STICK SHIFT

Vir­ginia Tech stay­ing with de­fen­sive switch that car­ried team late last year

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - SPORTS - BY MIKE BAR­BER

“We com­pletely threw away ev­ery­thing we had done de­fen­sively af­ter Mi­ami beat us [last Fe­bru­ary]. It was all brand new.” Vir­ginia Tech men’s bas­ket­ball coach Buzz Wil­liams, on the sys­tem the Hok­ies switched to that clogs the paint

LBLACKSBURG ate last sea­son, with his Vir­ginia Tech team strug­gling on the de­fen­sive end of the floor, Buzz Wil­liams made a dra­matic change. He scrapped the true man-to-man scheme he has fa­vored since his time at Mar­quette and fo­cused on an ap­proach with more help on the perime­ter.

In­stead of deny­ing the lane, the Hok­ies clogged the paint.

The re­sult? Tech held its op­po­nents to 66.3 points per game af­ter the switch and re­turned to the NCAA tour­na­ment.

“I think the new de­fense, that’s our iden­tity now,” se­nior for­ward Ahmed Hill said. “That’s how we’re go­ing to run things from now on. It’s still kind of man-to-man, but we just help more. It’s how you fly around and guard the ball as hard as you can. It’s still the man prin­ci­ples, but with cer­tain things you’ve got to help.”

If Wil­liams didn’t ex­actly throw the baby out with the bath­wa­ter, he cer­tainly re­mod­eled the en­tire bath­room. The new fixed-up prod­uct would have made “Flip or Flop” proud.

“We com­pletely threw away ev­ery­thing we had done

de­fen­sively af­ter Mi­ami beat us,” Wil­liams said. “It was all brand new.”

And it’s how he plans to open the sea­son when No. 15 Tech tips off Fri­day night at home against Gard­ner Webb.

“Go­ing into this sea­son all of our prep … has been to­wards how we closed down the sea­son de­fen­sively,” Wil­liams said.

It was an 84-75 loss to Mi­ami in Blacksburg on Feb. 3 that prompted the change.

Af­ter that, prac­tices fo­cused al­most ex­clu­sively on de­fense. Line­ups re­flected the new em­pha­sis. Se­nior point guard Devin Wil­son be­came a starter. Se­nior wing Justin Bibbs saw an in­crease in min­utes. Why? Those two were the team’s best de­fend­ers, both on the ball and in terms of help­ing.

Af­ter al­low­ing 84 to the Hur­ri­canes in that di­rec­tion-shift­ing loss, Tech didn’t al­low an op­po­nent more than 75 un­til its first-round NCAA loss, 86-83 to Alabama.

Tech fin­ished the reg­u­lar sea­son by win­ning five of its last eight games. That stretch in­cluded a road win over then-No. 2 Vir­ginia and home wins over na­tion­ally ranked Duke and Clem­son.

The Hok­ies gave up an av­er­age of 73.7 points through their first 23 con­tests. Af­ter the Mi­ami beat­ing and the switch on de­fense, that num­ber dropped to 66.3 over the fi­nal eight reg­u­lar-sea­son games, help­ing Tech make it back to the NCAA tour­na­ment for the sec­ond straight sea­son — its first con­sec­u­tive NCAA bids since 1985 and 1986.

Wil­son and Bibbs were both se­niors. This pre­sea­son, Wil­liams ran a film ses­sion de­signed to high­light what that duo brought to the de­fense and em­pha­size what it would take to re­place them. Add in se­nior for­ward Chris Clarke’s in­def­i­nite sus­pen­sion, and it’s likely Hill will get many more min­utes this sea­son.

Last year, Hill, by his own as­sess­ment, strug­gled with the tran­si­tion to the new de­fense. His of­fense suf­fered and his min­utes dropped.

“I wasn’t com­fort­able when we first started,” Hill said. “I had to watch a whole lot of film. I’ve been work­ing on learn­ing new ro­ta­tions, new spots, and I think I’ve im­proved.”

Se­nior wing Ty Out­law said the team also has a match-up zone and other de­fenses it can sprin­kle in this sea­son as well.

“Our coaches don’t like to have [a] steady diet of any­thing,” Out­law said. “They like to have an en­sem­ble of things to throw at you. We have match-up zones, tra­di­tional zones, press zones.”

Wil­liams has rapidly trans­formed Tech bas­ket­ball, tak­ing the Hok­ies from the cel­lar of the ACC to be­ing com­pet­i­tive in the na­tion’s most com­pet­i­tive con­fer­ence. He’s done it with an al­mostun­matched will­ing­ness to change his team, from year to year, week to week and even game to game.

Of­fen­sively, his first two years fo­cused on get­ting to the free throw line, driv­ing hard to the bas­ket on al­most ev­ery pos­ses­sion. The past two have re­lied on 3-point shoot­ing, get­ting pen­e­tra­tion with the idea of kick­ing it out for 3-point­ers.

But it was last year’s de­fen­sive shift that was per­haps his most dra­matic, un­ex­pected and im­por­tant coach­ing ma­neu­ver.

And he’s pre­pared to adapt again.

“I’m cu­ri­ous if, within how we play de­fen­sively, as teams ad­just to that be­com­ing a steady diet, how can we make tweaks to that rel­a­tive to the op­po­nent rel­a­tive to ballscreen cov­er­age, rel­a­tive even to per­son­nel,” Wil­liams said. “I don’t have the an­swer to that yet.”

His­tory in­di­cates he’ll find it.

Vir­ginia Tech’s Justin Robinson, reach­ing for a ball against Clem­son’s Mar­c­quise Reed in a game last sea­son, is now a se­nior. Robinson and the Hok­ies surged late last sea­son af­ter chang­ing their de­fen­sive scheme.

MATT GEN­TRY/THE ROANOKE TIMES

MATT GEN­TRY/THE ROANOKE TIMES

Vir­ginia Tech’s Ahmed Hill (bot­tom) said he ini­tially strug­gled with the team’s tran­si­tion to a new de­fense from its tra­di­tional man-to-man scheme in Fe­bru­ary.

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