SAN JOSE — After he was done snapping photos of his players on his white iPhone before their NCAA tournament practice Thursday, Virginia Tech Coach Buzz Williams flipped through his texts and found one he had sent to Justin Robinson earlier in the day.
“Enjoy this weekend like you have enjoyed the last 12 games of not playing. Make the game easier for your teammates,” Williams began the message, before reading the end of it to reporters: “I want you to enjoy the moments. Play with a ‘free brain.’ Not have 1,900 voices of the enemy running in your mind.”
Williams and Robinson traded a few more texts after that, and then they were back to business as usual. Selection Sunday could not have gone much better for the Hokies, who announced the return of their senior guard after he had missed the previous 12 games with a foot injury.
That was followed by the announcement of their third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, this time as the East Region’s No. 4 seed, and it came with a favorable draw. It required a cross-country flight, where Virginia Tech will meet No. 13 seed Saint Louis on Friday night, but it would be a surprise should the Hokies not win their first tournament game since 2007.
It also would be somewhat of a surprise should they not take advantage of the highest NCAA tournament seed in program history and advance to the East Region semifinals next week at Capital One Arena in Washington. Should Virginia Tech (24-8) survive the 12-loss Billikens, it would meet the winner of No. 5 seed Mississippi State (23-10) and No. 12 Liberty (28-6) in the second round Sunday.
While expectations appear heightened this week because of the return of Robinson, the program’s all-time leader in assists, reintegrating him into the lineup will not be an easy proposition for Williams and his staff. Robinson has not been in game condition for nearly two months and spent much of this week rebuilding his endurance.
“I don’t know that there is any way that we can predict how many minutes he will play. I think that’s unfair to him. I think that’s unfair to our team,” said Williams, whose team started the season 17-3 with Robinson and has gone 7-5 since, including a win over then-No. 3 Duke on Feb. 26. “He gives us another fast guy. I don’t know if we would’ve been described as slow without him, but we’re faster with him.”
Virginia Tech is making its third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance for the first time. The most pressing question Thursday was the status of Robinson and what kind of contribution he will be able to make in his return in that pursuit.
“I’m getting my wind back, running a lot more than I have been. I’m just trying to get back into a groove with my team,” Robinson said.
As the team’s veteran point guard, he has proved to be more of a facilitator who can open up the floor for a lineup that relies on perimeter shooting. Without Robinson in the lineup, Virginia Tech ran its sets through Kerry Blackshear Jr. (14.7 points per game) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (16.7), both of whom garnered all-ACC honors, and relied more heavily on senior guards Ahmed Hill (13.1) and Ty Outlaw (8.7). That group has spent much of the week working through dummy offensive sets while Robinson reacclimates to his team, a process that Williams simply said makes the Hokies more “multiple.”
“It’s like riding a bike,” Outlaw said. “As soon as he got back on the court, I immediately felt his presence. I felt better with him out there with me.”
Williams changed his system for that cast after Robinson went down Jan. 30 against Miami, taking his 14.4 points and 5.5 assists per game with him. Virginia Tech maintained its identity as a high-volume three-point-shooting team — it has averaged 24 three-point attempts per game and made 39 percent, which ranks ninth in the country — but its assists per game dipped from 17.1 with Robinson to 12.5 without him.
The rest of the offensive production also dipped considerably when Robinson sat. The scoring average of 78.8 through the first 20 games fell to 66 for the next 12. The Hokies fell from 50.3 percent field goal shooting with Robinson to 42.8 without, and they dropped from 42.6 percent three-point shooting to 33 percent.
But Williams vowed not to stray from what Virginia Tech had done both with Robinson and without Robinson throughout the season, even if it meant building in more time to practice sets as if it were early November and not late March.
He also had to address his own future Thursday after reports have declared him a favorite to fill Texas A&M’s coaching vacancy after the season.
“That kind of stuff I can’t control. Relative to my relationship with [my players] and my family, I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about that,” Williams said about his future. He paused for a moment before whipping out his phone and reading the text he had sent to Robinson. Then he simply said: “I think it’s appropriate to talk about: ‘Can you believe this is happening?’”