Members of the ACC media weren't overly optimistic about Virginia Tech receiving a "Buzz Bump" in year two of the Williams era, picking the Hokies to finish next-to-last in the 15-team conference before the start of the 2015-16 season. That lack of faith wasn't met with much push back, which was understandable.
While Tech had competed well against some of the top teams in the ACC during their first season under Williams, they had still finished the 2014-15 campaign with a 2-16 league record and 22 overall losses, numbers that mirrored the ones that had gotten James Johnson fired the year before. Fans in Blacksburg were hoping for at least a marginal step forward in year two, or at the very least, a sign that things might eventually improve for a program that hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament in a decade and hasn't won more than one game in the big dance since 1967.
While Williams didn't snap the Hokies' streak of March Madness absences, he did engineer the largest single-season turnaround in the 63-year history of the ACC. Virginia Tech went 10-8 in the conference (its first winning league record since 2011), and won 20 games for the first time in five years. They notched a pair of top-10 wins over No. 4 Virginia and No. 7 Miami, swept their season series with Florida State, and scored solid wins over Pitt, NC State and UAB.
Even while the team was reinvigorating its fan base last winter, there was always a sense that the best was yet to come.
The Hokies return nearly every key rotational player from the 2015-16 team, including leading scorers Zach LeDay (15.5 points per game/7.9 rebounds per game), Seth Allen (14.7 ppg) and Justin Bibbs (11.7 ppg). Junior guard Jalen Hudson (8.4 ppg) transferred to Florida, and backup point guard Devin Wilson (2.2 assists per game) will miss at least a portion of the season after choosing to join the Virginia Tech football team as a wide receiver, but those holes should be easily filled by the returns of Ahmed Hill and Ty Outlaw and the additions of freshmen Khadim Sy and Tyrie Jackson.
After Williams became the first coach in ACC history to take a last-place team and turn them into a team that won eight or more games in league play the next season, there was understandable concern among Tech fans that he might bolt for a seemingly greener pasture (or a seemingly less green pasture given his career arc). TCU reportedly came calling, and conference brethren Oklahoma State expressed interest as well. In the end, Williams decided his work at Virginia Tech was far from over, and that's the biggest reason the Hokies find themselves in SB Nation's preseason top 25.
C Kerry Blackshear Jr., sophomore
F Zach LeDay, senior
SF Chris Clarke, sophomore
SG Justin Bibbs, junior
PG Justin Robinson, sophomore
Key reserves: G Seth Allen (senior), G Ahmed Hill (junior), G Devin Wilson (senior), F Khadim Sy (freshman), G Ty Outlaw (junior), C Johnny Hamilton (senior), G Tyrie Jackson (freshman)
How Virginia Tech can succeed: By taking advantage of their superior athleticism in the backcourt and on the wing
Unless it's coming out of a timeout or off an inbounds pass, Buzz Williams isn't big on set plays. His talented group of transfers and freshmen last season allowed Williams to utilize a style that wasn't really an option in his first season at Virginia Tech. Once the Hokies gelled midway through last season they thrived by having multiple ball handlers on the floor at all times (Allen, Robinson, Bibbs, Wilson), and athletic wings that could make defenders miserable coming off of screens (LeDay, Hudson, Clarke).
When Tech started attacking the rim more in conference play, the team became more and more difficult to defend for ACC foes. Allen, a transfer from Maryland, shot just 28 percent from beyond the arc last season, but was the team's second-leading scorer thanks in large part to his ability to penetrate and get to the free throw line. He attempted 219 freebies last season (95 more than he'd attempted during his two seasons as a Terp combined) and made nearly 78 percent of them. Leading scorer Zach LeDay also attempted more than 200 free throws, and freshman guard Justin Robinson took 115.
Virginia Tech's combination of speedy guards and athletic wings made them a nightmare to defend, and that should be the case again in 2016-17, especially with the returns of Ty Outlaw and Ahmed Hill.
Outlaw was supposed to make an immediate impact last season after transferring in from junior college, but an undisclosed medical condition forced him to sit out the entire year. He averaged 21.8 ppg at Lee College in Baytown, Texas, where he shot 43.5 percent from behind the three-point line. That outside shooting could provide an enormous boost for a Tech team that was very pedestrian from the perimeter last season.
After recovering fully from a partial tear to the patella tendon in his left leg, Hill is ready to pick up on the promise he showed as a Hokie freshman in 2014-15. He started in 30 of the team's 33 games that season, averaging 8.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. He was pegged by many to be one of the ACC's biggest breakout sophomore stars, a status he now hopes to attain a year behind schedule.
How Virginia Tech can go home early: By not finding a legitimate post presence
Just two teams in the ACC ranked lower than Virginia Tech in rebounding margin last season (Syracuse and Boston College), and just two teams blocked fewer shots (Virginia and Boston College).
Senior Johnny Hamilton is the only true center on the Hokie roster with any playing experience, and he averaged just 7.3 minutes per game last season and doesn't figure to see that number jump dramatically in 2016-17. LeDay's energy and athleticism allowed him to average nearly eight rebounds per game, but the fact that team's most effective players on the glass were a 6'7 forward and a 6'5 guard (Clarke) were painfully obvious when Virginia Tech played teams with a legitimate post presence.
While sophomore Kerry Blackshear Jr. (6.2 ppg/4.5 rpg) will likely be the big man who gets the first crack at starting in the middle for the Hokies, Oak Hill Academy product Khadim Sy will be a player to watch. The 6'9 Sy was known as a skilled rebounder with great hands in high school, a pair of commodities that might demand immediate playing time, despite his skinny frame.