Hokies Crack the Top 10 in First 2021-22 Predictions
Shortly after the NCAA Tournament's conclusion, ESPN writer Jeff Borzello published his top-25 rankings for the next college basketball season and included Virginia Tech at #10.
"I'm high on this team," said Borzello in his online publication, citing the Hokies' hot start to the season and victories over Villanova and Virginia as validation for his proclamation.
However, for any team to consistently play like a top-10 team, they need star power: the Hokies were led by 15.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game from forward Keve Aluma last season, who was later nominated for the Atlantic Coast Conference's second-team, only a few votes under UVA's Sam Hauser for the final first-team spot.
Virginia Tech is also receiving an offensive upgrade in the form of six-foot guard Storm Murphy, an incoming fifth-year transfer from Wofford who posted a line of 17.8 points and 4.3 assists per contest last season. Murphy is not the defender that Wabissa Bede was, but he has shot over 40% from three for his career and can find his own shot inside the lane.
Outside of Murphy's arrival, the Hokies will return four of their five starters from last season plus their sixth man, giving them an extra year of familiarity with their core unit. The importance of continuity at the collegiate level cannot be overstated, especially for teams devoid of multiple clear-cut NBA prospects— all of the eight most recent national championship-winning teams returned at least three of their five starters from the year prior, while four of the eight retained at least four (three teams brought back all five players).
Despite ranking 149th in Division-I last season with 72 points per game, Virginia Tech enters the 2021-22 season with 65.8 average points from their presumptive starting five, second-best to only Maryland in Borzello's top-25 predictions. This discounts the unknown impact of incoming freshmen, but is a testament to the Hokies' proven track record at the college level.
Contrary to popular belief, teams capable of climbing the national ladder are not always loaded with accolades and pedigree: Monday's national title game featured, out of the 15 players to appear before garbage time, four with no rank in high school, a three-star recruit and only two five-star athletes.
11 of the past 13 programs to conquer March Madness have come from a Power Five Conference, Villanova and UConn being the exceptions; with ACC champs Virginia being significantly weakened and Florida State having to replace two members of their opening rotation, VT will start their journey towards a national title by seeking revenge on their third-place finish within the league last season.
For all of the promising signs, there are some holes on Virginia Tech's roster: for starters, the Hokies would benefit immensely from adding a big man capable of snatching at least eight rebounds and a couple of blocks per game. VT ranked just outside the top-100 in rebounding margin and 81st in blocked shots per game in the 2020-21 campaign, leaving room for improvement in both areas.
Keve Aluma has also struggled when matched up with strong interior defenders, as his quick, skillful style can be affected by athletic opposition. Bringing in a player with some brute force would free him up offensively from dogfights under the hoop and help him spare some energy on the defensive end, allowing him to focus more on getting buckets.
Perhaps the most visible vacancy on Virginia Tech's squad is that of a pure shot creator, as nobody on the roster can consistently rely on their bag of tricks to find a shot at all three levels.
Sure, Storm Murphy will be a nifty operator and can certainly find some points, but he will be limited in some instances by his 6'0 frame; Tyrece Radford is the closest approximation of a "bail-out guy" on the roster, as his handle and combination of deftly speed and strength enable him to craft paths to the basket with regularity; but if anybody watched Baylor decimate Gonzaga in the National Championship game, they saw the three-headed monster of Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler and MaCio Teague take turns terrorizing their defensive covers off of the dribble for all 40 minutes. The Hokies need a player that can similarly affect the game off the bounce whenever they please.
One of the most exciting question marks on the maroon and orange's roster lies in the development of Nahiem Alleyne— once referred to as "the all-time best guy" by his head coach, Alleyne capped of his sophomore year with a 28-point explosion against the Florida Gators.
This performance is likely to not only secure Alleyne's starting spot heading into next season, regardless of transfer portal acquisitions, but it showed a glimpse of a true take-over player.
Now, Alleyne was not all that efficient throughout the season, shooting a poor 37.5% on 4.4 two-point field goal attempts per game, despite demonstrating some ability to separate from his defender moving downhill.
Back to the team as a whole: VT went 4-0 against ranked opposition last season and was impacted significantly by COVID pauses, only lacing up four times from February 6th to the end of their season on March 19th, missing five contests in the process. Excluding the initial return to action following a cancelled game, Virginia Tech would have finished the season 15-3 instead of 15-7.
So, the #10 ranking: it feels fair in the sense that there are breakout teams that no one can yet predict, and Virginia Tech has shown they can knock off top-tier talent behind the sound coaching of Mike Young; where this ranking gets tricky is that with the depletion in bench scoring following Jalen Cone and Joseph Bamisile's entrances into the transfer portal, the Hokies are more of a high floor, low ceiling team, in terms of competing with the top 10 outfits in America.
The picture will become clearer as roster additions are made around the country and teams begin to practice, but this would be the highest that the Hokies have ever fallen in the pre-season rankings, with the mark of 15th in 1984 and 2018 currently holding trumps.
Now, to sit back and wait...