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Halfway to Tournament Time

By Grant Mitchell | January 18
Halfway to Tournament Time
Photo: Dave Knachel

The #16 Virginia Tech Hokies have been the surprise of the college basketball world this season.

“We have the potential to make a run for it. We just have to stay level-headed” proclaimed reigning Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Week Tyrece Radford after his school’s 74-67 victory over then #19 Duke.

Virginia Tech, commonly thought of as a football school thanks to the work of legendary coach Frank Beamer, have established themselves as a rapidly ascending basketball program.

Since joining a Power Five Conference before the start of the 2000-01 campaign, the Hokies have been ranked nationally at least once during five different seasons: three of those have occurred within the past five years.

Former coach Buzz Williams led the resurgence in Hokie basketball during his five-year tenure at the program, improving upon an 11-22 (2-16) first season by eventually finding his way to the Sweet 16 two years ago with a 26-9 (12-6) squad that produced three NBA players. The performance was enough to garner interest from Williams’ current employer, Texas A&M, paving the way for Head Coach Mike Young to take the reins.

Similarly to Williams in his first year, pundits felt that Mike Young was taking over a rebuilding project: the departure of the former Head Coach and professional talent seemed to have left holes throughout the roster, putting Young in an undesirable position. The Former Wofford College coach responded by leading his team to six straight wins to start the season, capped off by a defeat of #3 Michigan State at the Maui Invitational.

Though the Hokies would be unable to capitalize on a promising start and finished the season 16-16, this year’s iteration of the program seems to be back for revenge. Virginia Tech currently boasts an 11-2 (5-1) record at the halfway point of their season and have quality wins throughout their schedule, defeating three ranked opponents in three tries, none of which stand out more than a November overtime defeat of #3 Villanova.

Aluma block villanova
Photo: Jessica Hill

This is just the second time since the program's inception that the the maroon and orange have started 5-1 in ACC play: the other occasion being the 2006-07 team that began 6-1, knocking off #5 Duke and #1 North Carolina in the process.

Virginia Tech has garnered an increased amount of national attention as opposed to years past and have fans salivating at the prospect of a deep tournament run. Though the Hokies’ season may have just crossed the 50-yard line, it is never to early too look into the future.

Where They Line Up

Virginia Tech’s 11-2 record currently leaves them tied for the 10th-most wins in Division-I basketball and the third-fewest losses of teams with the same win total. Numerically speaking, this would land the Hokies as the 12th best team in America.

Looking one level deeper, the Hokies are just one of three teams with at least three wins over ranked opponents this season: the other two schools being the Kansas Jayhawks and the Gonzaga Bulldogs. The Jayhawks are 4-2 against Top 25 teams this season while the Bulldogs are a perfect 4-0.

From the perspective of quality wins, the Hokies would appear to be second best team in the nation. This alone does not decide tournament qualification, however, as the rules are much more complex.

The Hokies currently hold the second spot in the ACC rankings, trailing the Virginia Cavaliers and leading the Louisville Cardinals by a half-game each. Given the prestige and congestion of the conference, this is another feather in VT’s cap.

Professional Analysis

ESPN’s expert Joe Lunardi currently has Mike Young’s crew slotting into the seven seed, parallel to ACC foes UVA and three spots off of Louisville’s generous #4 ranking. Lunardi is regarded as one of the premier minds in tournament breakdowns and is a credible source for way-too-soon hypotheses.

CBS analyst Jerry Palm has placed the Hokies in the four seed, one spot above ACC rivals Clemson and Virginia and five slots above the Seminoles of Florida State. This would match the Hokies' highest tournament seed in the program's history and deliver a true vote of confidence.

NCAA.com’s Andy Katz has Virginia Tech settling in nicely in the six seed, surrounded by Clemson and UVA on either side while Florida State and UNC trail in the #9 and #11 slots. Katz's rankings reflect how close the battle for the ACC is, giving credence to the notion that the conference is one of the toughest to compete in this season.

Kerry Miller of Bleacher Report has awarded Blacksburg’s finest with a nine seed while elevating Clemson and Louisville to #4, UVA to #5, Florida State to #7 and UNC to #10. This prediction was posted on January 12th and does not account for the movement that has occurred since.

