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.

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