DAVE KNACHEL/VIRGINIA TECH Buzz Williams, who came to Virginia Tech from Marquette, is conducting a boot camp to unify his team.
BLACKSBURG — After a couple of months working out with the new assistant coaches, Virginia Tech’s basketball players thought they had a good idea what to expect from new head coach Buzz Williams.
“We had summer workouts with the assistant coaches and we thought they were hard,” redshirt freshman guard Malik Muller said. “September started and Buzz started working us out. We kind of got to understand what it means to work hard.”
And Muller and his teammates expect that to go up a notch this week. The Hokies opened what Williams calls “boot camp” Monday, 10-14 days of workouts designed to build team chemistry and identify team leaders.
“It’s something that’s going to break us to make us,” junior center Joey van Zegeren said. “It’s going to make us tougher for the season.”
The players said Williams hasn’t really told them what boot camp will entail. He’s been focused on finishing the individual and small group workouts the team has been doing five days a week for the past month.
Van Zegeren said the players did some research online to see what Williams did with his Marquette teams, but still aren’t quite sure what they’ll be doing the new two weeks.
Accounts from Marquette players describe the sessions as forcing groups of teammates to work together to utilize their different skill sets to complete exhausting drills in a tight time frame. Don’t finish on time, and you do it again.
Williams has a bell hanging on the wall in Tech’s practice gym. Players can ring the bell if they wish to tap-out of a drill.
Does anyone ever do so?
“For sure,” Williams said.
Van Zegeren said Williams has “kind of explained that it’s going to be a lot of mental toughness and getting through stuff as a team. But no one is really too sure what to expect.”
Williams said there is “zero x’s and o’s” and that conditioning, while part of boot camp, isn’t the focal point.
“That’s where our team is formed,” said Williams, who was 139-69 with five NCAA tournament appearances at Marquette before leaving to take over the Hokies. “I don’t know that any sort of words or adjectives can describe what it is. That’ll be all brand new to them.”
So much of what Tech’s players have experienced since Williams was hired in March has been new.
Coming off three straight last-place finishes in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Hokies will play for their third coach in the past four years. Williams took over for the fired James Johnson, who went 22-41 in two seasons.
Five players left the program in the offseason. Guard Ben Emelogu, centers Trevor Thompson and Maurice Kirby and forward Marshall Wood transferred, while injury-plagued forward C.J. Barksdale left the team but remains in school.
Tech added four freshmen and a junior college transfer who can play this season, and two more transfers (Maryland guard Seth Allen and South Florida forward Zach LeDay) who must sit out under NCAA rules and will be eligible in 2015-16.
Williams understands he has an undersized and thin roster, one that would seem to dictate lots of three- and even four-guard lineups, but said he hasn’t made any determinations as to how the Hokies will play this year.
“It’s still September,” Williams said. “Long before you get to x’s and o’s, everybody needs to know who each of us are as competitors, before, ‘Can you run this play?’ We use this time of year to figure out who we are and what gives us the best chance.”
The coaching change appears to have, at least somewhat, energized the Virginia Tech fan base. Athletic director Whit Babcock said the school already has sold more season tickets for the coming season than it did all of last year.
“He’s incredibly driven, probably at an unhealthy level, by his own admission,” Babcock said. “I’ve never seen a coach with a motor like that. I don’t think he ever turns it off.”
The players said they appreciate Williams’ coaching style.
“It took us a little time to get used to the workouts at first, but I think we adjusted really well,” junior guard Adam Smith said. “Now we’re rolling. The drills, they change every day, but everything is tough. Everything is hard work.”
As for Williams, he’s been happy with his players’ effort but still thinks they’re a ways off of practicing the way he wants.
“They’re trying as hard as they can,” Williams said. “The consistency is not the way any of us would want it. Not just me as a coach, I think even them as players. They understand the standard that we want to work from.”