Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Making Sense of Buzz Williams' Marquette Teams

As you all are well aware at this point, Buzz Williams is the new men's basketball coach at Virginia Tech.  In a rather astonishing move, he left a perennial NCAA tournament contender Marquette for a team that historically struggles to make the NIT (sorry Hokie fans, just being real here).  Buzz took over the Marquette Golden Eagles at the beginning of the 2008-2009 season after the much ballyhooed Tom Crean split town to coach the storied Indiana Hoosiers.  Buzz was fresh off of his first season as a head coach where he led the University of New Orleans Privateers to a 19-13 record.  It was considered to be a pretty shocking hire by Marquette at the time.

Buzz's teams at Marquette managed to make the NCAA tournament each year from 2009 through 2013.  Last season they had an uncharacteristic finish going 17-15 with no postseason play.  I noticed a couple of things about Buzz's teams at Marquette... one which is a good omen for the Hokies and one that is bad.

The Good
The biggest hurdle for this season's Virginia Tech team is the lack of depth in the frontcourt.  VT only has 3 big men on scholarship this season.  Christian Beyer has had as much playing time as just about any walk-on in the modern history of VT basketball, but I'm not sure how much Coach Buzz should be relying on him for serious minutes this year.  How can this be spun into a positive?  Buzz Williams' teams at Marquette were incredibly undersized.  All of them.  He often employed 3-guard and even 4-guard lineups, and he did this in the best conference for college basketball (at that time).  Looking at minutes played by each player for his Marquette teams, he never had a frontcourt player bigger than 6'8" in the top five, and several times he employed 6'6" Lazar Hayward as his biggest starting frontcourt player.  I originally projected the Hokies' starting five as Devin Wilson, Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs, Shane Henry, and Joey Van Zegeren.  Buzz Williams had a player similar in size and ability to JVZ at Marquette for six seasons (medical redshirt) named Chris Otule, and Otule was never a top five minute-receiver for Buzz.  It wouldn't be absurd to see him use Shane Henry as his tallest player in his main lineup playing alongside Wilson, Adam Smith, Hill, and Bibbs.  Buzz likes to have shooters on the floor.

The Bad
The other main deficiency of this Virginia Tech team is the lack of experience.  VT has two seniors (Will Johnston and Christian Beyer), and neither is likely to see more than a handful of minutes per game unless something goes terribly wrong.  Buzz's Marquette teams were almost always littered with starting upperclassmen... so much so that it feels like they were purposefully designed this way.  Care to guess how many of his teams employed freshmen as top-6 minute-getters?  Just one.  Vander Blue was the only player lucky enough to see that many minutes as a freshman with Coach Buzz.  That's kind of shocking.  Marquette is not Kentucky, Duke, or UNC.  You would think that highly-recruited high school seniors who committed to Marquette would come there with the understanding that they would be starting, but that didn't happen.  Buzz has a history of pulling in top-100 recruits, but he also scours the junior college ranks.  Some names you may recognize who were JC recruits: Jimmy Butler (2008), Dwight Buycks (2009), and Jae Crowder (2010).  Butler and Crowder are both currently playing in the NBA.  If Buzz pulls in a JC player, you can bet that he will start over a freshman at the same position.  So it seems obvious that Buzz Williams favors experienced players over inexperienced players with a potentially higher ceiling.  However, Buzz won't have much of a choice this season.  There isn't enough experience to go around and he will be forced to give big minutes to several underclassmen.  This will not be the case next season for incoming recruits Justin Robinson and Kerry Blackshear, Jr.  With transfers Seth Allen and Zach LeDay needing minutes, those fellas are not going to be able to contribute much in their first season as Hokies, and that seems to be the way Coach Buzz likes it.

The Conclusion
Expect more transfers.  Buzz will continue to build his team with the players he feels are the best fit... this could mean that an already thin team gets even thinner during the season.  I would not be surprised to see as many as three players transfer before the start of the 2015-2016 season.  High school kids always come in with an expectation of how many minutes they are going to play and how long they are willing to wait before they receive a starting job.  Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs, and Jalen Hudson will all come in with the chance to win the two wing positions (shooting guard and small forward), which means there will be one odd man out.  I'd imagine whoever loses that battle will want to transfer to get starters minutes and continue his dream of being in the NBA.  I think Hill is basically a lock to win the shooting guard job as he is Buzz's recruit, but Bibbs and Hudson were recruited by James Johnson, and it's tough to tell which one will be the better fit for Buzz's schemes.

