You can say this for new Virginia Tech head basketball coach Buzz Williams; the man must enjoy a challenge. Because if he is going to find a way to make the Hokies a consistent winner, he will have successfully defeated one heck of a challenge. Williams was named the new college basketball coach in Blacksburg on Mar. 21, replacing James Johnson. The switch at Virginia Tech and the departure of Williams from Marquette probably came at a good time for both.
Under Johnson, the Hokies never found any sort of traction in the ACC, going a horrid 6-30 in two seasons in conference play, while Virginia Tech finished 22-41 overall (.349 winning percentage). Johnson was the replacement for Seth Greenberg, now a popular studio analyst on ESPN, who had everything you could want in personality and at the very least allowed Virginia Tech to contend occasionally, as the Hokies finished third or fourth in the ACC during his tenure. Greenberg was only a year removed from one of those fourth-place finishes when Tech went 15-16, 4-12 in 2011-12, and that was that.
Johnson never had a real shot at success in following Greenberg. Johnson lost his best player before he even coached his first game when Greenberg recruit Montrezl Harrell jumped ship for Louisville and was part of last year’s national championship team. Jarell Eddie looked for a while to be the guy who could score enough to keep Virginia Tech in games, but even when that happened, the Hokies rarely won any of them, as close losses this season to top-tier ACC teams like Virginia and Pitt (road) showed. This was also Johnson’s first head coaching job after nearly two decades as an assistant. By comparison, Greenberg had put in 13 years at Long Beach State and South Florida prior to his nine years in Blacksburg.
Williams fits in somewhere in the middle, which is probably an improvement. He was a student assistant from 1990-1994 at two schools and had been an assistant in some form for more than 15 years before taking the top job at New Orleans, going 14-17 and leaving for Marquette. While that may not sound like a formula for success, Williams made it work, taking Marquette to the NCAA Tournament each of his first five years and winning 122 games in that span. In six years, he never finished worse than 9-9 in the Big East. And the Golden Eagles were thought to be a potential favorite in the new Big East this year, with its smaller size and the likes of Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame gone. But Marquette struggled to 17-15 (9-9) record and missed the Big Dance a year after making the Elite Eight. Such disturbing stops in progression (Marquette had made the Sweet 16 the two years prior) are sometimes the sign that change is needed.
So Williams bolted to Blacksburg, where he’ll have to work on being No. 1 in his own state before thinking about the ACC. Virginia Tech finished 14 games behind Virginia in the ACC this season (they only play 18) and were dead last in the standings (15th). It doesn’t get any easier next year, either, with Maryland leaving and Louisville joining. And while UVA loses top seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, the Cavaliers should still contend. Williams has to find players, get his system in place and literally start from the bottom. Virginia Tech would be wise to give him time, because even if the school was sure Johnson wasn’t the man for the job after only two years, it’s going to take at least two years, likely more, for Williams to get Virginia Tech to respectability, both in the state and in the conference.