Based on these rankings from some of the most respected organizations within the sporting world, the Hokies yield an average position of 6.5, implying that they would be destined for the seven seed should the bracket be announced halfway through the season. Even this seems to undervalue VT's season thus far but can be improved upon with wins over fellow league opponents in the coming months.

Aluma radford mutts
Photo via Twitter: @HokiesMBB

Years Past

Thanks to an impressive 26-9 record during the 2018-19 season, Virginia Tech found themselves in the 4th seed when the bracket was revealed two years ago. Key losses to seven ranked opponents (all within the ACC) and two unranked adversaries (Penn State and Clemson) prevented the selection committee from moving the Hokies any higher, though the #4 slot was the highest in school history.

Vt bracket announcement
Photo via Twitter: @marchmadness

Led by stars Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Justin Robinson, VT flew past St. Louis and Liberty in the opening rounds before a heartbreaking two-point loss to the Duke Blue Devils sent them crashing out of the tournament. To this day, the Hokies have never won three consecutive Championship tournament games.

Virginia Tech’s 2019 tournament effort was only matched by the 1966-67 team while nine other generations flamed out in either the first or second round. This will be the year, it appears, that the Hokies set their sights on breaking the tradition of early losses.

Room for Movement

Any team in America is prone to the potential of upsets: look no further than Virginia Tech’s December matchup against unranked Penn State where the Nittany Lions buried the hometown Hokies, 75-55, thanks to 12 made threes and 14 forced turnovers. PSU caught fire as a team from long range that evening, leaving Tech with no room for victory.

Though it is impossible to predict the unknown, there are specific upcoming ballgames in which Mike Young could significantly improve his team’s stock with a win. Among these, January 30th and February 13th home games against #13 UVA and Louisville stand out as clear priorities.

A new date has not been agreed upon for a second game against UVA after positive COVID tests within the Cavaliers’ program forced the January 2nd clash to be postponed, leaving the opportunity for a third major conflict in the Hokies’ schedule.

Though VT has no experience against Tony Bennett’s Virginia squad this season, they appear to be the better team. The Hokies are able to play at a pace that UVA is not as comfortable in and are capable of exposing the Cavaliers’ lack of physicality and creativity, though UVA did lay a historic beatdown on #12 Clemson last week.

Conversely, VT will be desperate to get another crack at Louisville. Though the Cardinals were unranked the last time the two rivals squared off, they have since emerged as a credible Top 25 threat (LU received the most votes of teams not ranked in this week's poll). Louisville got the better of Tech last time, 73-71, thanks to situational offensive rebounding and stretches of stout defensive play. This late-season matchup could very well impact the top of the ACC rankings and the highest conference seed in March Madness.

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Photo: Andy Lyons

Tournament Team?

The most common question in college basketball is “Are they a tournament team?” On the surface, this refers to a team’s ability and qualifications to be selected for the NCAA Championship bracket. However, it also symbolizes a team’s potential to make a run beyond what is expected of them.

Common characteristics of “tournament teams” are experience, free throw shooting and turnovers.

Virginia Tech’s starting five is comprised of a fifth-year senior, two junior transfers, a redshirt sophomore and a true sophomore. This gives the players an average of 3.6 years of college experience, though it must be mentioned that none of these men have played significant time in competitions as competitive as the NCAA Tournament.

Vt starting five
Photo: Virginia Tech Athletics

The bench rotation is where the true youth of the team lies: the sophomore guard pairing of Jalen Cone and Hunter Cattoor claim a majority of the reserve minutes while freshmen David N’Guessan and Darius Maddox contribute in spurts when called upon. Senior transfer Cordell Pemsl has appeared in games prior but has been held out recently due to a back injury while 6'10 John Ojiako serves as an enforcer in limited minutes.

Tech has had a mixed bag of results in close games this season, coming from behind to force overtime against Villanova and eventually holding on for the win while struggling to put away the Louisville Cardinals after closing the once 14-point deficit.

The Hokies’ poor free throw shooting has made a number of games much closer than they should have been. VT has shot 70.3% as a team this season and ranks 170th in free throw percentage amongst qualified teams, making trips to the charity stripe a glaring weakness for the squad.

Virginia Tech’s leader in free throw attempts this season is Keve Aluma with 76, close to double the amount of Tyrece Radford’s second-highest 46 total. Aluma shoots a poor 67.1% on foul shots, meaning that the bulk of late-game attempts will come from a subpar shooter.

