Let's get in our feelings for just a second. Well, more specifically, let's get in our feelings for 14.6 seconds.
I think about this 14.6 second stretch way more than what a therapist would deem "healthy and well-adjusted".
Virginia Tech was that close to pushing Duke to overtime in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, and had two shots beforehand to clinch their berth to the Elite Eight outright. If you have the time, I recommend watching the entire 12 minute clip of highlights. Not out of some sort of misguided attempt at self-flagellation, but because there's a feeling of true joy that comes with watching the best Hokie basketball team in program history play together for the last time.
Everything was cooking for Tech against the Blue Devils. Ahmed Hill and Ty Outlaw hit open threes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker found crafty ways to supplement an off shooting night, Kerry Blackshear put up a double-double (18 points, 16 rebounds) and Justin Robinson gave Buzz Williams everything the coach could have possibly asked for — lobs, threes, manic bursts to the rim, he did it all.
It wasn't the deepest team of the Buzzketball era — that was probably the year prior, when Chris Clarke and Justin Bibbs were also on the roster — but it was certainly the best. Williams had six guys who could play with anyone, and in the NCAA Tournament that's all you ever need.
I think about that game for what could have been. They would have played Michigan State in the next round, the same Michigan State team that lost to a diluted version of the Hokies just months later in the Maui Invitational. It's irresponsible to suggest that the two results are in any way related. You'd have to assume that Tom Izzo would have his team slightly more amped up for the Elite Eight than he did for an unimportant tournament in November. But it's enough to put the thought in your head.
Is that the closest Virginia Tech will ever come to a Final Four?
Earlier this month, Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide did the inevitable — they won the national title. The trophy was Saban's seventh as a head coach and sixth as the man in charge in Tuscaloosa. His run of dominance has completely challenged the landscape of college football over the last decade. That challenge?
'I have the resources and ability to go get whatever talent I want, and I dare any of you to do something about it.'
Two other programs have consistently answered the call. Urban Meyer turned Ohio State into an SEC team in everything but name, and Clemson has strung together an unprecedented run of success under Dabo Swinney. Everyone else? Well, at least they try.
The three programs are monoliths. They're black holes whose gravitational pull can draw in any player from across the country. They have more talent, more funding, better coaching and better branding than anyone else in the country. The other 127 teams in the FBS just can't keep up.
Since its transition away from the BCS, there have been seven College Football Playoffs. Which means 28 different teams have been selected for the chance to win the sport's ultimate prize. Let's look at how those 28 selections have broken down by program:
6: Alabama, Clemson
4: Ohio State, Oklahoma
2: Notre Dame
1: Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Michigan State, Oregon, Washington
You can't escape it. No one can. Not only are they too good to be left out of the playoff, they're too good to even make it interesting.
People clamor for playoff expansion, which is...fine, I guess? It won't make things any more competitive, just bank the sport a ton more money while delaying the inevitable. But the powers that be in big boy college football don't particularly care about competitiveness. They don't care about Cincinnati or Central Florida begging for a seat at the grown up table. Hell, they don't really care about Virginia Tech or any of the rest of the middle-to-bottom Power Five programs either.
They're not interested in you if you don't have any realistic shot to contend, and most programs don't. The teams that win all the time make the money, and those teams win all the time because they have all the talent. It's a circle of dominance that keeps the money and the power entrenched in a few select places, a tale as old as time.
And though it's most obvious in college football, talent all-but guarantees success in nearly every sport. The Patriots didn't become a dynasty because of the mythical "Patriot Way". They won with the best QB, head coach and defense in the league. LeBron James doesn't get to 10 NBA Finals by accident, nor does Tiger Woods stumble into 15 major wins. In fact there's only one sport where the most talented teams don't hold a suffocating grip on everyone else's chances for a title.
In the last seven NCAA Tournaments, no program has reached the Final Four more than twice, and the last few years alone have seen the likes of Texas Tech, Auburn, Loyola-Chicago, Oklahoma and South Carolina all make the the national semi-finals. The variance of a single elimination tournament opens the door for any well-coached team to make a run at cutting down the nets. But it's not just the tournament that closes the talent gap.
Duke and Kentucky have a combined 60 players on active rosters in the NBA today. They're powerhouses at the prep-to-pro transfer, sending guys like Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson into another stratosphere of fame before they jump to the league.
