ANAHEIM, Calif. — As referees struggled to coax a pair of young ball boys into mopping up a wet spot underneath the basket last Sunday afternoon, Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams began to grow impatient.
“Let’s solve this,” he screamed from the sideline. “Our guys know how to wipe.”
Seconds later, a Virginia Tech player grabbed a towel, dropped to his knees and began scrubbing the floor. It was a perfect example of the selfless, blue-collar mentality Williams has instilled in his players while transforming the Hokies from perennial laughingstock to budding NCAA tournament contender.
When Williams made the stunning decision to leave Marquette and come to Virginia Tech in March 2014, the Hokies were in the midst of a stretch of four straight last-place finishes in the ACC. Not only did they make an improbable eight-game leap in the league standings last season, they’re also poised to take another step forward this year.
Virginia Tech improved to 6-1 on Wednesday night at Michigan by storming back from a 10-point deficit in the final eight minutes. The Hokies also finished third at the Wooden Legacy tournament last weekend, bracketing a frustrating late collapse against Texas A&M with convincing victories over New Mexico and Nebraska.
The way that Virginia Tech is winning is as noteworthy as the victories themselves. There are no McDonald’s All-Americans or surefire NBA prospects on the Hokies’ roster — just a collection of high-character, hard-working four-year recruits and transfers who have wholeheartedly embraced Williams’ intellectual curiosity, nonstop energy and tough love.
“Everybody on this team is unselfish,” senior forward Zach LeDay said. “We’re all coming together for a common goal, and that’s winning. Everyone has stories. We all come from different backgrounds. But we all come together to make one tough, hard-nosed team.”
Virginia Tech’s rapid improvement has validated Williams’ decision to come to Blacksburg, a head-scratching career move that left many grasping for explanations at the time.
Whereas tradition-rich Marquette had reached the Sweet 16 three times in Williams’ six seasons at the school, Virginia Tech had only made the NCAA tournament twice since 1986. Worse yet, the Hokies’ path to relevance had just become even tougher with ex-Big East stalwarts Syracuse, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame joining traditional powers Duke and North Carolina in the ACC.
The most common explanation for Williams’ move is that instability at Marquette chased him out.
Marquette had a leadership vacuum at the time of Williams’ departure as the university president, provost and athletic director all had “interim” as part of their job titles. The old Big East had also just disbanded, raising concerns that remaining members could be at a major disadvantage compared to Power 5 programs with football revenue and more visibility on ESPN.
The way Williams tells it, concerns about Marquette’s future were not the catalyst for his move. Williams instead relished the challenge of seeing if his methods would work at a moribund program that had seldom tasted success before.
“There was nothing that transpired at Marquette that made me want to leave, not the administrative changes there or anything relative to the league,” Williams said. “My last child was born at Marquette. We built an incredible house there. We had a great church there. We have great friends there that we still talk to all the time.
“Everyone has a different thought about what a good job is or what a bad job is. Because of how I grew up and how I came up in this business, I was intrigued to find out if what we do would work at a situation where everyone knew it was on its knees. I wanted to know if we could breathe life into a program.”
Virginia Tech’s underdog standing appealed to Williams because of his own humble origins. Williams has long viewed himself as an long shot in his own profession since he didn’t play basketball beyond high school, nor did he hail from a famous coaching tree.
A native of tiny Van Alstyne, Texas, Williams worked odd jobs mowing yards, bailing hay and filling fence holes to pay for college. He started in basketball as a student manager at Navarro College, where his responsibilities included washing clothes and sweeping the gym floor.
When Williams worked basketball camps each summer at Navarro and NAIA Oklahoma City University, he’d ask the college coaches he met for a mailing address or phone number. Williams kept in touch by writing them letters, a process that eventually helped him break into the coaching profession as an assistant at Texas-Arlington in 1994.
How Williams runs his program is a reflection of his unassuming background.
Instead of selling recruits with grandiose gestures and false promises the way some competitors do, Williams is straightforward and direct with prospects or their parents. He also values character and work ethic in recruits as much as he does elite talent.
LeDay, who averaged a modest 4.1 points and 2.5 rebounds as a sophomore at South Florida, has developed into an all-league-caliber player the past two seasons at Virginia Tech. He and former Maryland transfer Seth Allen are the Hokies’ most accomplished players, yet neither has complained whatsoever about coming off the bench this season.
“It just speaks to who they are,” Williams said. “Those kids are redshirt seniors. They were two of the first kids we signed. It’s not just that they haven’t said anything. There’s never been any body language to suggest they’re unhappy either.”
While many of the previous staff’s players couldn’t handle Williams’ demanding coaching style and transferred within the first year of his tenure, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Twelve of the 13 players on Virginia Tech’s season-opening roster last year were Williams’ recruits. Guards Chris Clarke, Ahmed Hill and Justin Robinson are among those who benefited from an accelerated learning curve because they had no choice but to play right away as freshmen.
Since he has an array of talented guards and swingmen this season but no proven big men, Williams has implemented a system designed to highlight Virginia Tech’s strengths and hide its weaknesses. The Hokies attack bigger, slower defenders off the dribble on offense and compensate for their lack of height with constant activity and aggressive ball pressure on defense.
“They don’t have a tremendous amount of size, but Buzz has found a style of play that fits them this year,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “I just think his commitment to the players is second to none. He’s an excellent recruiter and his staff does a great job too. He’s going to keep building that thing better and better and better.”
The better Virginia Tech gets, the less people question Williams’ sanity for leaving Marquette. In a sport where good teams typically stay good and bad ones typically stay bad, Williams has a long-struggling Hokies program poised for a rare period of sustained success.
“The hardest thing to do in business or sports is to completely flip something upside down,” Williams said. “We haven’t fully flipped it yet, but I think we’re in the process of doing that.”
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