s often the smallest player on the court, and the one you can’t take your eyes off. He led the Hokies in scoring (14 ppg), scored in double figures in every game but one and had 185 assists, the most by a junior is school history. He made All-ACC second team last season and can take over a game with speedy penetration.
Williams calls Chris Clarke one of the best athletes he’s coached - he can run the floor leading a break, knock down 3-pointers and his dunks can bring the fans to their feet. He averaged 8.2 points off the bench last season and led the undersized Hokies with 209 rebounds and was second with 98 assists, but also first with 75 turnovers. Williams loves his energy, but would like to see it controlled better.
BIG MAN WOES
Kerry Blackshear Jr. is another inside-out threat - he made 15 3-pointers last season - but the size-challenged Hokies would benefit greatly from the 6-10 forward playing closer to the basket. He averaged 12.5 points and 5.9 rebounds, but was also prone to committing silly fouls far from the basket that caused him to watch too often from the bench.
Granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing a second season for medical reasons (knee), Ty Outlaw showed during the 2016-17 season what he offers when healthy. He’s a streaky shooter, sometimes spanning weeks, with very deep range and made 26 of 45 3-point tries, including eight in one game, in his last eight games of the season.
NO MORE UNDERDOG
Williams has seemed to specialize in convincing his team that they were being undersold, and using it to get the most out of them. Sometimes expectations bring added pressure, and the Hokies will have to manage that well.
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