I could also see a situation where Devin Wilson or Malik Mueller ends up leaving because Justin Robinson is coming in 2015.  Wilson and Mueller are both bigger point guards who don't score well, but who can create plays for teammates.  Robinson is small, lightning fast, and offers a different dynamic as a scorer.  I could also see a situation where Adam Smith transfers (again), which would make me feel pretty bad for Smith, but I think there won't be many minutes available next season when Seth Allen can play.  Smith would likely become the third shooting guard behind Hill and Allen.  The caveat here is that there may be backup minutes available if either Hudson or Bibbs transfers, but that's not a lock.  Buzz could choose to go with a shorter rotation.  Regardless, Virginia Tech basketball fans have been through quite a bit of change over the past year and we should expect even more by this time next year.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Schedule

Virginia Tech's men's basketball team plays one of the most unholy, unconscionable out-of-conference schedules imaginable this season.  It seriously makes me angry just to look at it.  Let me walk you through the only teams even worth mentioning in our out-of-conference slate:

  • Northern Iowa - 11/25 - every high-major team plays in one or two early tournaments before hitting their conference slate.  This season the Hokies are playing in the abhorrent Cancun Challenge.  There are no decent teams in this tournament, including Virginia Tech.  VT plays two cupcakes, and then plays another cupcake (these UNI Panthers) in the "semifinal".  The Panthers went a yawn-worthy 16-15 last season with only one good win (home v. VCU).  If this team is conjuring up magical memories of knocking off 8-seed UNLV and 1-seed Kansas to reach the Sweet Sixteen, you can put that out of your mind.  That was 5 seasons ago, and this team stinks now.
  • Northwestern or Miami(OH) - 11/26 - The reward for getting to the "finals" of the Cancun Challenge will be the "privilege" to play the winner of this game.  Believe it or not, I have many friends who graduated from Miami(OH) and they probably won't like hearing this, but the Redhawks are a bad team.  They went 13-18 last season and lost to every quality team they played.  The more likely winner of this game is Northwestern.  Finally!  A team from a major conference, right?  Well the Wildcats are still a sorry team.  They went 14-19 last season and even though they had a couple of decent conference wins, there's really no reason to believe they won't do worse this season.  This tournament should be burned with fire... or really radiation would be even better so that no one can come near the site for years and years.
  • Penn State - 12/3 - Virginia Tech gets to take part in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge this year!  That's the good news.  Through no accomplishment of the Hokies, the two conferences contain an even number of eligible opponents, so the Hokies will travel to Penn State to take on their equivalent in the Big Ten.  The bad news is that Penn State will likely finish even lower in the Big Ten than last season... there isn't much hope for the men's basketball team in State College.  The Nittany Lions went 16-18 last season and will likely be even worse this year.
  • West Virginia - 12/30 - Now this is finally a quality opponent, right?  The Mountaineers are seemingly always in the NCAA tournament over the past decade+ and should finally be a feather in the cap of our out-of-conference schedule.  Except that this WVU team is also in a rough patch.  They went a mediocre 17-16 last season with a couple of nice wins, but they lost to Virginia Tech of all teams (how embarrassing), and then they got hit with the transfer bug over the summer.  They lost their 2nd and 3rd leading scorers in Eron Harris and Terry Henderson.  They have a solid PG in Juwan Staten, a 4-star redshirt-freshman in Elijah Macon, and an exciting JUCO transfer in BillyDee Williams (!! let the Colt 45 flow!!), but I don't anticipate them finishing the season with a winning record given their losses.
So that's it everybody.  4 teams on the schedule to supposedly whet our appetites for the ACC schedule, but it's really a barren wasteland.  And this is where I start to get angry again.  This is the best you could do?  Was it deliberate?  I know that it's absurd to think that the Hokies could make the NCAA tournament this first season with Buzz Williams as the head coach, especially after the transfer of C.J. Barksdale, but don't you even want to give your players hope?  The way the NCAA selection committee works, you get absolutely nothing for beating bad teams, but if you lose to a bad team it's a gigantic pock mark on your resume.  Likewise, if you play a top-50 team and lose, it is not seen as a bad thing necessarily, but a win against such teams is counted as gold.  Why would you schedule a non-conference slate composed entirely of cupcakes?  What does that give your team?  You've killed any dream of theirs to make the NCAA tournament before the season begins, and you are not challenging your young players to improve until they reach the quality opponents in the conference slate.

So for next season, I am imploring you Buzz Williams and Whit Babcock, put some good teams in the non-conference schedule.  Let your team and your fans have dreams, regardless of how silly they are.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Let the Buzz Williams Era Begin!

I know we're in the heart of Virginia Tech football season, and honestly I have enjoyed this season so far with Michael Brewer at the helm, but I also got really excited today when I realized that the Buzz Williams era is less than a month away!  I think Coach Buzz would roll his eyes at a potential depth chart at this point in the year, but hey I'm no coach, so let's put one out for the fun of it:

PG: Devin Wilson, Malik Mueller
SG: Ahmed Hill, Adam Smith, Will Johnston
SF: Justin Bibbs, Jalen Hudson
PF: Shane Henry, Christian Beyer, Greg Donlon
C: Joey Van Zegeren, Satchel Pierce

The first thing you might notice is that there are a ton of new faces on this roster.  Mueller was on the team last year, but is an unfamiliar face because he was academically ineligible (nicely done NCAA!  We can't have students transferring from Germany without having any basket-weaving credits).  The redshirt will come off and Mueller will back up James Johnson's best find in sophomore point guard Devin Wilson.  RS-Junior Adam Smith missed half of last season with injuries, but he will return as the primary backup at shooting guard to offer some electricity off the bench.  Senior Will Johnston will see some minutes as our three-point specialist, but the majority of the minutes on the perimeter will go to freshmen.

