Predictable day-before-a-game pablum that coaches routinely throw out when TV cameras are rolling. But a few minutes later, walking down a hallway, Krzyzewski talked about why he honestly feels that way about Williams.
“He lost his most important player at a crucial time in the season,” he said. “It would have been very easy for them to fade when that happened, but they didn’t. They kept playing and they kept winning. That doesn’t always happen when someone that good and that important goes down. Now he’s back and look at where they are.”
Senior point guard Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech’s all-time assists leader, is indeed back after missing a dozen games, during which the Hokies went 7-5. Given that they are 26-8 overall — 19-3 with Robinson in the lineup — his absence was clearly a big deal.
Robinson didn’t play when Virginia Tech beat Duke, 77-72, in late February. When people talk about that game, they emphasize Duke star Zion Williamson’s absence — not Robinson’s.
“Hey, it’s Coach K and it’s the best player in the country,” Williams said Thursday afternoon, not long after his team had practiced for the East Region semifinal. “I get that and it doesn’t bother me. Everything about them gets a lot of attention. They’ve earned that.”
He paused, then laughed. “But you know we have beaten them in each of the last three years.”
Williams is justifiably proud of what has been accomplished at Virginia Tech in the five years since he arrived in Blacksburg after six years at Marquette. The Hokies had gone 22-41 overall, 6-30 in the ACC, in the two seasons before Williams.
Now, as Williams can tell you, they have been to the NCAA tournament three straight times for the first time in school history: “One-hundred-eleven years of basketball,” he noted. They are in the Sweet 16 for the second time — the first since 1967 — and they have won more games than any team in program history.
“What we’ve done here has been a gazillion times more difficult than what we did at Marquette,” Williams said of this previous stop, where he reached three Sweet 16s in six years before surprising the basketball world by leaving for Blacksburg in 2014. “I’m proud of the wins, but more than that I’m proud of the effort a lot of people have made.”
These days there are a lot of people who believe Williams, 46, is about to put a period — or an exclamation point — on his time at Virginia Tech. The Texas A&M job opened a couple of weeks ago and most of the college basketball world is convinced it is about to throw a lot of money at Williams to return to Texas. Greenville, the tiny town where Williams grew up, is about 220 miles north of College Station.
Williams, understandably, isn’t talking about what his future may be beyond the game against Duke. But there isn’t anyone out there who doesn’t think he’s going to continue to win a lot of games, whether in Blacksburg or College Station.
“When you scout his teams and when you play against them, you know how hard they’re going to come at you,” Krzyzewski said. “They don’t give you an inch. He’s got good players, but he coaches them to always play hard.”
With four graduate students on the roster, Virginia Tech is as experienced as Duke — America’s one-and-done team — is inexperienced. And they aren’t intimidated by Duke’s aura. There’s little doubt that Williams embraces the notion of the underpublicized underdog and, unlike a lot of coaches and teams, it’s quite real.
When Williams showed up for his designated 15 minutes with CBS on Thursday, he was thanked and dismissed after four minutes. You can bet that would never happen with Krzyzewski — or, for that matter, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo.
Williams is very much the classic up-from-nowhere successful college coach. He paid his own way to go to Navarro Junior College in Corsicana, Tex., about 100 miles south of Greenville.
“He showed up before practice one day and asked me if he could watch practice,” said Lewis Orr, who coached at Corsicana for 32 years. “I said, ‘No, you can’t, but you can stick around if you’re willing to work.’
“He said, ‘I’ll do anything, what do you want me to do?’ I told him to mop the floor. He did and I said, ‘You missed the corners.’ He went back and redid the corners. After that, he did anything I asked — and I mean everything, from mopping the floors, to scouting, to talking to recruits to game preparation. He never ran out of energy.”
That’s why it was Orr who first called Williams — whose name is Brent Langdon — “Buzz.”
“Every coach who ever came to town to recruit one of our players, Buzz got his address or phone number and got in touch after they left,” Orr said. “He knew exactly what he was doing and what he wanted to do.”
Orr was at Capital One Arena on Thursday, still a close friend almost 30 years later. Williams is a fiercely loyal friend. His top assistant, Jamie McNeilly, played for him during his one season as coach at the University of New Orleans. His number three assistant, Devin Johnson was an undergraduate assistant with that team.
Williams was 33 when he got the UNO job, one year after Hurricane Katrina. “Things were still brutal in New Orleans that year,” he said. “I had trouble coping with everything, but it was probably the best learning experience I ever had.”
Williams has come a long way from there to the Sweet 16 and a matchup with Krzyzewski. Whether he will still be at Virginia Tech in a week or a month is uncertain.
But he’s more than ready for his close-up Friday night.