Virginia Tech Basketball: Hokies quietly rising under Mike Young

Virginia Tech basketball entered this season picked to finish 11th in the 15-team ACC and was not particularly close to being even a slot higher (based on the points from 155 total voters). Given that the Hokies finished last year in a tie for 10th, outside of the KenPom Top 100, and lost leading scorer Landers Nolley to transfer, the preseason expectation wasn’t a major surprise. The Hokies have appeared to use it as bulletin material, though, while jumping out to an impressive 11-2 (5-1 ACC) record and a national ranking in the AP poll this week.

Included in their record to date are monster wins over Villanova, Clemson and Duke. While one of their losses did come by 20 points at home to a mediocre Penn State squad, one game does not define a season and the Hokies have been otherwise excellent this year. This is only head coach Mike Young‘s second season in Blacksburg but it is already his second strong start. VT started last year 6-0 with wins over Clemson and Michigan State before going just 10-16 over the remaining three months.

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What happened last season to cause the drop-off?

First and foremost, there wasn’t a significant sample size last season proving Virginia Tech was worthy of its seven weeks in the AP Top 25. The Hokies garnered national attention after only six games and rode four sub-150 KenPom nonconference wins in December to remain highly ranked through Jan. 18th. This left plenty of time for the program to come back to Earth, as hot starts can only be believed when there is also a degree of sustainability.

That wasn’t the case with Virginia Tech last season, which came out of the gates posting extremely efficient performances that few would have projected to continue for an entire year. The Hokies cooled off after a 14-5 start and their defense suffered more as the season went on as a result of being unable to get set after missed shots. Comparisons between nonconference and ACC results paint a picture of Virginia Tech’s falloff:

Statistics via T-Rank’s historical data from the 2019-20 season.

So what makes this season different, you might ask?

KenPom’s 2020-21 scouting report for the Hokies.

This season is different from ’19-20 in that Virginia Tech isn’t abnormally elite in any particular categories. The Hokies have instead been rock-solid across the board on both ends of the floor. They shoot the ball efficiently from three but not absurdly so (109th nationally at 34.9%) and have been rebounding well on both ends of the floor.

Most notably, this team’s strengths are typical of a Mike Young-led squad. Young’s best Wofford teams shot the three well at high volume, rebounded defensively, and took care of the basketball. The main anomaly this year is that the Hokies visit the free-throw line with more regularity than his Terrier teams, which might be due to more physically aggressive players on the roster.

When you look at the Hokies’ scouting report on KenPom this season, nothing truly jumps out as a number that will “return to the mean” as the season progresses.

Virginia Tech’s current statistical profile is less prone to peaks and troughs like last year and supports the national assessment of the Hokies — a pretty darn good basketball team capable of finishing near the top of the ACC. This is a down year for the conference with the likes of Duke and North Carolina scuffling, but that has opened the window of opportunity for other teams to swoop in. The Hokies are among those that could make a big move in the league hierarchy this season and a 5-1 start in conference play is further proof.

Experience is making a big difference.

Virginia Tech is also a much older team than it was a year ago. For reference, not only were the Hokies led in scoring by four freshmen (and five of the top six) last season but the rest of the rotation was quite young as well. The team ranked 350th in the entire nation in KenPom’s “experience” rating and 320th in minutes continuity. It’s hard to be successful with that many youngsters and new faces, let alone in a head coach’s first season with the program. The fact the Hokies started as hot as they did was impressive.

Not only does experience help prevent big in-game runs by the opponent, but it also sets up mental toughness for ACC challenges. Losses snowballed for the Hokies last season once shots stopped falling and the team fell apart as a result, dropping 11 of their last 13 games. Last year’s youth showed its ugly side but this season’s returners learned valuable lessons that have set up for future success.

This time around, the Hokies rank 218th in experience and 103rd in minutes continuity. That is a huge difference from the prior year and the returning sophomores have clearly taken big leaps. While a sophomore doesn’t lead the team in scoring (more on that in a bit), second-year players Tyrece Radford, Nahiem Alleyne, Jalen Cone, and Hunter Cattoor have all taken individual strides this season to push the team forward:

Statistics via Sports-Reference

The Hokies added size and Aluma is a star.

Another one of Virginia Tech’s biggest weaknesses last season was a critical lack of frontcourt size. While Young loves “small-ball” lineups, it is vital to have at least one legit big man in the rotation, especially while playing against ACC competition every night out. The Hokies still aren’t very big this season with just a 255th ranking in average height at 76.3″ — that is, however, a major improvement over being ranked 344th in that category a year ago at 75.3″.

This is all thanks to Young’s efforts to bring in four newcomers who fit the bill of adding more height to the rotation. Most importantly, transfer additions Justyn Mutts and Keve Aluma have both been full-time starters and are among the team’s top contributors. Not only do they improve VT’s overall frontcourt size but they also fit Young’s perimeter-based scheme.