Coach Buzz managed to lure two of his recruits from Marquette over to Virginia Tech, and the best of those two is shooting guard Ahmed Hill.  I am really high on this kid, I think he's going to be fantastic if his work ethic matches his raw talent.  Hill is 6'5" and crazy athletic.  He can handle, pass, shoot, slash, and finish at the rim with a monster dunk.  He can defend, get steals, and lead a fastbreak in transition.  I was pretty bummed about the transfer of Ben Emelogu until I got a chance to check out Hill.  He can really do everything you want at the guard position.  Hill is ranked #54 in ESPN's Top-100 recruits for 2014, but I honestly think that's too low.  He's a top-25 talent for sure, but I think the fact that he stayed at his local high school instead of going to one of the top prep academies is what hurt his rankings.

Tech adds another top-100 freshman in small forward Justin Bibbs.  Bibbs is not the freak athlete that Hill is, but the kid is a gamer.  Whether he is shooting (lefty) or driving to the hoop (either hand), he is a quality scorer and has really good size at 6'5" 210 lbs for a freshman perimeter player.  I am expecting that he will be the starter at small forward, but there's certainly a chance that freshman Jalen Hudson could claim that role.  Hudson is a bit undersized for small forward at 6'5" 195 lbs, but ESPN is high on him as a 4-star recruit (they're also high on Bibbs, ranking him 70th in their final Top-100 recruits for 2014).  Hudson is more athletic than Bibbs and can really get up in the air.  His jump shot looks great, but his handle may not be good enough to be more than a set shooter and fastbreak finisher right away.  Hudson is a graduate of St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron (LeBron James' alma mater).

I feel pretty safe in saying that the Hokies will outperform their 2-16 last-place finish in the ACC last year simply by upgrading coaches from James Johnson to Buzz Williams, but I don't think they will be quite as successful as I was originally expecting.  I knew Coach Buzz would shake things up and bring in some of his own guys, but I was pretty shocked when CJ Barksdale announced that he was transferring.  He has one year left of eligibility and he was the clear starter at power forward this season.  I don't think he transfers unless Buzz nudges him out the door, and that freed up a scholarship that was offered to and claimed by 2015 point guard recruit Justin Robinson.  The loss of Barksdale leaves our frontcourt paper thin... expect to see a healthy number of minutes going to walk-on power forwards Christian Beyer and Greg Donlon this season.  I am expecting that JUCO commit Shane Henry is going to be our starter at power forward.  He's (this has to be the third time I've said it) super-athletic, springy, rangy, active... a nice compliment to the less mobile centers on our team.  Henry is a talented shot-blocker and weak-side helper, but he also has some ability to finish around the basket and a nice looking jump shot that should only get more consistent with time.  If Henry comes in with a JUCO-level work ethic (and frankly I'm not expecting this), he may lose that starting job to a walk-on.  Christian Beyer is not a special athlete, but he's consistent.  He knows how to box out and grab rebounds.  He knows where he's supposed to be in the offense.  He knows how to keep his body in front of an offensive player and limit scoring opportunities.  He got better as a finisher around the rim as last season progressed, but he's really not much of a scoring threat.

The center position is locked up by Joey Van Zegeren.  Joey doesn't move quickly, but he does move decisively on defense and he is a very talented shot-blocker.  His presence around the rim affects three times as many shots as he blocks.  JVZ's offensive game is still improving, but it's not terrible.  He's not a great rebounder considering his size and leaping ability, and this is an area that could use some attention.  Backing him up, Buzz Williams brought in a traditional center in 7'0" 255lb freshman Satchel Pierce.  I'm already predicting that he gets called "Satchel Paige" over 50 times by TV announcers this season... it's bound to happen.  Mike Patrick, I'm looking squarely in your direction as the worst offender.  Pierce is a big body who will cause some trouble for offensive players who wander into the paint without a plan.  On offense, he has a nice array of moves around the hoop and a solid jumper that he can hit regularly (guessing his max range is about 15 feet away).  He moves pretty slowly and I don't anticipate he will be much of a factor on the break.

As you can see, the Hokies depth in the backcourt is young and their depth in the frontcourt is non-existent.  Coach Buzz will be looking towards the future.  Next season the Hokies will have the services of a big-time transfer from Maryland, SG Seth Allen, a decent PF transfer from South Florida, Zach LeDay, and two quality freshmen recruits in PG Justin Robinson and PF Kerry Blackshear, Jr.