The Boys in Maroon and Orange are Dancing Again
What a time to be a Hokie.
The Virginia Tech Men’s Basketball team had only touched down in Blacksburg a few minutes before CBS’ Greg Gumbel revealed that the 11th-seed Hokies would be taking on the #6 Texas Longhorns in the first round of the annual NCAA Tournament.
It was a wild ride for VT, who just a few months prior was reeling from a 2-7 start to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Faithful fans had placed expectations as high as they had been since Buzz Williams led them to a Sweet 16 run in 2018-19, some even going so far as to say that the current generation was destined to be the best to ever grace the court in Cassell Coliseum.
When the Going Gets Tough…
The Blacksburg faithful soon found out that just like dreams don’t always come true, expectations don’t always meet reality. A 5-0 start against mid and low-major opposition was quickly muddied by back-to-back late-game losses to ranked teams, just when Hokie fans thought that they had a chance to announce themselves on a national stage, and a shocking 3-7 stretch of results to follow.
The last of these losses was a two-point decision to the Virginia Cavaliers, who were playing their worst ball in years. The Hokies' downfall was caused by the starting five's inability to break the UVA defensive line and the bench players being unable to capitalize on their opportunities.
“We never thought we would be here,” said starting guard Storm Murphy after dropping 10 points in the loss. “We are too good of a basketball team, we have too much experience on this team— things we’ve prided ourselves on all preseason and all season.”
That defeat moved the Hokies to 8-7 on the year with an 0-4 record in conference play. The prior close defeats were no longer moral victories, they were signs that the Hokies just didn’t have what it took.
Murphy, a first-timer in Hokie colors after transferring from Wofford in the summer, still chose to leave the light on in the room of hope, despite the harrowing signs.
“If we just kind of believe in ourselves even more right now and we actually realize how good and how capable we are, I think that’s going to exude a lot of confidence throughout the whole program.”
It Gets Tougher
The misery of VT’s disappointment of a season took a hiatus when the Hokies defeated Notre Dame, the eventual runner-up in the ACC, and NC State, whom they had just lost to. Justyn Mutts and Nahiem Alleyne combined for 46 points in the first match, while a pair of Sean Pedulla free-throws saw the game over the line against the Wolfpack. This was another impressive cameo from the true freshman who had slowly been awarded more playing time after making an impact in limited spurts prior.
“We’ve got to respond better than we did in the second half, but let’s take nothing away from my guys,” said head coach Mike Young, the reigning ACC Coach of the Year, after the NC State victory. “A win on the road, two in a row, a little better.”
Any semblance of optimism was quickly dispelled just three days later when Tech lost to then-8-9 Boston College, the projected bottomfeeders of the league. Murphy, Mutts, and Alleyne shot a combined 8-23 from the field while the Eagles won the rebounding battle by 15 and completely out-hustled the Hokies. It seemed like the maroon and orange had resigned to the fact that they were this year’s disappointment in a sad lineage of underachieving Hokie sports.
It was then no surprise when Tech dropped contests to North Carolina and Miami immediately after, the second courtesy of a Charlie Moore half-court buzzer-beater— just what the doctor ordered for an already deflated team.
Fans began to sway on coach Young and question his decision-making, specifically his rotations and late-game strategy. It seemed impossible that a team with that level of talent, experience, and impressive stretches of play could keep going ice cold in the important moments, but it just kept happening.
Tech was, at this point, 10-10 and 2-7 against its rivals, putting them in last place in a conference they were expected to contend for. Murphy and Alleyne became frequent targets of criticism as fans clamored online for them to be benched in favor of the underclassmen.
The season was over and sights were set on the next year and the talented commits that the Hokies were bringing in.
…But the Tough Get Going
On January 29, 2022, Hunter Cattoor saved Virginia Tech.
The well-loved junior guard had thrived as a gap-filler, three-point specialist, secondary ball-handler, and defensive specialist, yet still managed to keep a low profile; that is until he tied Justin Robinson's school record by making nine of his 11 threes the very next game in an 85-72 victory at Florida State. Sean Pedulla also produced his best performance as a collegiate athlete, sinking six of his seven triples and finishing with 20 points.
All 27 of Cattoor’s points came from long-shot bombs that slowly submitted the Seminoles until they had no more to give. This was at least a moment of relief and pride for Hokie fans but did not figure to make much of an impact on the trajectory of the season.
Nine wins in 11 games later and the Hokies had miraculously soared up the conference table and earned a seven seed in the conference tournament. They were, however, still very clearly on the outside looking in at March Madness.