Mutts, formerly of Delaware, ranks third on the team in minutes played this season and is a versatile all-around player. He stands at 6-7 and is averaging 7.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, and two assists per game. Mutts is a solid passer for his position and has stepped out beyond the 3-point arc to shoot 9-for-29 (31.0 percent) from deep.

Keve Aluma has been even better while emerging as an All-ACC performer. The Wofford transfer followed Coach Young to VT and has taken a big jump this season. The 6-9 big has been a versatile two-way terror. Aluma used his sit-out year to greatly improve his game and is the perfect fit to lead the Hokies this season. He is efficient inside, stretches the floor this season, draws a ton of fouls (87th in FD/40), rebounds well on both ends, and ranks 132nd nationally in block rate.

Statistics via Sports-Reference.

There have been several breakout stars this season across college basketball and Aluma is right near the top of the list. He is playing similar minutes to when he was at Wofford but has increased his overall numbers dramatically against even tougher competition. He has taken a huge leap to not only help VT offset its height issues from last season but also fill the “star” role for the team. One would be hard-pressed to find many transfers who improved more during their sit-out seasons.

Virginia Tech also brought in a couple of reserves with height: 6-9 Iowa transfer Cordell Pemsl (who has missed four games) and 6-9 true freshman David N’Guessan. Neither has been hugely impactful thus far with the Hokies but they give Young options if they are forced to play bigger lineups or if Mutts and Aluma are in foul trouble.

The system has plenty of shooting to succeed.

Mike Young has been a Division-1 head coach since 2003, with the vast majority of those years coming at Wofford. During his time roaming the sidelines, his teams have traditionally ranked very high nationally in both attempt rate and efficiency from 3-point range. Saying that his offense is perimeter-centric would simply be stating the obvious. He has dove into that philosophy even further over his past five seasons with extensive success.

In order for this scheme to work, Young needs to have plenty of shooting threats, preferably with five shooters on the floor at all times. With the 2020-21 Virginia Tech roster, he has exactly that. While this team might not be as accurate from distance as Young’s Wofford teams led by Fletcher Magee, they are more than capable of making defenses uncomfortable with their floor spacing.

The Hokies already have three players who have made at least 20 3-pointers so far this season, with three more that have hit at least eight. On the whole, 10 different Hokies have made a 3-pointer already this year. Coach Young is encouraging his team to shoot and many have answered the call. They do have a “Big 3” of shooters but everyone has made enough triples that defenses have to account for every player on the floor.

Additionally, the right players are taking the most shots from distance. Jalen Cone leads the team in makes and attempts despite only playing in 10 of 13 games. The sharpshooter’s perimeter attack is followed closely by a pair of other above-average shooters in Hunter Cattoor and Nahiem Alleyne. Coach Young has found players who fit his scheme and is pushing them to excel. Wabissa Bede is the only player whose 3-point attempt rate doesn’t align with his efficiency.

What is Virginia Tech’s ceiling moving forward?

Virginia Tech is playing good basketball right now. The Hokies might not be an elite squad that is going to contend for the national championship, but they are exceeding expectations and are still in the mix for the ACC regular-season title. As of right now, their 5-1 conference record has them all alone in second behind the undefeated Virginia Cavaliers (5-0 ACC).

This team has grown tremendously under Coach Young’s leadership and is balanced with Top 40 ratings in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. They still only rank 37th on KenPom but are slotted at No. 16 in the AP poll.

While it’s easy to feel like being lured into the trap of over-believing VT like last season, there are many differences between that roster and this one. This is Year 2 under the coaching staff, the team is far more experienced, has enough size in the frontcourt, and boasts plenty of 3-point threats to fit the offensive scheme. Keve Aluma has blossomed into a real star as an all-conference performer and a trio of shooters like Cone/Cattoor/Alleyne isn’t easy to find.

Also, I would be remiss if I wrote this whole article without mentioning the jack-of-all-trades in Tyrese Radford. The do-it-all 6-2 sophomore has been highly efficient inside the arc and is a superb rebounder for any size. He is posting 11.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game while shooting 60.2% on 2-pointers. Radford has struggled from three but does everything else well.

On the whole, I’m not willing to go as far as to say that Virginia Tech belongs among the national title contenders this season. The Hokies have, however, put together an early-season resume worthy of a Top 20 ranking and have shown that they might be here to stay. Young is showing that he is more than capable of winning at the high-major level — the longtime Wofford top man just wins games.

If the Hokies get hot when it matters most, they can make some serious noise. Teams that shoot the three well at high volume and are capable defensively are especially dangerous.

Lukas Harkins
Lukas Harkins

Heat Check CBB national writer and bracketologist