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Five to Watch: Virginia Tech is ready for its dancing shoes

Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire

Virginia Tech hasn’t played on the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 1967. Hell, the Hokies have made the Big Dance only once in the last 20 years.

Things might be about to change in Blacksburg.

If the Hokies can find their way into the NCAA Tournament this season, it would be quite the rags-to-riches story. Virginia Tech fired longtime head coach Seth Greenberg in 2012 after spending several years on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday. Then, after two seasons of futility under his successor, James Johnson, the school made another head coaching change in 2014, ultimately convincing Buzz Williams to leave Marquette.

Williams is no stranger to March Madness, having made the tournament in five of his six seasons with the Golden Eagles, and he’s already made progress rebuilding Tech’s program. After finishing 11-22 in his first season, the Hokies went 20-15 in Williams’ second year while improving to 10-8 in the Atlantic Coast Conference from a cellar-dwelling 2-16 record the year before. Although the school lost two players (Jalen Hudson and Satchel Pierce) to transfer and one senior (Shane Henry) to graduation, Virginia Tech returns the majority of its key contributors from 2015-’16.

Williams succeeded last season by playing to his roster’s strengths, going with smaller lineups to open up slashing lanes for his guards while not chucking too many shots behind the three-point arc. According to hoop-math, 50.2 percent of the Hokies’ total field goal attempts came at the rim, the second-highest mark in Division I. Creating easier shots by getting closer to the basket is obviously one way to improve a shooting percentage, but relentlessly attacking the rim had other benefits for Tech. The Hokies led the country with a 49.4 free-throw rate, a statistic that measures the number of free throws taken compared to the number of field goals attempted. Over a quarter of the Hokies’ total points came at the charity stripe.

To make a leap in Williams’ third year, though, Virginia Tech will need to improve at the other end of the floor. Last season, the Hokies finished with an adjusted defensive efficiency rating that landed in the top 75, according to KenPom, but that may have been a bit lucky. Tech struggled to control the interior, allowing opponents to shoot better than 50 percent on their two-point attempts. The roster’s lack of a traditional center was noticeable, with 6-foot-7 Zach LeDay often playing in that position. LeDay was a solid rim protector last season, but without anyone to help him out, opponents were able to score quite easily inside the paint against the Hokies, converting 62.5 percent of their attempts at the rim.

With 6-foot-10 sophomore Kerry Blackshear still recovering from a stress fracture and potentially out for the season, Williams may rely quickly on freshman Khadim Sy. A 6-foot-9 forward out of Oak Hill Academy, Sy could offer the Hokies much-needed length in the paint, helping to transform their interior defense and cleaning up one of the Hokies’ biggest weaknesses from last season. How he progressed this summer, though, may be the key.

The latest measurements list Sy as a rail-thin 225-pounder. If he’s going to be capable of battling on the inside with the ACC’s best, he’ll need to build up more strength over the course of the season.

Basketball hasn’t exactly been booming in Blacksburg lately, but after picking up wins over Virginia and Miami at Cassell Coliseum last season, things are starting to look up for Williams and Co. Now, with its top three scorers returning to the fold, Virginia Tech is in a position to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007, but the Hokies might need some extra help from one of their youngsters to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.

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