First up in the postseason tourney were the Clemson Tigers, a team that had just heartbreakingly thwarted VT’s surge to the March bracket with a four-point win a few days prior.
Much to the horror of Tech’s fans, the rematch appeared destined for the same result after the favorites blew their lead and went to overtime; they would not have even gotten there without Storm Murphy’s fifth three of the game.
Still riding the momentum, Clemson ultimately clawed into the lead with just seven seconds left; the game, and season, appeared to finally be over. The pain of a shockingly poor-turned hopelessly optimistic year was going to be a thing of the past, and the rebuild of the football team was set to be the talk of the town.
All of that sounded great until Darius Maddox checked into the game.
The ever-savvy Mike Young pulled Aluma and Mutts— his two best players— from the contest, opting for a five-guard lineup with two points separating his Hokies from the Tigers. A two would tie it, and a three would win it.
Nahiem Alleyne inbounded the ball to Maddox who calmly glided down the court, went behind his back, made one size-up dribble, then yanked a contested three over a defender that smoothly ripped the nylon as time expired. The hope that Murphy had professed many emotions ago was still alive.
24 hours later the Hokies rode another great night from Aluma, Murphy, and Pedulla to a seven-point win over the second-seed Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
A March Madness bid was slowly opening up, much to the chagrin of the unrelenting Joe Lunardi, the famed ESPN bracketologist who insisted that the Hokies were making no progress towards earning a spot. Every game was do or die for the squad, who seemed desperate to win at any cost.
VT was back in action after yet another 24-hour layover, this time against the third-seed North Carolina Tar Heels, a team that had owned them recently and eliminated them from the previous year’s conference tournament.
The primary matchup was Keve Aluma and ACC Player of the Year runner-up Armando Bacot, a brute of a center with raw strength and an unrefereeable style of play.
Aluma had been accused of playing soft against more physical big men in the past, and although he had gotten better with time, he was still expected to go out with a whimper against the bigger and stronger Tar Heel.
Facing his college basketball mortality and with his legacy on the line, the senior center played Bacot to a draw and ultimately caused him to foul out late in the game, doing every bit of his job in the most necessary of times.
Aluma's 18 points led all Hokie starters, but it was an efficient 20-point career night from Maddox that topped the box score. The sophomore guard made four of his five threes and was the offense's driving force in an avenging win over their bitter rivals.
One Last Stand
Does the story even need any more detail from here?
The Hokies beat UNC by 13 and advanced to their first ACC title match in program history; part two of the season now had a chance to completely right the wrongs of part one and lead to the most successful year in VT basketball history. The only thing standing in the way was the Duke Blue Devils and Mike Krzyzewski, coaching his final conference game.
Simply put, the Hokies played a national championship-level game.
Hunter Cattoor refound his stroke from beyond the arc and dropped a career-high 31 points, Keve Aluma finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists in what was the most well-rounded game of his basketball career, Justyn Mutts and Nahiem Alleyne played tremendous defense all night, Storm Murphy looked like the calmest player on the court, and the young bench rotation made all of the necessary hustle plays. VT won both halves and annihilated the top team in the conference by 15 points.
Hunter Cattoor was named MVP of the tournament after carrying the early offensive burden against Duke and coming up with big play after big play for the entire 40 minutes. He finished with 31 points (11-16 FG, 7-9 3PT), four rebounds, and three steals.
"I knew when it came together it was going to be a beautiful thing, and they came together," said coach Young after the championship victory while reflecting on VT’s 13-2 run through conference play and off the bubble. "I didn't think it would culminate in this, but we're not going to give it back."
This was Mike Young’s sixth appearance in a conference championship game; it was also his sixth victory.
Lowest seed to win the ACC championship. First ACC championship in program history.
Taming the Longhorns
Saturday’s momentous occasion earned the Hokies an undisputed berth in the tournament and set them up for a date with the sixth-seed Texas Longhorns. Here was their reaction to drawing the Hokies in the first round.
Texas reacts to getting the 6 seed and first round matchup with Virginia Tech pic.twitter.com/Zx2OG3NWw9— Travis Recek (@TravisRecek) March 13, 2022
UT finished its season 21-11 with a 10-8 record in conference play, also going 3-8 against top-25 teams in the process.
The Longhorns play a slow, methodical brand of ball that led them to finish 337th of 358 teams in average possessions per game; for reference, the Hokies check in at 347.
They are also quite an impressive defensive outfit and rank 12th nationally in defensive efficiency. Their 100th-ranked offense leaves much more to be desired and contrasts a Tech team that is 22nd in offensive efficiency and 82nd on defense (note: the Hokies were much more impressive in both areas during their winning stretch.)
