Normally, it would be hard to justify retiring a few jerseys from a period that netted just three NCAA Tournament appearances and one Sweet 16 berth. But for Virginia Tech, the case can be made with some ease.
For nearly two decades, Virginia Tech men’s basketball was on life support. Between 1996-97 and 2014-15, the Hokies made exactly one NCAA Tournament appearance and only four NIT appearances. Three head coaches failed to take the Hokies to the Big Dance and the only one that did, Seth Greenberg, seemingly underachieved during his tenure and left the program in tatters in 2012.
But for the last five seasons, Virginia Tech has experienced the program’s longest stretch of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances (three) and the Hokies have played in a postseason tournament four seasons in a row. Buzz Williams has made history in Blacksburg and whenever he decides to leave, he’ll go down as the most successful head coach in program history.
But Williams couldn’t have done it without a few consequential players. Zach LeDay and Seth Allen have received their recognition and rightfully so, and Justin Robinson, Ahmed Hill and Ty Outlaw are due up next.
Robinson arrived in Blacksburg for the 2015-16 season as a part of Buzz Williams’ second recruiting class. “Five”, as he’s affectionately known, showed up in Blacksburg as a skinny and quiet freshman searching for his role in a locker room with multiple leaders — LeDay, Allen and Devin Wilson — helping Williams establish his culture.
Once those players left, Robinson truly blossomed. Not only did Robinson grow on the floor — his Player Efficiency Rating increased every season at Tech —he grew into the captain of the Hokies in one of the best seasons in program history. Robinson shouldered most of the offensive load and when Robinson missed several games to finish this past regular season, his absence showed.
Robinson returned for the NCAA Tournament and took his time getting back into the offense. He shined in Tech’s one-point loss to Duke in the Sweet 16, scoring 14 points and dishing out five assists.
Ty Outlaw produced in the second round vs. Liberty, totaling 10 points and 11 rebounds. But his impact can’t be quantified in one performance. Instead, let’s remember everything Outlaw has been through.
Outlaw played one season at UNC Greensboro before transferring to a junior college and signing with Virginia Tech for the 2015-16 season. Over the next three seasons, Outlaw dealt with a heart issue and a torn ACL that robbed him of two years of play. Sandwiched between those health problems, Outlaw dazzled by averaging 13.8 points per game over Tech’s final eight games. Outlaw proved his reputation as a sharpshooter, shooting nearly 49 percent from three over the 2016-17 season.
After being granted a sixth year of eligibility, Outlaw served as a steady contributor both off the bench and as a starter. He shot 45 percent from three this past season and averaged 8.6 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game.
Outlaw had an opportunity to leave and move on with his life after blowing out his knee. Outlaw could have given up on his career after being diagnosed with a heart problem that made him medically unable to play. But instead, Outlaw persevered and played a giant role on one of Virginia Tech’s best teams in school history.
Ahmed Hill knows plenty about adversity. Hill grew up without a reliable and consistent father figure in his life, relying mostly on his mother. Hill has a child now and is balancing raising his four-year-old daughter while working towards a degree that will put him in a position to be the best father he can be.
All the while, Hill missed an entire season of his college career thanks to a knee injury. Though Hill isn’t the same athletic freak he was when he arrived, “Med” turned into a consistent three-and-D player that ran the floor and ignited the Hokies by wearing his emotions on his sleeves. Hill started all 35 games for Virginia Tech this year, averaging 13.1 points per contest and played more than 35 minutes a night, on average.
Hill had Tech’s final shot vs. Duke on Friday, missing an open layup off an inbounds pass that would have pushed the Hokies into overtime. Hill had as clean a look as you could ask for and missed it.
Those who haven’t paid attention will remember Hill for that miss. But everyone that has followed this program closely over the last five seasons will remember Hill for everything else.
Virginia Tech will miss all three of these young men. Not just because of their consistent and exemplary play on the floor, but also because of the way they carried themselves outside of the lines. Neither of them treated media or fans with disrespect and though Outlaw had a recent brush with the law, it sounds like that whole situation is a bunch of hooey.
To know just how much these three guys have meant to the program, watch this video of Tech’s locker room after the Hokies’ loss to the Blue Devils.
“Thank you that the last 3️⃣ shots, in the #Sweet16 were these 3️⃣guys…”
— Virginia Tech Basketball 🦃 (@Hokie_Hoops) March 31, 2019
However this era of Virginia Tech basketball ends, Tech fans will always be able to recall this unlikely era of success. They’ll remember the home wins over Duke and Virginia, the NCAA Tournament appearances and the atmosphere that these players helped create. Williams made basketball in Cassell Coliseum fun again, and he did it with the help of several players.
I don’t know Tech’s policy on retiring jerseys, but the Hokies might want to consider these three young men. At minimum, they’ll forever be worthy of praise for creating a winning program in Blacksburg.