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Looking ahead: Buzz building in Blacksburg for breakout season at Virginia Tech

Buzz Williams saw the Hokies improve to 10-8 in the ACC in his second season after they went 2-16 in his first. Michael Shroyer/USA TODAY Sports

It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. Over the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what is ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: Virginia Tech Hokies.

The first victory for Virginia Tech in the 2016-17 season is already in the books: knowing that coach Buzz Williams will be around for a third season. In just his second season at the helm in Blacksburg, Virginia, Williams shook off four consecutive years of last-place (or tied for last) finishes in the ACC and guided the Hokies to their first winning record in conference play since 2011. Their 2016 NIT appearance also marked their first trip to a postseason tournament since 2011. With so many key players back from last season, there’s good reason to believe Virginia Tech can secure its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007.

And it all starts with Williams being back on the sideline. Williams’ ties to the Southwest made him a natural consideration when TCU and Oklahoma State had openings. His name was openly tossed around for Memphis' opening, too. Fortunately for Virginia Tech, none of those other institutions made a strong enough effort to lure him away.

Of course, it's unlikely that many of the 6,519 people inside Cassell Coliseum for last season's opener could have envisioned how things would turn out for the Hokies. Virginia Tech’s 85-82 loss to Alabama State seemed to signal that it was well on its way to fulfilling preseason poll predictions of a 14th-place ACC finish. Instead, the Hokies were the surprise of the league.

They garnered attention by knocking off rival Virginia at home, and their only ACC losses came to teams that made the NCAA tournament (plus Louisville, which would have but for a postseason ban). A six-game winning streak over ACC opponents -- five to close out the regular season and the sixth over Florida State in the conference tournament -- was their longest since joining the league in 2004-05. Virginia Tech finished 10-8 in league play, tying Clemson for seventh place, and its winning record wasn’t the product of an unbalanced schedule tilted in its favor. If anything, the schedule wasn’t easy enough for a team with a long-standing lease on the league cellar. Of the four opponents the Hokies faced twice, only Wake Forest was a team projected to end up in the bottom tier of the league. Miami and Virginia were top-15 teams for most of the season, and Pittsburgh made the NCAA tournament.

The Hokies’ slow start to 2015-16 can partly be attributed to Williams having to integrate so many new players into the lineup. The reason for optimism in 2016-17 is that those new players are now old.

Forward Zach LeDay was a role player for South Florida, where he scored in double figures just seven times in two seasons. Under Williams, the 6-foot-7 LeDay emerged as the Hokies’ leading scorer (15.5 points per game) and rebounder (7.9) and was voted third-team all-ACC.

Along with LeDay, the Hokies return a pair of guards who averaged double digits in scoring. Seth Allen, who transferred from Maryland, was the team’s second-leading scorer at 14.7 points per game. Justin Bibbs, who averaged 11.7 points in his sophomore season, led the team in shooting 45 percent from 3-point range.

That trio is enough of a core to make the Hokies competitive, but what also has them excited is the potential from their trio of rising sophomores: guard Justin Robinson, wing Chris Clarke and forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. Robinson started in 10 of Virginia Tech's final 11 games and scored in double figures in seven of those games. He also led the team in assists with 97 despite playing just 23 minutes per game.

Clarke’s foot injury caused him to miss 13 games in the middle of the season, but he still managed to average 8.4 points and 6.0 rebounds. The 6-foot-10 Blackshear provided the occasional boost off the bench. His role will be even more important next season with the exits of Shane Henry and 7-footer Satchel Pierce.

Henry was lost to graduation, while Pierce decided to transfer in search of more playing time. A day after Pierce's announcement, guard Jalen Hudson also decided to depart. Hudson was one of six players to appear in every game last season, when he averaged 8.4 points in 20 minutes per game.

The Hokies should make up for Hudson’s absence with the return of guard Ahmed Hill, who started 30 games as a freshman but missed all of last season due to a knee injury.

Williams made Virginia Tech relevant again in just his second season as coach. With so many of his top players returning next season, imagine what charm his third year could bring to Blacksburg.