Texas’ leading man is 6’6 forward Timmy Allen, a 12.3-point-per-night scorer that averages 6.5 rebounds and does the majority of his work inside the arc. They also have two guards— Marcus Carr and Andrew Jones— that average 10.9 and 10.7 points, though neither shoots the three-ball well.
Nobody on Texas’ squad is a real knockdown shooter; UT comes in at 242nd from beyond the arc, which is not what you would hope for from a team that is also very bad at rebounding the ball.
Truly, Texas is only an issue if they can suffocate their opponent— granted, they are quite good at that.
The Longhorns will be playing without UMass transfer Tre Mitchell, who averaged 8.7 points and 4.0 rebounds in 18.6 minutes of action per game and is on an indefinite leave of absence.
“I’ve been in contact with Tre and his family consistently,” said Texas coach Chris Beard after Mitchell departed in early February. “He’s with his family now. It’s a personal matter, and we support him completely.”
Texas is 3-4 since losing their big man with three losses to ranked teams, one of which came in overtime against Kansas.
Mitchell’s departure may not be an open-and-shut case and could be due to friction in his relationship with the program, however.
Mitchell’s father hopped on Twitter and sounded off after his son registered four points and two rebounds in just 16 minutes for the Longhorns during an 80-63 loss to the #10 Baylor Bears.
“How can players be consistent with an inconsistent coach though?!?” Mitchell’s dad tweeted. “You can’t get into a rhythm if anytime someone does something wrong [Beard is] pulling them.”
Mitchell's father also retweeted a tweet condemning Chris Beard that reads as follows:
“[Beard] don’t take no responsibility for as a coach just mentally and verbally abuse the players. He all for self, tell ppl what they want to hear to use them for his gain.”
Needless to say, the 6-foot-9 junior will not be suiting up on Friday.
Tre Mitchell’s dad has some thoughts on Chris Beard… 👀 pic.twitter.com/fKLmoXFLek— MataGooner (@MataGooner) February 23, 2022
How Do the Hokies Stack Up Against Texas?
Quite well to be honest. VT and Texas both play a slower style that focuses on finding quality looks at the basket and shutting down their opponent’s primary emphasis in attack, meaning that the game will be a battle of execution.
NET ranking: 16
KenPom ranking: 15
BPI ranking: 18
Quad 1 record: 5-10
Quad 2 record: 5-1
Quad 3 record: 3-0
Quad 4 record: 8-0
Virginia Tech’s Breakdown
NET ranking: 27
KenPom ranking: 23
BPI ranking: 19
Quad 1 record: 3-5
Quad 2 record: 6-5
Quad 3 record: 7-2
Quad 4 record: 7-0
Spread: Texas -1
Points total: 124.5
BPI Predictor: Texas 51.1%
Texas’ guards are not the taller and longer prototypes that have caused the Hokies trouble in the past, which is a huge plus; they also tend to downsize for longer stretches of the game, which will allow VT to play five out and switch one-four or one-five defensively.
The Hokies shoot better from the floor and three and are just off of Texas’ mark at the free-throw line, although the Big 12 representatives get there much more frequently than the ACC champs (17.8 to 13.1 attempts per outing).
VT also allows far fewer offensive rebounds per game despite not exactly being an example of a menacing glass-cleaning squad. This could prove to be big if the Hokies can steal a few extra possessions in a slow-moving affair that places a premium on extra shots.
Although expectations will be the highest for All-ACC second-team performer Keve Aluma, Storm Murphy is going to be the player to watch. The grad transfer went from losing his spot in the closing rotation to becoming an integral part of the team’s attack and showed a new component to his game by driving to the cup and making plays during the conference tourney. His ability to collapse the defense and find open teammates will be vital for a game with fewer shots across the board.
Darius Maddox also has a chance to shine as the best shot-creator and bailout jump-shooter on the team; he is going to be one of the first to touch the ball if the offense gets in a bind late in the clock and needs a bucket, and as we know, there is no defense for good offense. Darius Maddox provides good offense.
The Hokies have brutal potential matchups with the Purdue Boilermakers and Kentucky Wildcats in the Round of 32 and Sweet 16, and they are getting a tough opening draw, but as the nervous expressions during Texas’ watch party showed, they are aware of Hokies' power; after all, they have the second-highest winning percentage amongst all major-conference teams over the past couple of months.
An ACC Championship is great, but why not strive for more? This team has excelled in do-or-die moments recently and won every game in the ACCT by an increasing amount of points. Their momentum will be as high as ever, and they will be spurred on by a first-round exit last season.
VT opens its tournament schedule on Friday at 4:30 p.m. ET inside Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.