And while Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari and boatloads of other coaches went out of their way to court elite high school talent, Tony Bennett quietly built a juggernaut in Charlottesville. Bennett came to Virginia as a system coach whose defensive tactics could muck up anyone. When he took over, the Wahoos didn't exactly have a recent history of excellence — they had made just three tournament appearances in the last 13 years under three different head coaches. They needed a system, structure and something to build a future on.
And while things started slowly out of the gates, Bennett was a good enough coach that his team never cratered (they were exactly .500 in his first two seasons). But he put a plan in place, and just needed enough of his type of players for that plan to come to fruition.
After winning 22 and 23 games respectively in years three and four, Bennett's vision became realized. Since the 2013-14 season, UVA has gone to the NCAA Tournament in six out of six years. They've been a one seed in four of those six appearances, and capped their miraculous run with a championship in 2019.
And while it's not like the Hoos ran short on talent — they currently have seven guys in the league — they found themselves attracting a type of player who fit what Bennett wanted to do, and he made the most of it. Not only did they win the NCAA Tournament, they also showed that there's a place in the sport for good coaches to get good players and run their system. Though you can win with oodles of NBA talent — Duke and Kentucky each hold their share of titles — it isn't a requirement to do so.
The Virginia Tech men's basketball team sits at 11-2, 5-1 in the ACC. They're tied for second in the conference, and already have wins over three ranked opponents. It's far too early to discuss a deep postseason run, or even a tournament bid at all. But when you take a step back to look at the larger picture, Mike Young's quick ascension in Blacksburg looks an awful lot like Bennett's.
Just three days after their loss in the Sweet 16, Williams took the job at Texas A&M. Four days after that, Alexander-Walker declared for the draft. Robinson, Hill and Outlaw graduated, Blackshear transferred leaving Young to inherit a tournament team in name only.
Like the Cavaliers, Tech had made just four tournaments in 13 years under three different coaches (with three of those four trips coming under Williams). Young came into a relatively blank slate with a system, and an idea of the type of player he wanted to recruit.
And because this is Blacksburg — not exactly a magnet for McDonald's All-Americans — Young had to get creative when filling his roster. He grabbed players from everywhere–transfers from Wofford, Delaware and Iowa, an unheralded recruit with no big offers from Orlando, not one, not two, but THREE kids who reclassified and skipped their senior year of high school. He took a 5'10" shooting guard, a 6'1" power forward and a kid who couldn't get off the bench at Wofford, threw them into his system and made it work splendidly.
This is not saying that Young will follow Bennett's path and have the same kind of fortunes that the silver fox found in Charlottesville. To be honest, that would be insulting to the kind of program UVA has built over the last six years (that specific path may not ever be replicable).
But the door for sustained success is wide open. When Young was hired, I found myself openly skeptical. After names like Seton Hall's Kevin Willard and Marquette's Steve Wojciechowski floated around, the idea of a coach from the Southern Conference felt like settling. Sure, he went 30-5 with the Terriers, but a 55 year old coach who racked up nearly 300 wins at one small school? It seemed like a small potatoes kind of move.
But that's the kind of thinking you get from the fans of a football school. If a Power Five program fails to make a splashy football hire, it's deemed a failure. You're already behind before your new coach even starts.
But in basketball a good head coach can come from anywhere, from Wofford to Washington State, Arkansas-Little Rock to Wisconsin-Milwaukee. And when you have a good coach with a good system, who can recruit his players, anything can happen.
Virginia Tech will always be a football school. No amount of ranked wins, Jalen Cone threes or sick social media art will ever change that. But if Hokie fans are looking for the program that's most likely to ever have a shot at a title, they shouldn't be towards Lane Stadium.
Tech basketball has the coach. The coach has the system and a knack for finding guys to build a team. And the team adopts a certain identity that resonates perfectly well with Hokies everywhere:
Mike Young on the #Hokies identity: "The team creates it and I push it every day. It comes from Coach Foster, Coach Beamer. I think of that identity on the defensive end, the grit, the hard-nosed. I don't know if I've had an a-ha moment, it just kind of evolves."— David Cunningham (@therealdcunna) January 18, 2021
If Young's program can continue to compete like it has, it builds a culture of consistency and winning. Once you have that kind of structure and system in place, all you can ever ask for is a shot. It won't happen this year, and it probably won't ever happen while he's on the sidelines in Cassell Coliseum.
But this is college basketball, you just never know.