BUFFALO — Buzz Williams needed a lot out of the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team to get it where it is now: standing in the middle of KeyBank Center, on a basketball court emblazoned with the words “March Madness.”
The Hokies needed to be nearly perfect through their nonconference schedule, avoiding any stumbles against less-regarded foes that could have endangered their hopes for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. They needed to overcome the loss to injury of a critical starter and to win games that came down to a ball stuck on the flange of the rim or a three-pointer at the buzzer. But more than anything else, the program’s first NCAA bid since 2007 came down to a more fundamental need.
“Buzz is trying to switch our mind-set,” junior guard Justin Bibbs explained. “None of us, the players, have ever made it to the tournament. Our dreams were, make the tournament. He wanted us to switch our mind-sets to . . . make it, then go deeper.”
Williams’s long process in turning the program around will cross a symbolic threshold here Thursday night, when the ninth-seeded Hokies (22-10) tip off against No. 8 seed Wisconsin (25-9) in a first-round East Region game.
The first step came last season, Williams’s second in Blacksburg: Getting a team that had won just two conference games the year before used to success. The 2015-16 Hokies achieved that, bouncing back from a five-game losing streak with five consecutive wins to close out the regular season. At the ACC tournament at Verizon Center, point guard Seth Allen’s legs bounced and he held his hands clasped in his lap as he told reporters, wide-eyed, how happy Virginia Tech was just to get a shot at playing a postseason tournament.
This year was different. After notching 10 conference wins for the second season in a row, the Hokies no longer felt like party crashers. Before the start of this season’s ACC tournament in Brooklyn, Allen leaned back and stretched his legs in the locker room: “Yeah, I guess we’re comfortable,” he mused. “We’re more comfortable for sure.”
Williams had talked about the importance of confidence with the team that morning as he pivoted to the second step of Virginia Tech’s mental overhaul. Now that the Hokies had self-belief, it was time to start thinking beyond just making the NCAA tournament.
“We lost five games in a row last year in ACC play,” Williams said. “Our longest losing streak this year has been two. That in and of itself is an accomplishment. And in the right way, this is what these kids have always dreamed up. And I used to be one of those kids, and even as a coach, that was what I wanted to do. I just wanted to be on ‘One Shining Moment’ . . . and then it becomes, okay, when you’ve accomplished that, now what? Is that enough? How do you reconfigure your dream?”
Toward the end of the regular season, Williams told his players they had been thinking about the postseason all wrong.
“A couple weeks ago Buzz was talking to us after practice, and he was like . . . we needed to start thinking about winning the tournament, winning games in the tournament,” Allen said Sunday after watching Virginia Tech’s name go up on the bracket.
“When he said that, it really opened my eyes. So when they called our name, I was happy, but I don’t want to celebrate until we win a game.
“I think personally, the players, we’ve moved past the we’re-in-the-tournament stage.”
Williams subscribes to the simple theory that the Dukes, North Carolinas, Kansases and Kentuckys of the world live lengthy postseason lives year after year in part because they’re used to winning. They know what it feels like to win games in the NCAA tournament, and they understand what it takes to get there. He saw that after taking over a healthy Marquette program that he then led to five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances from 2009 to 2013.
At Virginia Tech, “so much of what we’ve been chasing,” Williams said Sunday, “our kids have no idea what it is.”
After two seasons of operating with an underdog’s mentality, Williams needed his team to adopt a winner’s mind-set, even though the players haven’t actually tasted an NCAA tournament win.
So far, it has worked.
“We really just wanted to play postseason last year,” senior forward Zach LeDay said, “and now we want more.
“We’re hungry for more. That’s just what it is.”