Despite finishing with the fifth best mark last year, Tech finds themselves with the 104th-best assist-to-turnover ratio in college basketball. This is not the calling card of a team destined for success and Mike Young will need to drill his team on the fundamentals before March rolls around.

Tournament Team!

As far as postseason-centered characteristics, the Hokies do thrive in a couple of areas.

Hunter Cattoor, Jalen Cone and Nahiem Alleyne form a three-headed monster from beyond the arc. Cattoor’s 48.8% puts him fifth in the ACC and elevates the team to a 34.9% total average, slightly undervalued due to poor volume shooting from Justyn Mutts and Keve Aluma (30% and 31%, respectively). The two forwards appear to have been instructed to shoot fewer perimeter shots, suggesting that the team average will continue to climb.

Cone, on the other hand, is as pure of a shooter as there is in college. The young guard shoots 7.7 threes per game and ranks in the top 30 for average conversions, maintaining a proficient 39% average: history suggests that this too is likely to rise, based on his 45.7% standard last season.

Another aspect that the Hokies excel in is takeover ability: Jalen Cone and Keve Aluma offer two very distinct threats on the offensive end, each with the capability to will the team to victory by themselves.

Keve Aluma most recently showed off his clutch gene by scoring 11 of the Hokies’ 14 points during a stretch in the second half against then #19 Duke, effectively securing the victory on his own. Aluma also put forth a similar display earlier in the campaign against #3 Villanova, showing a pattern of the star forward elevating himself on the biggest of occasions.

Jalen Cone is the college version of Klay Thompson, in terms of ability to catch fire. The Hokies’ secret weapon off the bench is a high-volume shooter that has already knocked down six threes in a game twice this season. Cone is fearless shooting the ball and his elevation on his jump shot makes him virtually impossible to shut out.

Above all else, the Blacksburg boys can lock in defensively. Wabissa Bede is the cream of the crop in terms of on-ball defense, spearheading a unit that has only allowed teams to shoot 41.6 percent from the field and put forth historic displays, most memorably by locking down Notre Dame to just 2-19 shooting in the second half of their matchup.

Worst Case Scenario

The Hokies should hope to avoid streaky three-point teams that like to apply pressure beyond half court.

Tech has struggled in extremely fast-moving games due to a lack of creative ball handlers and lapses in transition defense from bench players.

The Penn State game was a perfect example of what can happen when Mike Young’s squad gets punched in the mouth early, though they have gotten better at responding as of late.

It’s hard to see the Hokies getting bounced in round one, though it was hard to see UVA being taken down by UMBC… look how that turned out.

Best Case Scenario

The most optimal path through the tournament for the Hokies would be to face teams that prefer to play at moderate paces and are prone to physical intimidation or are porous rebounders. Defensively, the Hokies would prefer to play against guards devoid of individual artistry and that rely on more “coachable” attributes.

Keve Aluma and Justyn Mutts are proficient operators inside the painted area while Tyrece Radford is always a threat to crash the glass, qualities that often leave sharpshooters Alleyne, Cone and Cattoor wide open for easy threes. This can cause confusion within opposing defenses and has spelled defeat for many of the Hokies’ adversaries this season.

A championship is always the goal, although reaching the “Elite Eight” may not be an unreasonable target for the optimist.

Final Thoughts

The Hokies are off to a wonderful start. Mike Young has created an aura of pride around his program, generated attention from the national media and earned the support of countless Hokie fans.

The forthcoming stretch of conference play will be important for VT to succeed in due to the lack of ranked opponents. The team must continue to iron out the wrinkles within their schematics and cement their rotation so that they are comfortable and well-practiced when the tournament comes.

Tech fans should feel excited by the opportunity for their team: they have built their own hype and are now tasked with living up to the storm that they created.

The season is just 50% over, but the Hokies are 100% legit.

Grant Mitchell

My name is Grant Mitchell and I am a Junior at Virginia Tech majoring in Sports Media & Analytics. The first college football game that I ever watched was Tech versus my dad’s alma mater, UVA, and after Tech took a 43-3 lead I became a lifelong fan. I was born and raised in northern Virginia and competed in track and field through high school and my first year of college before transferring to VT. I love to tell a good story and keep close track of all things sports related, so I hope to provide the best content for you that I can!

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