At the beginning of the season, Virginia Tech men’s basketball Coach Buzz Williams leaned on his daily planner to stay focused as expectations for his team grew.
Williams broke the season down so that each workout, practice and scrimmage from October until March had a specific purpose. The Hokies were coming off an impressive turnaround late last season and were cited in the preseason as a team to watch in the powerful ACC. Williams’s idea was if his team devoted each practice to achieving a daily goal, progress would be a little more linear and fundamentals wouldn’t fall by the wayside as the Hokies tried to build on past improvement.
“I think when you know, ‘This has to be accomplished and here’s why’ . . . I think it’s just kind of helped me, help us, be streamlined,” Williams explained. “Instead of, ‘Oh, wow, so and so said we’re going to be good, so and so said we’re not going to be picked last.’ None of that matters; like, what matters is today. We have to grow in this regard today.”
That micro-focus has softened a bit in ACC play, Williams admits. As the Hokies (16-7, 5-6 ACC) prepare to host No. 12 Virginia (18-5, 8-3) on Sunday, progress has been more up and down than a steady, upward-trending line.
Virginia Tech opened 12-1, capped by a decisive win over then-No. 5 Duke on New Year’s Eve, and cracked the Associated Press rankings for the first time in more than six years. Since then it has lost six of 10 including three of its last four: at North Carolina, at Virginia and most recently on Wednesday night at Miami, 74-68. The Hokies are tied for ninth in the league standings.
The team remains on course to qualify for the NCAA tournament field in the eyes of most analysts, with an average seed of 8.77 on the aggregation site BracketMatrix.com. But with its season sagging and the conference tournament in Brooklyn less than a month away, positive results are needed.
Williams said he had been too preoccupied recently with tweaking game plans and making adjustments — shuffling starting lineups, trying to control pace and playing more zone defense than his preferred man-to-man — rather than reinforcing fundamentals. Moving forward, Williams has simpler concerns.
“Making sure that we play incredibly hard, we play together, we play tough,” Williams said. “And I think we lost a little bit of that over the last 20 days. And I think the reason why is I personally got too caught up in ‘We can do this and we can do that and if we do this than it all works out perfect.’ It’s not fairy-tale land in this league. You have to stay true to your convictions, in my opinion.”
It’s not the first time they’ve paused to reset this season.
“We had a come-to-Jesus meeting after we got back from FSU,” senior Zach LeDay said, referring to a particularly memorable postgame speech after the Hokies’ 93-78 loss at Florida State on Jan. 7, their second straight defeat after upsetting Duke. “It was pretty crazy. He just called everybody out and we just figured we weren’t playing the type of basketball we needed to be playing to get these wins in the league, which is the best league in the country. You can’t come out flat like that.”
But Virginia Tech’s struggles didn’t stop after their trip to Tallahassee; its performance was still spotty with a solid win over Syracuse giving way to a sloppy loss to Notre Dame. The team’s most glaring statistical shortcoming is in rebounding, a skill Williams described as “as much mentality as it is talent, skill and heart.”
The Hokies rank second to last in the ACC in rebounding margin at minus-1.3 per game. They collect the fewest offensive rebounds, averaging 7.7 per game. On Wednesday at Miami, that was part of their undoing — each team ended up with 32 rebounds but Virginia Tech had just four offensive boards to the Hurricanes’ 10. The Hokies also committed 15 turnovers that led to 22 Miami points.
“I just thought we made too many mistakes,” Williams said Wednesday, “and you can’t play a mistake-filled game on the road against anybody in this league.”
Still, Williams saw progress where it mattered most.
“I thought we played much harder than we have over the last two weeks. I thought we were much more connected,” Williams said. “I thought our togetherness, our body language, how hard we competed was back to the way it has to be for us to have a chance to compete.”
The challenge, starting Sunday against a Cavaliers team they upset at Cassell Coliseum last year, is to keep moving in that direction.