Success comes at a price, as any coach who makes his or her team run 6 a.m. sprints will tell you. It also comes at a cost—and that’s becoming painfully clear to several of the state’s most prominent basketball programs.
Sometimes it’s a financial investment, as in the two-year contract extension Old Dominion gave Jeff Jones Tuesday after he led the Monarchs to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011.
More often, though, winning makes your players and coaches more attractive to others. VCU fans have known this for years, as they’ve watched Jeff Capel, Anthony Grant, Shaka Smart and Will Wade parlay success into bigger contracts at bigger schools. (Most have found, though, the grass elsewhere wasn’t as green as the money.)
Now it’s Virginia and Virginia Tech who are discovering the challenge of continuity after the best basketball seasons in their respective histories.
Four starters from the Cavaliers’ national title team (Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Mamade Diakite) all declared for the NBA draft this week with eligibility remaining. So did the Hokies’ leading scorer in 2018-19, sophomore guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
Alexander-Walker was hardly Tech’s biggest loss, though. Coach Buzz Williams, who transformed the Hokies from Atlantic Coast Conference cellar-dwellers into a Sweet 16 team in just five years, went home to take the Texas A&M job.
Williams’ departure prompted four Tech players with eligibility (Kerry Blackshear Jr., Wabissa Bede, Landers Nolley and Chris Clarke) to enter the NCAA’s transfer portal, although Nolley announced Wednesday he’s staying. Also, three of Williams’ four signees to receive releases from their letters of intent. Suddenly, Mike Young, a Radford native who left Wofford in anticipation of inheriting a solid program, now looks like he’s starting from scratch.
It’s important to note that new NCAA rules allow players who declare for the draft to change their minds and return to school, and that entering the transfer portal (which sounds like a Star Trek reference) doesn’t mean a player is leaving.
Virginia’s Hunter and Jerome and Tech’s Alexander-Walker aren’t coming back. All three have been projected as first-round picks, which means a guaranteed contract, although Jerome’s status is the shakiest of the three.
Guy was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, and improved his defense, rebounding and ball-handling as a junior. But he’s primarily a shooter, and in the NBA, 6-foot-2 shooters not named Steph Curry aren’t in the highest demand. (NBA scouts will certainly take note of Guy’s 0-for-10 3-point outing against Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament.)
Diakite, who blossomed in the postseason after dying his hair blond, is still raw and developing, without an offensive go-to move. There’s no guarantee he or Guy would even be drafted. Both would be better off polishing their game for another year under Tony Bennett, whose players improve dramatically.
Without Guy, the Cavaliers would find scoring more difficult next season. But if he and Diakite return, they’ll join Braxton Key, Jay Huff and Kihei Clark in a strong starting lineup that would put Virginia in the preseason top five.
Either way, Bennett’s not losing sleep. He has another solid recruiting class, this week adding 6-foot-7 Justin McKoy to previous signees Casey Morsell and Kadin Shedrick. And the Cavaliers could add another transfer or two, as they did with Key last off-season. They are reportedly among the leaders for Sam and Joey Hauser, who announced this week that they’re leaving Marquette.
The Hokies’ immediate future is less clear. Young needs to convince players like Blackkshear, Bede and Clarke to stay, and perhaps can find a short-term fix with an incoming transfer or two.
Otherwise, the progress Tech made under Williams may prove to be fleeting. And in the cutthroat ACC, a step backwards can be costly.