Hokie Hardwood: VMI
The #16 Virginia Tech Hokies defeated the Virginia Military Institute Keydets 64-57 Thursday night, marking their ninth consecutive victory over their in-state rivals. The Hokies improved to 4-0 on the season while the Keydets dropped to 2-2.
Head Coach Mike Young maintained his undefeated streak over VMI Head Coach and friend Dan Earl, though he would have hoped to have gone about it differently.
The contest at Cassell was an unexpected but necessary test to the Hokies’ resiliency and resulted in a number of takeaways for both squads.
This game was the ugliest of the season for both teams: VMI turned out to be the more influential of the two schools, utilizing a 2-3 zone, three-quarters court pressure and constant double teams to disrupt the usual free-flowing pace of the Hokie offense.
Had VMI shot any better than they did, they would have easily upset the home favorites. They stifled the Hokies at every turn defensively, holding them to a deplorable average of just 35% on field goals, 14.8% on three-pointers, and 66.7% on free-throws.
The highlight moment for Tech came on the defensive end, courtesy of a thunderous rejection by Justyn Mutts.
Though VMI's Dan Earl will remain winless against Mike Young, he clearly out-coached him in this matchup. Local authorities should have had an APB out on the Hokies’ leader, who failed to make any discernable changes to his philosophical approach in the second half despite the half prior being his squads’ worst of the year.
Cartier Diarra was a big miss for the Hokies tonight, sidelined by a missed COVID test. His experience and offensive capabilities surely would have interjected into what became an eight-minute stretch of just two points scored for his team during the second half.
Where Diarra was missed, however, a familiar face stepped up for the maroon and orange. Trailing 41-45, Wabissa Bede put together an assist, floater and another assist on consecutive possessions to command his squad to a 9-0 run, gathering a lead that would go unrelinquished over the final five minutes.
VMI guard Greg Parham was a crucial letdown for the underdog Keydets, recording just 12 points on 5-16 shooting in 38 minutes. Had he been able to capture the form that he had been in the two games prior, in which he averaged 21.5 points, he would have captained one of the biggest stunners of the college basketball season.
Despite the matchup resulting in a W for the Hokies, the blueprint to their defeat has been sketched. It is incumbent upon Mike Young to make the best of his upcoming film sessions with his men to avoid being played to a stalemate by the next zone defense that they face.
While it may be an overreaction to panic, as the Hokies missed a lot of threes that they usually make, it was a necessary wakeup call for the newly-assembled outfit. As coach Young stated last Sunday night “Don’t get too fat and happy… you’ll get a baseball bat across the kneecaps.”
The biggest conundrum of Thursday’s meeting, and perhaps the entire season, was Junior transfer Justyn Mutts. The 6’7 forward has provided excellent intensity and rebounding along with clutch bucket-getting ability: yet he has been prone to turnovers (three against VMI) and fouls (four or more in every game).
Some of the best minutes of the first half came from Mutts, as well as two energy-churning dunks in the second period. The dilemma that the Virginia Tech coaching staff will have to decide upon is where Mutts fits in the rotation, given the tradeoffs between his incredible production and recklessness.
Keve Aluma was not the same player that fans have grown accustomed to seeing this time around. Despite stuffing the stat sheet with 17 points, eight rebounds, two steals and a block, he seemed to be lacking in confidence.
Aluma shot 5-11 from the field, 0-4 from three and 7-13 from the charity stripe, including five misses on seven attempts in the second half. It got so bad that at every dead-ball situation the cameras would highlight Aluma's slumped posture and dejected facial expressions.
For all of his shooting woes, it must be stated that the big man was influential in helping Virginia Tech win the rebounding battle 48-30 and stopping the dribble handoffs central to VMI’s offense. Aluma was endlessly targeted on defensive switches and used his background in soccer to keep his feet in front of the smaller VMI guards.
Jalen Cone made his return to the action for the first time this season, netting one three-ball on four attempts and getting 14 minutes of playing time under his belt. The well-loved sophomore had been sidelined with a foot injury through the first three games of the season and seemed to be a little rusty, though not entirely out of sorts as he hit a rhythm three late in the first half.
Virginia Tech entered Thursday’s contest riding a wave of national admiration and belief having defeated the #3 Villanova Wildcats and South Florida Bulls on back-to-back evenings last weekend. The Hokies’ leading scorer in Keve Aluma (17.8 points per game) has been a revelation thus far, garnering attention from the biggest names in college basketball media.
The former Wofford man, who transferred to VT at the same time Mike Young took the vacant coaching position, had been 0-1 from behind the arc in 68 career appearances entering this fall: through his first three games in Hokie colors, he had gone 6-9 from deep.
This evolution in Aluma’s game has benefitted the Hokies on a number of fronts: for starters, they do not have to sacrifice their already limited size to introduce another three-point shooter to their lineup. Additionally, the big man’s silky-soft touch around the rim allows the Hokies to target defensive switches on all three levels of the half-court, creating unscripted opportunities that remain within the flow of the game. Furthermore, Aluma’s sheer presence on the offensive end enables the activity of Mike Young’s motion-focused offense due to the attention that he draws from on-ball and help defenders alike.
While the star forward has been spectacular, the Hokies have received contributions from every player that has touched the floor, reflecting their intentions to win as a team. The boys from Blacksburg boast different leaders in total points, assists, rebounds, steals and field goal percentage.
Perhaps the most impressive stat from Tech’s season entering Thursday’s battle for I-81 was their strength of record, in which the Hokies claimed first place for all of college basketball. According to ESPN, SOR is a “measure of team accomplishment based on how difficult a team's [win-loss] record is to achieve.” Thereby, the numbers show that the Hokies had a more impressive beginning to their campaign than any other university.
Meanwhile, the nearby VMI have started on a much better trajectory than they did last go-around, a season that culminated in a 9-24 record and ninth-place finish of ten in-conference schools. Though they did lose the only major matchup of their early schedule, falling to Penn State 86-65, the Keydets found themselves victorious against St. Andrews and Longwood. Solid programs consistently beat the teams around their level of capability, and that’s exactly what coach Earl’s squad have done up to this point in time.
Senior Greg Parham’s 18.7 points per outing had largely carried the scoring burden for his squad entering the weeknight battle. The guard-heavy rotation that VMI deploys would usually create problems for teams devoid of proficient perimeter defenders, although this strength was offset by a resolute Hokie defense.
The Keydets appear to be improving but must continue to develop as a program in order to start dethroning larger schools.
“It’s just one of those nights… I’ll leave the building happy, because it could have gone either way.”
Coach Young reflected on a poor shooting performance, chalking it up to it being "one of those nights" that have unexplainably plagued every team at some point.
Mike Young. Poppin' like Orville Redenbacher.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 4, 2020
A repeat tweet? No! Jon Rothstein stuck with his praise of Mike Young and his resilient squad, maintaining the national focus on a Virginia Tech squad destined to finish higher than the “experts” predicted.
It is no hyperbole that this display was the most disappointing of the young Hokie season, though not all is lost: Virginia Tech still managed to pull out the victory despite being unable to buy a bucket and will learn from their mistakes without facing the penalty of a major upset.
Perhaps a lull in efficiency was to be expected after the historic weekend that the team had, and they will be geared up to go on Tuesday when Penn State visits for the second matchup of a six-game home stand.
A nail-biter but a win nonetheless, and more potential movement up the top-25 ladder.