Defensive improvement gave Virginia Tech a big lift late in the regular season, helping the Hokies reach the 10-win plateau for the third consecutive season in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference.
Virginia Tech also made its second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the first time it has done that since 1985-86.
That’s the good news. The bad news is the Hokies were eliminated in the first round of the tourney for the second straight year, falling to Alabama 86-83.
But coach Buzz Williams believes the program is heading in the right direction.
The Hokies have plenty of talent coming back, led b by rising senior point guard Justin Robinson, who led the Hokies in scoring this season (14.0), rising sophomore shooting guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker (10.7 ppg) and big man Kerry Blackshear Jr. (12.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg).
They also have versatile Chris Clarke, their best defender, and Ahmed Hill, who was their top scorer until his defensive lapses caused Williams to bench him in favor of Wilson for the season’s final 10 games.
The Hokies lost Ty Outlaw, one of the best 3-point shooters in the nation, to a ruptured ACL before the season, and will get him and 6-foot-10 sophomore Khadim Sy back. Sy he sat out this season for undisclosed reasons.
“I think what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it, is right, and I think that we’ve got a lot of people inside and outside the program that are pulling in the same direction,” Williams said. “In this day and age, that’s really hard.”
The next step, he added, is not only getting to the tournament, but winning games.
“Getting here is incredibly hard and we’re very thankful for that and we are striving to continue to get better,” Williams said. “I think the maneuverability in our league is really difficult, too. And obviously, I think that’s great prep for this. But the higher you go, the altitude changes. It’s harder to breathe.
“And so we need to continue to get reps at that, and I wish — I thought tonight was a great — a great game, and just didn’t come out on the end we wanted to.”
The Hokies will lose fifth-year senior guard Devin Wilson and senior Justin Bibbs, both of whom were on Williams’ first team with the Hokies four years ago. That team finished 11-22 overall and just 2-16 in the ACC.
This season’s success included victories against tournament top seed Virginia, North Carolina, Duke and Clemson, all of whom finished in the top 10 of the Ratings Percentage Index, one of the key tools used to evaluate teams by the NCAA Selection Committee.
Wilson wasn’t ready to do too much reflecting after the loss, but acknowledged that progress has been made.
“It definitely doesn’t feel good, but, you know, the body of work that we’ve accomplished since we’ve been here, you can kind of hold your head high to that and kind of focus on that,” he said.
Williams, now 74-60 at Virginia Tech, said the two seniors helped lay the groundwork for success.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to repay them as far as how hard they’ve worked and how they’ve represented our program, on and off the floor,” he said. “We’ll miss those guys, not just in the stat sheet. We’ll miss their character. We’ll miss their spirit. We’ll miss their work ethic. We’ll miss their leadership.”
By HANK KURZ Jr., AP Sports Writer
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