BLACKSBURG — Never afraid to change, Buzz Williams made a dramatic course correction a month ago.
The result? He’s led Virginia Tech back to the NCAA tournament for a second year in a row.
“We knew that we had to change,” junior wing Ahmed Hill said. “Our great coaches came up with an idea and we went with it. Now, we’re going to the dance. That’s who we are now.”
It took Williams about two years to transform Tech from the ACC’s worst program, a team with four consecutive last-place finishes, to a competitive force in the nation’s most competitive conference.
Last month, the Hokies underwent an even more rapid transformation, going from a fast-paced, turnover-prone, defensive cheesecloth to a pack-the-lane defensive wall and a team that protected the basketball.
After giving up 84 points to Miami in a home loss on Feb. 3, Williams reinvented Tech.
He altered his team’s focus. Defense became the priority. Practices focused on that end of the floor, where the Hokies began jamming the lane, making it harder and harder for teams to penetrate against them.
Senior guard Devin Wilson, a defensive specialist, replaced junior wing Ahmed Hill in the starting lineup.
And it worked.
Tech was giving up 73.7 points per game through the first 23 games of the season. Since the Miami loss, the Hokies have cut that number to 66.8. Opponents shot 49 percent against the Hokies through the game against the Hurricanes. They’ve shot 41.6 percent since.
“We knew if we didn’t change something up on the defensive end, it was going to be a terrible season,” junior forward Chris Clarke said. “So I think it was just a good coaching adjustment.”
Williams feared it may have come too late, but with the transformed Tech picking up wins over No. 1 Virginia and No. 5 Duke during the last month of the regular season, it earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Hokies open play Thursday against Alabama in Pittsburgh.
“After the Miami game, we watched film and he apologized to us all,”’ junior point guard Justin Robinson said. “He said it was bad coaching for him not making this change sooner.”
One of Williams’ strengths as a coach is his willingness to adjust and adapt — year by year, game to game. Rules change. Williams changes. Matchups present new challenges. Williams finds new answers.
His first two seasons, the Hokies were a race-up-the-floor, drive-to-the-rim team. One of their key statistics was free throws attempted. In Year 2, when Williams guided Tech to the NIT, the team took the fourth most free throws in the nation (964).
Last year, when Clarke suffered a knee injury, Williams shifted the offense from attacking the rim to shooting more 3-pointers. The Hokies went to the NCAA tournament.
Then came this season. Tech tore through its relatively weak nonconference schedule, going 11-2 and averaging 91.3 points. The Hokies led the nation in scoring for much of December.
But they also turned the ball over too much. They averaged 12.5 turnovers after the Miami loss. Since then, they’ve cut that number to 10.4.
That ball security combined with their enhanced defensive prowess is a start. But the players said their transformation isn’t done. There’s more to improve if Tech is going to avoid being one-and-done in the tournament as it was a year ago.
“It says a lot, just how midseason we changed the way we play,” senior guard Justin Bibbs said. “But we’ve got to continue to get better.”