A lot of college basketball fans got to know Mike Young as the Wofford coach after the Terriers upset UNC a few years ago in Chapel Hill.
By the time he got home to Blacksburg to replace Buzz Williams - he’s a native of nearby Radford - ACC fans had a pretty good idea of what to expect.
Still, the Hokies hot start impressed everyone and if you don’t see the potential, you’re not looking hard enough.
Virginia Tech ripped off a 10-3 start featuring a remarkable win over Michigan State before reality set in: by some accounts the second smallest team in the country, the Hokies were extremely limited.
Still, there were some real highlights including a double OT win over (get used to it because you’re going to hear it a lot in our previews) 14-19 UNC in Chapel Hill.
Young’s youngsters also took NC State, topped hapless Wake Forest, beat Syracuse and nearly swept the Orange and then knocked off Pitt and Clemson again in the backstretch.
After the season, Landers Nolley, PJ Horne and Isaiah Wilkins all transferred, with Wilkins heading off to Wake Forest where we’ll see him this fall. Horne by contrast transferred to Georgia because his family has been seriously affected by the pandemic.
Given the size of the team, it’s no wonder that Nolley faded down the stretch: he was forced to do too much. His father complained that he was being misused, but a coach has to go with what he has and Nolley was one of the bigger players on a tiny team. His father was right; so was Young.
Returnees include sophomores 6-1 Tyrece Radford, 6-3 Nahiem Alleyne, 5-10 Jalen Cone, 6-3 Hunter Cattoor and 6-0 senior Wabissa Bede. Raw John Ojiako, a 6-10 sophomore who couldn’t help much last year but might be improved, is also back.
Newcomers are 6-9 junior Keve Aluma, who followed Young from Wofford, Cartier Diarra from K State, 6-7 Delaware transfer Justyn Mutts, a junior, Cordell Pemsl, a 6-9 senior transfer from Iowa and freshmen Joe Bamisile (6-5), Darius Maddox (6-4) and David N’Guessan (6-8).
Let’s just get this out of the way now: outside of Duke’s roster, there aren’t many ACC players we like more than Radford and Cattoor.
For a 6-1 guard, Radford is - and it’s the only appropriate word - a stunning rebounder. We love his game, plus he’s fairly ferocious overall. Cattoor is much quieter but what we love about him is how well he moves without the ball and how efficiently he moves it along in the offense. He’s very unusual in that respect, especially for a freshman. We admire them both a lot and expect them to develop into wonderful players.
Bede is a solid point guard and a superior passer. He’ll be a major asset again.
Cone was really good as a freshman last year too, particularly from deep, and keep in mind he should have been a high school senior. His perimeter game is really good though he struggled inside the line.
Alleyne is also a solid guard who could blossom more with a year under his belt.
Bamisile and Maddox are both going to help offensively and will add even more to Young’s potent perimeter. Bamisile looks physically mature and should be able to contribute quickly. Maddox is leaner and quick and looks like he could use some time in the weight room. He’s a good passer though and might find a role backing up Bede.
So what about the bigs?
Well Virginia Tech has some now. Ojiako is a year older and if he is a solid defender and rebounder, that’s a lot. At 6-10 and 240, the guy should be able to impose himself to some extent.
Aluma and Purnell, both 6-9 and mature, have qualities that the Hokies lacked last season.
Aluma shot 66.7 percent at Wofford, which was the only school to offer him a scholarship. He’ll be solid at a minimum and he has three years in Young’s system.
As for Pemsl, he may not be a stat stuffer but he’s going to bring a nasty streak that the Hokies can certainly use. He’s not going to be a very popular guy on the road though.
The 6-7 Mutts has the kind of versatility that every guy named Mutts should frankly have. N’Guessan may be a nice surprise too. A Mt. Zion product, he’s 6-8 and looks pretty quick. If one of them is a reliable presence at power forward, Young will be very happy.
They might even have enough to consider letting Ojiako redshirt, something the Hokies didn't dare do last year.
Is it enough to work with?
Compared to last season, it’s a cornucopia of size and potential.
So while it’s too early to be sure, it’s possible that Virginia Tech, after a 16-16 debut, could be markedly better this year.
First, Young, considered by some to be one of the elite coaches in the country despite spending 17 years at tiny Wofford, knows what to do with an offense. He has a lot of elements to play with and two unique players in Cattoor, who is supremely unselfish, and Radford, who refuses to accept labels and rebounds with any big man.
Bede is still around to distribute and now he has plenty of perimeter options and also two inside guys who should be able to hold their own.
Here’s something to consider: how much would some size have helped last year (not to mention some more experience)?
Well consider. Dayton, with Obi Tippin, beat Virginia Tech by 27. Tippin scored 24.
In conference, the Hokies lost to Syracuse by two, BC by five, Miami by 10, FSU by 11, BC by four, UVA by three and Notre Dame by eight.
If they had won four of those, and maybe one more non-conference came, that’s 20 wins. And when you consider that Virginia Tech last season was one of the youngest (#350) and smallest (#344), a bit of size might have really helped.
Given that he has some really good, if small players returning, and adds some size and some more scoring talent, we’d expect significant improvement.
Our biggest question about the Hokies, and we didn’t focus on this much last season, is the defense. We’ll bite on Young as an offensive maestro, absolutely, but in the ACC, you’ll have to play some solid defense as well. When you work in a league with Tony Bennett, Mike Krzyzewski, Leonard Hamilton, Brad Brownell, Chris Mack and Jim Boeheim, you’d better show up on both ends of the court.
Honestly, we were so intrigued by his offensive ingenuity we really didn’t pay any attention to the defense.
It’s certainly not an obvious weakness; we just didn’t focus closely enough on it.
When you think about it though, Virginia Tech has had a pretty weak basketball history. Oh there have been good players, Dell Curry for one, but sustained success?
Not so much.
Buzz Williams built a damn good program but the man is basically a mercenary. Still, to roll from his vision of Virginia Tech basketball, with such wonderfully versatile players, to Young’s hot rod offense and what looks like perhaps even a more promising era, well...in our opinion, even thought it’s not at the standards that Duke, UNC, NC State, Wake Forest or more recently Virginia have set, we think this is the Golden Age for Hokies basketball - and we think that Young can take it higher.
Finally, one more point we’d like to say. We weren’t big fans of Virginia Tech joining the ACC because we never thought basketball would do very well. We were wrong about that. Both Williams and Young have proven the Hokies belong.
And this program belongs in another wonderful way: despite joining the ACC in just 2003, Cassell Coliseum has become one of the great pits in the conference. As just about everyone else has moved into fancier digs, or overhauled their old one, Cassell, like Cameron, is proudly old school.
It’s hard as hell to play there and as Young improves the program, it’s only going to get more difficult. It’s a great ACC atmosphere. We hope they don’t get tempted to go all fancy like some schools.
For all the talk about Louisville replacing Maryland, in a different sense, Virginia Tech is a much better candidate.