With a disastrous football season in Blacksburg finally winding down, a Hokies fan base yearning for excitement, personality, and, well, winning has shifted its attention to the hardwood. And in news essential to the fragile temperament of a Hokie in 2020, they've been met by Mike Young, a 57-year-old Southwest Virginia native who has delivered -- with flying colors, I might add -- on all three fronts. Not much was expected from Young's second go-round in Blacksburg, evidenced by the fact that ACC scribes voted his Hokies 11th in the preseason conference poll, perhaps most insultingly behind the likes of Josh Pastner (who hasn't made the NCAA tournament in 7 years and lost to Mercer and Georgia State before upsetting a reeling Kentucky over the weekend). But the script has flipped in short order, with Virginia Tech surging to the No. 15 spot in the AP Poll after a scorching start on the shoulders of good-ol' Popcorn Mike.
Undefeated (1-0, x4): Two weeks ago, a 4-0 start for a Hokies team deeper than any in recent memory may have been viewed as expected, or at least far from headline-worthy. After all, ACC teams are expected to handle in-state, non-Power-5 foes with relative ease, and good-but-not-great programs like Temple and USF presented challenging but eminently winnable games. That storyline changed in the wee-hours of Black Friday, with news breaking that Tech and Villanova had agreed to play the following evening in Bubbleville. The third-ranked Wildcats -- athletic, long, and veteran-laden -- presented the Hokies with a towering task: figure out how to prepare for and compete with a national power on 36 hours notice. (For comparison's sake, another program had a similar opportunity last weekend in Blacksburg with two weeks prep time, and that ended in yet another demoralizing 35-point home loss). But Young's group was different. They traded punch-for-punch with 'Nova in the first 20 minutes, didn't back down, and dropped haymakers down the stretch to pull away. The game was in their grasps, until it wasn't. Jay Wright pulled a rabbit out of his ass, forced overtime (which in a refreshing change of pace, Young took responsibility for), and then lost all the same to a suffocating Tech defense that forced contested shot after contested shot in extra time. It was a signature win for Popcorn Mike, one that earned his team a national ranking and himself a Jon Rothstein evergreen tweet.
Mike Young. Poppin' like Orville Redenbacher.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 4, 2020
Wabissa Bede, Scorer: It's no secret that I haven't been the biggest Wabissa Bede fan over the years. Sure, Bede's always been a feisty on-ball defender and serviceable distributor, but his offensive shortcomings so often seemed emblematic of a Tech basketball program struggling to break through into national relevance. But one fact has become abundantly clear just four games into the 2020 season: Wabissa Bede is this team's best point guard. Bede's strengths haven't changed -- he continues to be Young's best perimeter defender, remains reliable with the basketball in his hands (put differently, he wasn't Jalen Cone against VMI), and will always be a willing passer. But Bede...shudders...gasps...can sort of shoot now. Don't get me wrong, the stocky senior won't break any offensive records over the next 3 months, but he's become serviceable (and perhaps more importantly, confident), and that's all Tech can ask for.
Admitting a small sample, Bede's already 4-10 from distance this year (3-5 if you throw out the horror story that was VMI), improving on a 14-63 (~22%) clip from a year ago. The New England native is also 100% from the line (building on a Shaq-like 23-46 showing in 2019) and has shown the ability to knock down mid-range jumpers, most notably delivering the dagger to the Keydets in the game's waning minutes.
So what does this all mean? Two things:
- Jalen Cone and Carter Diarra can play manageable minutes and more off the ball, which is good for everyone.
- We can stop the "Wabissa Bede made a jump shot" tweets. Actually, nevermind, not committing to that quite yet.
Winning the Transfer Portal: This is the other dynamic that has made watching Virginia Tech basketball feel like an out-of-body experience the last two weeks. Tech actually has (multiple!) talented big men, led by ACC Player of the Week and former Wofford forward Keve Aluma.
Keve Aluma is the season's first 𝗣𝗹𝗮𝘆𝗲𝗿 𝗼𝗳 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗪𝗲𝗲𝗸 after going OFF in his first week as a Hokie: 🔥 18.0 ppg💪 5.0 rpg🚫 1.3 bpg@HokiesMBB | @AlumaKeve pic.twitter.com/7Jx9T4qEyJ— ACC Men's Basketball (@accmbb) November 30, 2020
At 6'9", Aluma has a bit of Kerry Blackshear Jr. to his game, combining the ability to score with his back to the basket with a formidable pick-and-pop game that makes defending Tech ball-screens a headache (especially with a proven scorer like Diarra). If anything, Aluma's a bit more athletic than Blackshear, although not as refined (yet) on the interior offensively.
But he's not alone! Aluma's teamed up with Delaware graduate transfer Justyn Mutts in Young's starting five, a second newcomer who has brought a new feel to Tech basketball. Listed at 6'7" (which feels like a Zach LeDay 'wink-wink' roster move), Mutts is undersized but incredibly rangy and aggressive. He displays shades of JT Thompson (although the former Blue Hen is probably more skilled), and reminds Marcolini and I a bit of UVA's Mamade Diakite before he became the 'Hoos primary scorer. Good size, strong rebounder, serviceable jump shot, and can score in a variety of ways. It's something that good programs have in droves (i.e., Villanova) that Tech seems to have always lacked.
Before moving on, a quick nod to Cordell Pemsl, the 6'9" hulk of a man that should provide frontcourt depth that has been lacking throughout the Buzz and Popcorn Mike eras. And just think, this is all without John Ojiako. Strange times, indeed.
The Frosh Files: In short, the freshmen look like freshmen. Joe Bamisile arrived in Blacksburg with the most buzz, an aura of excitement that only seemed to be building as the Hokies progressed through preseason camp. And then...well, let's just say the game seems to be moving a bit fast. In fairness, this shouldn't be surprising after he missed his senior year of high school due to injury, so probably a net positive that expectations are being toned down a bit. Plus, with a healthy Cone and an awake Diarra both returning to the lineup, minutes will only get more scarce in ACC play.
But hey, he's an All-American quality hype man that can only go up from here.
We have even fewer data points on Darius Maddox and David N'Guessan, both of whom seem to have fallen outside Young's primary rotation of 10 (G: Bede, Radford, Alleyne, Cone, Diarra, Catoor, Bamisile; F: Mutts, Aluva, Pemsl). Barring any injuries and with a shortened non-conference slate, I wouldn't expect them to factor in much until next year.
Looking Ahead: It's a one-game week for the 4-0 Hokies, with 2-1 Penn State coming to town after succumbing to Seton Hall in an overtime affair on Sunday evening. And it's an important game for the Hokies, both to give the Big Ten / ACC Challenge Scheduling Committee the middle finger after being left out of the fun altogether a year ago and to harness momentum heading into conference play beginning with Clemson on December 15.
Here's hoping it doesn't go anything like football.