After one heartbreaking loss, Virginia Tech braces for another

WASHINGTON – The official sound of a losing locker room in the NCAA tournament is the ripping of Velcro. After No. 4 Virginia Tech’s heartbreaking loss at the buzzer to No. 1 Duke on Friday night, players waded through the piles of ankle tape, dirty socks and unlaced Jordans to remove souvenirs from the locker room wall – nameplates, NCAA signs and the final keepsakes of a historic season.

There were red eyes, drooped heads and expressions of shock after Hokie senior Ahmed Hill missed a lob pass at the buzzer that would have forced overtime in the 75-73 loss. And that meant immediate and reluctant focus on loss – the game, the careers of three senior stars and, potentially, their head coach.

The most compelling of those is the status of Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams, who has been considered the prime target for the Texas A&M job for months. A&M fired Billy Kennedy in mid-March, but the buzz about Buzz has been a persistent soundtrack to this entire coaching cycle. And the lack of denials continue to be deafening.

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Yahoo Sports asked Williams about his future in the hallways of the Capital One Center early Saturday morning. When asked if Williams could say definitively if he’d return to Virginia Tech next season, he declined to answer. That was the most telling part of the exchange. When given a forum to clearly state his intention to return, he declined. “I don’t think there’s an answer to that when I have no evidence other than what you guys have writing,” he told Yahoo Sports.

He added when asked about how he’ll handle the next steps of his future: “I have no idea. All that’s been created by you guys. I don’t address it. I don’t think there’s an appropriate way to address.”

Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams yells across the court to his players during the first half of the team's NCAA men's college basketball tournament East Region semifinal against Duke in Washington, Friday, March 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams yells across the court to his players during the first half of the team's NCAA men's college basketball tournament East Region semifinal against Duke in Washington, Friday, March 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock, in a different hallway well after midnight, struck the tone of an athletic director hoping his coach would stay but not naïve to the notion that he could leave. Babcock said that he’d not been formally contacted by anyone at Texas A&M to speak to Williams. “I don’t know that that always happens anymore. I don’t want to speculate, I haven’t heard from anyone.”

Babcock added: “He and I have talked a number of times, and I’m sure we will very soon. We love having him in Blacksburg and I think he likes it there. But I ultimately don’t know what he will decide. But I’m really proud of the focus he had, and the team and the effort. Hopefully he’s with us a long time.”

The expectation of Williams leaving for Texas A&M has been fueled by the silence of that school’s search. No rumors, interviews or buzz. Just Buzz. The speculation is so refined that it’s expected that LSU interim coach Tony Benford, who lost in the same building tonight, will join him as an assistant. (Benford worked for Williams at Marquette, where he was eventually elevated to assistant head coach before leaving for North Texas in 2012.)

Babcock has been gathering background on candidates as protection. Sources indicated he began calling around to put together a list just in case after the ACC tournament. While that diligence appears wise, there’s also the notion that Williams is nothing if not unpredictable. Who thought he’d leave Marquette for Virginia Tech when he did in 2014? Williams has gone 100-69 in five seasons, leading the school to three consecutive NCAA tournaments for the first time in a half-century. The expectation remains with him departing soon to his native state.

In the locker room, the pain from the loss could be seen in Justin Robinson’s empty gaze and the uncertainty in the eyes of assistant Christian Webster. Tech had come so close, as an inbound play that Tech assistant Jamie McNeilly drew up impromptu in the huddle led to a wide-open lob play.

“You could never ask for a better look, especially for a guy like [Hill],” said sophomore guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker. “Five times I’m going to go with it, and I guarantee we’ll score four.”

McNeilly drew up a simple rub screen that allowed Hill to break free cutting to the basket after he looped around the pick on the opposite post. That left Duke freshman Zion Williamson chasing him, which would have made the moment even more magic – scoring the game-tying basket on college basketball’s most transcendent player.

But Hill short-armed the shot. After the game, he denied that the threat of Williamson chasing him had an impact.

“[Robinson] threw a great pass and I just came up short,” Hill said. “And that was about it. I wasn't worried about anything. I just tried to get my eyes locked on the rim and it just bounced to the left.”

Williams told the players in the locker room that the game ended cruelly but fittingly – with Tech seniors Robinson, Ty Outlaw and Hill taking the final three shots.

“Our seniors took the last three shots of the game,” Webster said. “Those are the guys who put us in the position and took the program to new heights. Those guys took the last three, you’ll live with it.”

Webster said the staff has been given no indication from Williams about his decision. He agreed with a reporter’s point that if he was definitively staying it would have been cleared up at some point in the last two weeks, but said the main feeling was uncertainty. “I don’t even know what to say about that,” he said. “It’s all rumors right now.”

How long it will take the rumors to disappear or become reality is now the biggest question looming over Virginia Tech’s program. “I’m not too sure,” said Tech sophomore guard Wabissa Bede. “Not my issue. That’s coach’s thing.”

As a team overcome by heartbreak and uncertainty walked out of the building on Saturday morning, the forecast was trending toward more loss. The souvenirs pulled from the Velcro on the walls could well mark the end of an era.

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