BLACKSBURG, Va. — Buzz Williams wasn’t necessarily attempting to predict the future two weeks ago, but the Virginia Tech men’s basketball coach proved most prescient anyway when answering a question about his chances of being named ACC coach of the year.
The Hokies had just upset then-No. 3 Duke and were on the way to their most conference wins in school history, overcoming a severely compromised roster that has been without starting point guard Justin Robinson for essentially the past 10 games.
Still, Williams was skeptical, pointing to 2015-16, when he directed the Hokies to a 10-8 conference record after going 2-16 the previous season, matching the largest increase in wins by any ACC program.
Miami’s Jim Larranaga instead wound up being selected ACC coach of the year after the Hurricanes went 13-5.
“I’m a little smarter sometimes than I get credit for,” Williams said. “It was only the third time in the history of the ACC, I think it started in 1953, that there had been the largest turnaround. It was a plus eight. I think if you don’t win it in the largest turnaround, you’re not going to win it any other time, and it’s okay.
“I mean that sincerely.”
When the ACC revealed its 2018-19 regular season awards Monday afternoon, Virginia’s Tony Bennett was named coach of the year for a second consecutive season.
The irony is that over the past two seasons, the Cavaliers have lost just three times combined in the ACC to two teams. One is Duke, the other Virginia Tech (23-7, 12-6), which plays Wednesday afternoon as the No. 5 seed in the second round of the ACC tournament against No. 12 seed Miami.
Sixteenth-ranked Virginia Tech had risen to as high as No. 9 in the Associated Press poll this season.
“Buzz has done an amazing job with his team,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Losing Justin and playing this month without him, I don’t think there’s anyone who’s done a better job with his team than he has. Terrific job by him and changing the style.”
Robinson will not play in the ACC tournament, Williams indicated, after receiving a ceremonial start for one second Friday night during senior day at Cassell Coliseum. The status for the program’s career leader in assists remains unclear heading into the NCAA tournament.
The overlooked coaching job from Williams has included making do not only without Robinson but also with eight healthy scholarship players and a rotation in which only six players regularly log double-digit minutes in any given game.
Against the Blue Devils, for instance, two Virginia Tech starters, Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, played all 40 minutes. Only one reserve, Isaiah Wilkins, played more than five minutes, yet the Hokies beat Duke for a third straight time at home with the Blue Devils ranked in the top five.
“Buzz has done an outstanding job,” said Louisville Coach Chris Mack, also a contender for ACC coach of the year until a late-season collapse.
Among Williams’s adjustments by necessity has been moving Alexander-Walker to primary ballhandler. The third-team all-ACC sophomore guard led Virginia Tech in scoring (16.2), finished with a team-high 113 assists and is a projected high first-round pick in the NBA draft.
Blackshear, meanwhile, was voted to the ACC second team after the redshirt junior averaged 14.5 points and a team-best 7.2 rebounds.
“I’ve tried to be overly cautious with what I say publicly, and I’ve been more overly cautious in what I’ve said to our team because I think it’s human nature to have some form of justification,” Williams said of the Hokies’ limited resources this season. “There is no justification.
“There’s a lot of people that have a lot of grind every day that have nothing to do with sports, and they wake up every morning before the sun comes up, and they figure out how to pay the light bill.”
The Hokies’ patchwork roster began to take shape early this year when Williams, on the heels of a 77-66 win against Boston College on Jan. 5, announced Chris Clarke and Landers Nolley would not play this season.
Clarke was dismissed for undisclosed reasons. The versatile guard-forward led the Hokies in rebounding and was second in assists and steals last season as a junior, finishing runner-up for ACC sixth man of the year.
Nolley, a 6-foot-7 forward, was Virginia Tech’s top freshman recruit but did not play because of NCAA-related academic clearance issues.
The Hokies also were without reserve forward P.J. Horne for six games this season because of a leg injury.
“The symmetry of our staff is as good as I’ve ever seen,” Williams said. “The symmetry, chemistry and camaraderie of our players, whether they’re in uniform or not, is as good as I’ve ever seen.
“I think the separator for us, and a lot of it is through all of the things that have transpired, some of which we’ve been in control of and some of which we haven’t, is the symmetry between the two. That experience is what has made all of it so special.”