Senior leaders excited about NCAA appearance in Steel City

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Devin Wilson may be the busiest guy in Blacksburg this week – and the workload has nothing to do with his academic coursework or the digesting of Buzz Williams’ game plan for the Hokies’ NCAA Tournament game Thursday night.

No, his toughest task centers on scoring enough tickets for family and friends for Virginia Tech’s first-round matchup against Alabama in Pittsburgh – roughly 10 minutes from his hometown of McKees Rocks.

“Obviously, my friends look into all that stuff, so they text me, ‘Oh, you might be playing. Get me a ticket, get me a ticket,’” Wilson said. “You’re aware of it, obviously, but you never know where you’re going to end up. I’m happy that I get to go back, and for once, my parents don’t have to travel.”

Like every NCAA Tournament team, Tech found out its destination Sunday evening, as the Hokies, the No. 8 seed in the East Region, now gear up for their second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. The last time the men’s basketball program did that, Dell Curry was launching long jumpers for the Hokies – nearly a decade before Wilson and fellow senior Justin Bibbs were born.

The Steel City location creates a perfect symmetry for Wilson and Bibbs, who are winding down their careers in Blacksburg. After all, Wilson practically grew up there, and Bibbs grew up just three hours west of the Steel City in Dayton, Ohio. These two anchor a team that enters the tournament with a 21-11 record and boasts an impressive resume of big-time upsets.

For sure, Wilson’s career has been filled with twists and turns, and yet he played arguably the biggest role in turning around the Hokies’ season. Williams’ insertion of Wilson into the starting lineup following a home loss to Miami led to improved defense, and subsequently, upsets of Virginia, Clemson and Duke.

Without those three wins, the Hokies are probably making NIT preparations.

“Since Feb. 5 [the day of the Miami loss], if there was only one person that you could point to that engineered the change, it would be him,” Williams said of Wilson. “I think it’s only fitting that we’re playing in Pittsburgh.”

Tech’s second straight appearance in the Big Dance certainly reflects the fine work done by Williams and his staff over the course of the past four seasons. Williams, though, would be the first to agree that success first requires player buy-in.

He pointed out to a nice throng of folks at a watch party held at Cassell Coliseum that Wilson was the only player remaining from his initial team meeting when he took the job. And Bibbs, a 1,000-point scorer with more than 100 career starts, remained committed to Tech and Williams when there was little reason for him to believe he’d play in one NCAA Tournament, let alone two.

Their work ethic, toughness, production and leadership make this NCAA Tournament bid just as special as last year’s, when Seth Allen and Zach LeDay wrapped up their wonderful careers.

“It means a lot,” Bibbs admitted of the NCAA Tournament bid. “That’s kind of the reason why I came. Obviously, I knew where Virginia Tech was and how they finished, but I wanted to be a part of rebuilding the program. I’m happy to do it with him [pointing at Wilson], and I’m happy we’re going back to his home place. Hopefully, we can make a run for it.”

Tech takes on a Crimson Tide team that features Collin Sexton, a potential top-five NBA Draft pick. The Tide went 19-15 this season, including two wins in the SEC Tournament that probably led to them receiving an at-large bid.

The Hokies enter the tournament on the heels of two straight losses – a defeat to Miami in the regular-season finale and an excruciating loss to Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament in which the Hokies let a 21-point, second-half lead slip away.

Tech’s coaches and players spent a painful four days reflecting on that game, while also wondering about their NCAA Tournament situation. Now, they know – and they cannot wait to get back on the court.

“For sure,” Wilson said. “The way we finished that game wasn’t how we wanted to by any means. But that’s something where we now go into the NCAA Tournament and say, ‘Hey, the worst has kind of happened.’ … Now we can forget about it and start on a new season. Everyone’s been itching to get back out there.”

“I think it’s valuable now how we lost to Notre Dame,” Williams said. “You’d rather have that happen in the conference tournament than in the NCAA Tournament. If that hardens you, or that’s a lesson that you can grow from and it helps you advance in the NCAA Tournament, then it was worth it. If you don’t, then it wasn’t worth it.

“I like our group. I think, if you study the numbers of what has transpired, I think there has been some really historical things happen this year.”

There could be more. Tech last won an NCAA Tournament game in 2007. It last won two NCAA Tournament games in 1967.

So rest assured, the opportunities are there – and Tech’s two senior leaders are appreciative of them, especially after last-place finishes to start their careers.

“You come in to a team where they finished in last place – and in my case, they finished in last place again,” Wilson said. “You want to take it to the highest show in college basketball, which is the NCAA Tournament. That’s what you come to Virginia Tech for.

“It’s different than the Dukes and the UNCs, where they’re routinely in the NCAA Tournament just because they’re good. They’re talented. But when you come to a place like Virginia Tech that finishes last, that’s what you work for – to get to this moment.”

For Wilson and Bibbs, the moment starts in earnest Thursday night in Pittsburgh.

It’s quite simply the perfect place for them – and this program – to return to the dance floor yet again.

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