When Buzz Williams took over as coach of the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team four seasons ago, the Hokies had just one NCAA tournament appearance this century.
Now they’re headed to a second in a row, this time as No. 8 seed in the East Region, where the Hokies (21-11) are set to face No. 9 seed Alabama (19-15) on Thursday in Pittsburgh.
Williams and his players participated in an NCAA tournament selection show viewing party Sunday night at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Va., and they cheered when Virginia Tech’s name was announced as part of the field of 68.
“I can’t think of any adjectives for how I feel right now,” Hokies senior guard Justin Bibbs said. “It’s just a blessing to be in this position. You dream about bringing a team like this to the tournament, but now that it’s actually happened, it’s like I don’t know what to do. Just can’t wait to get on the practice court and be around my guys.”
Following last season’s berth in which they lost as a No. 9 seed to eighth-seeded Wisconsin in the East Region round of 64, the Hokies are making consecutive trips to college basketball’s showcase event for just the second time in program history. Virginia Tech last went to back-to-back NCAA tournaments in 1985 and ’86.
The last NCAA tournament victory for Virginia Tech came in 2007.
“If we’re only validated by winning, we’re very shallow, and I understand in the end that’s how I’m judged, and I’m okay with that. But I for sure never got into the business just to win games,” Williams said. “I’m thankful for the experience of playing in the NCAA tournament, not for me but for the lifetime memory our kids will have.”
The Hokies will have been off for more than a week by the time they step onto the court at Little Caesars Arena to begin their NCAA tournament journey. They last played Wednesday in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, losing to Notre Dame, 71-65, after failing to protect a 21-point lead with 15 minutes remaining in the second half.
The stunning collapse marked Virginia Tech’s first one-and-out shwoing in the ACC tournament since 2014, but the Hokies had plenty of reason not to fret about their NCAA tournament fortunes, thanks to a résumé that included a handful of notable victories.
“The way we finished that game wasn’t how we wanted to by any means,” senior guard Devin Wilson said. “That’s something where I think we go into the NCAA tournament going, ‘Hey, the worst has kind of happened.’ We can start a new season. Everyone’s been itching to get back out there.”
Virginia Tech defeated fifth-ranked Duke, 64-63, on Feb. 26 during senior night at Cassell Coliseum, with reserve forward Chris Clarke scoring the final six points, including the winning putback with four seconds to play to produce the only lead of the second half for the Hokies.
Another résumé-boosting win came against North Carolina, the reigning national champion. Virginia Tech won, 80-69, at home Jan. 22 by going 12 for 30 (40 percent) from three-point range.
But the Hokies’ most prominent win was nearly three weeks later when they outlasted top-ranked Virginia, 61-60, at John Paul Jones Arena. It was the Cavaliers’ only loss in the ACC, and they went on to win both the regular season and conference tournament championships.
Virginia Tech enters the NCAA tournament having lost three of four. In each of those defeats, the Hokies wasted double-digit leads. They led Miami by 12 late in the first half before falling, 69-68, on Ja’Quan Newton’s running 30-footer at the buzzer in Coral Gables, Fla., and were in front of visiting Louisville by 10 also late in the first half of a 75-68 loss.
The Hokies are among nine teams from the ACC playing in the NCAA tournament, the most from a conference in this year’s field. In addition to Virginia’s automatic bid, Duke, North Carolina, Miami, Clemson, North Carolina State, Florida State and Syracuse each received an at-large berth.
“The more big games you’ve played in, the better,” Williams said. “The more versatility your roster allows, the better, and the versatility is not just offensively, but it’s defensively because you’re going to have unique matchups on both ends of the floor, and I think when you have experience playing against really good players in really big games, I think that all translates in a good way.”
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