ACC Preview: Virginia Tech’s Burning Question

Posted by Lathan Wells on October 22nd, 2014

Can Buzz Williams make Virginia Tech competitive quickly enough to fill the seats in Cassell Coliseum?

It’s no secret that Virginia Tech’s college basketball program is a distant second to its football program in Blacksburg. With that hurdle an annual one in terms of fan engagement, putting a subpar product on the floor has only further alienated whatever fan base the Hokies’ basketball team already had. While the team was modestly successful at times under Seth Greenberg, James Johnson’s two-year tenure was a complete disaster that kept fans away from the arena in droves. Last March new Athletic Director Whit Babcock made a splashy hire in hopes of changing the school and fans’ attitudes when he plucked rising star Buzz Williams away from Marquette. Williams took his Marquette teams to the NCAA Tournament five times in his six-year tenure, including three trips to the Sweet Sixteen or beyond. Williams has come into Blacksburg preaching toughness and attitude, putting together a “Boot Camp” aimed at toughening up his charges for the ACC gauntlet. While he reminded the nation that Virginia Tech actually has a basketball team while making a public relations tour during March Madness coverage, proving successful on the court in a competitive league will be a major challenge.

Buzz Williams hopes his enthusiasm helps reinvigorate a dormant Hokies fan base (credit:

Buzz Williams hopes his enthusiasm helps reinvigorate a dormant Hokies fan base (credit:

The Hokies return only four regulars from last year’s rotation, as a mass exodus of transfers and graduations greeted Williams at his new gig. The backcourt should be the team’s strength this year, with ACC all-freshman first team selection Devin Wilson returning to man the point. Adam Smith will likely man the other guard spot, and he will need to live up to his reputation as a lights-out long-distance shooter on a consistent basis. Malik Mueller is coming off of a redshirt campaign so there’s uncertainty there, but Williams did add to his backcourt depth by bringing signee Ahmed Hill along with him from Marquette. The immediate question mark for the Hokies will be in the frontcourt. Joey Van Zegeren will likely man the post after averaging career highs with 6.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per game a year ago. After that, newcomers will be asked to play heavy minutes. Shane Henry, a junior college recruit from Georgia Perimeter College, needs to contribute immediately. Freshman Satchel Pierce, another Williams recruit at Marquette who followed his coach southeast, will also be counted on to help stabilize an uncertain frontcourt. Clearly there is far more unknown than known about the Hokies’ crop of big men, meaning this team will lean heavily on its backcourt early and often.

While Williams carries the cachet of a big-name coach, he does not face enormous expectations in his first year in Blacksburg. The team has won just 10 conference games over the last three seasons, and has only visited the NCAA Tournament twice since 1986. This isn’t a program with much in the way of basketball history, so Williams will be given some time to make some. The main indicator that he’s on track, in addition to winning basketball games, will be coaxing back fans to Cassell Coliseum. The school averaged a pathetic 4,812 fans per home game last year (less than half of Cassell’s capacity), down from 6,202 per game in Johnson’s inaugural year at the helm and the 8,395 that Greenberg enjoyed in his final campaign. The precipitous drop in attendance has aligned with the precipitous drop in performance, but it’s still startling that so few fans came out to see their team meet national powers in the new-look ACC. Compare those numbers to the last successful year (2006-07) for the Hokies, when they finished third in the conference and made it to the NCAA Tournament’s second round: Virginia Tech averaged 9,822 fans in the seats. Clearly if there is a product worth watching, there is a dormant fan base that can be cajoled into coming out to watch it.

More than likely the Hokies are still a cellar-dweller in the ACC this season, but there is finally some reason for optimism. Maryland transfer Seth Allen will be able to participate next year after sitting out this season, and Williams has already received commitments from some solid recruits in the 2015 class. This year will prove to be more of the same in Blacksburg, although Williams is clearly a better strategist than Johnson and could coach a few more wins out of an overachieving bunch. The primary question remains in that how many fans will actually be present to witness them?

Lathan Wells (77 Posts)

A 30-year old unabashed college basketball fan, I currently reside in Richmond, Virginia. I especially enjoy following the ACC and the local teams, VCU and the University of Richmond. I hope to continue my journalistic pursuits in the sports arena full-time in the future, but in the meantime I am really enjoying covering the greatest sport there is for RTC. Follow me on Twitter @prohibitivefav.

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