BLACKSBURG — Late last season, with his Virginia Tech team struggling on the defensive end of the floor, Buzz Williams made a dramatic change. He scrapped the true man-to-man scheme he has favored since his time at Marquette and focused on an approach with more help on the perimeter.
Instead of denying the lane, the Hokies clogged the paint.
The result? Tech held its opponents to 66.3 points per game after the switch and returned to the NCAA tournament.
“I think the new defense, that’s our identity now,” senior forward Ahmed Hill said. “That’s how we’re going to run things from now on. It’s still kind of man-to-man, but we just help more. It’s how you fly around and guard the ball as hard as you can. It’s still the man principles, but with certain things you’ve got to help.”
If Williams didn’t exactly throw the baby out with the bathwater, he certainly remodeled the entire bathroom. The new fixed-up product would have made “Flip or Flop” proud.
“We completely threw away everything we had done defensively after Miami beat us,” Williams said. “It was all brand new.”
And it’s how he plans to open the season when No. 15 Tech tips off Friday night at home against Gardner Webb.
“Going into this season all of our prep … has been towards how we closed down the season defensively,” Williams said.
It was an 84-75 loss to Miami in Blacksburg on Feb. 3 that prompted the change.
After that, practices focused almost exclusively on defense. Lineups reflected the new emphasis. Senior point guard Devin Wilson became a starter. Senior wing Justin Bibbs saw an increase in minutes. Why? Those two were the team’s best defenders, both on the ball and in terms of helping.
After allowing 84 to the Hurricanes in that direction-shifting loss, Tech didn’t allow an opponent more than 75 until its first-round NCAA loss, 86-83 to Alabama.
Tech finished the regular season by winning five of its last eight games. That stretch included a road win over then-No. 2 Virginia and home wins over nationally ranked Duke and Clemson.
The Hokies gave up an average of 73.7 points through their first 23 contests. After the Miami beating and the switch on defense, that number dropped to 66.3 over the final eight regular-season games, helping Tech make it back to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season — its first consecutive NCAA bids since 1985 and 1986.
Wilson and Bibbs were both seniors. This preseason, Williams ran a film session designed to highlight what that duo brought to the defense and emphasize what it would take to replace them. Add in senior forward Chris Clarke’s indefinite suspension, and it’s likely Hill will get many more minutes this season.
Last year, Hill, by his own assessment, struggled with the transition to the new defense. His offense suffered and his minutes dropped.
“I wasn’t comfortable when we first started,” Hill said. “I had to watch a whole lot of film. I’ve been working on learning new rotations, new spots, and I think I’ve improved.”
Senior wing Ty Outlaw said the team also has a match-up zone and other defenses it can sprinkle in this season as well.
“Our coaches don’t like to have [a] steady diet of anything,” Outlaw said. “They like to have an ensemble of things to throw at you. We have match-up zones, traditional zones, press zones.”
Williams has rapidly transformed Tech basketball, taking the Hokies from the cellar of the ACC to being competitive in the nation’s most competitive conference. He’s done it with an almost-unmatched willingness to change his team, from year to year, week to week and even game to game.
Offensively, his first two years focused on getting to the free throw line, driving hard to the basket on almost every possession. The past two have relied on 3-point shooting, getting penetration with the idea of kicking it out for 3-pointers.
But it was last year’s defensive shift that was perhaps his most dramatic, unexpected and important coaching maneuver.
And he’s prepared to adapt again.
“I’m curious if, within how we play defensively, as teams adjust to that becoming a steady diet, how can we make tweaks to that relative to the opponent relative to ball-screen coverage, relative even to personnel,” Williams said. “I don’t have the answer to that yet.”
History indicates he’ll find it.