Though it may have felt like a gut punch after the way the VIrginia Tech men's basketball team played for most of the season, one could argue that the Hokies were fortunate to drop all the way to a 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
After floating around the 8/9 line for the past few weeks, Tech's COVID-related schedule breaks and their loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament sent them down a ranking. And while a double-digit seed may be hard to swallow, the good news is that the Hokies get to avoid the potential matchup with a one seed in the second round and may have ended up with a slightly more manageable — if not still unrealistic — path to the Sweet 16.
The bad news, however, is that the Hokies drew Florida, a long, athletic bunch from a power conference who could certainly give them some problems. And while a win over the Gators isn't out of the question, the Hokies' success in the bracket is contingent on a few things breaking for or against them.
If Keve Aluma starts hot then the Hokies will win
Outside of the game against Pittsburgh (an outlier for many reasons, including Xavier "wait, who the hell is this guy?" Johnson's 32 points) you can track Tech's losses directly with Aluma's play.
In their five other losses this year, here are Aluma's numbers:
vs Penn State (L 75-55): 8 points on 4-11 (36%) shooting, 12 rebounds, 1 assist, 0 blocks
@ Louisville (L 73-71): 11 points on 3-10 (30%) shooting, 5 rebounds, 0 assists, 1 block
@ Syracuse (L 78-60): 2 points on 1-10 (10%) shooting, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 0 blocks
vs Georgia Tech (L 69-53): 12 points on 5-15 (33%) shooting, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 0 blocks
vs UNC (L 81-73): 9 points on 4-13 (31%) shooting, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block
That's pretty linear. If Aluma gets going early, builds his confidence with an easy bucket or two, he's a borderline unstoppable, first team All-ACC caliber player. If he misses a few bunnies, gets contested at the rim or has a few shots blocked you can see him wilt with frustration.
When Aluma's going, it puts opposing defenses in impossible situations. Do you double team him, and risk leaving one of Tech's shooters open, or do you let him go to work on some poor soul in the post (RIP Jay Huff, prayers up)? You could argue that Aluma is almost single handedly responsible for the Hokies' best two wins this year (against Virginia and Villanova), and if he plays like he did against the Hoos, he could propel his team into the Sweet 16.
But it's all conditional. Aluma is a second team all-conference player because his highs don't live in a vacuum, they exist in a world with his clunkers too. Against the Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament, Mike Young used his big man to draw one of Carolina's bigs out of the paint. It allowed Justyn Mutts to have the type of 30-point explosion he had.
But his sacrifice came at a cost. You could see Aluma visibly lose confidence as the game wore on. He missed a few easy ones in the second half and began to lose his edge defensively. Armando Bacot sensed Aluma's waning physicality and capitalized, scoring 13 points and grabbing five offensive in the second half.
The key to Aluma being a confident (and competent) interior defender is by making sure he's rolling early. Florida is long, but doesn't have the same size as Carolina (and really, who else in the country does?) Colin Castleton will pose a challenge — he averages two blocks a game — but at 6'11" 231, he reminds me more of Jay Huff than someone like Bacot.
If Aluma can play Castleton similarly to how he played Huff (or even Pitt's Justin Champagnie and Abdoul Coulibaly), the Hokies will beat the Gators. I'm not much of a guarantee man, because it almost always leads me to looking foolish, but I feel pretty good about this one.
If Wabissa Bede hits a three then the Hokies will (probably) win
Though it's not as linear as Aluma's, Tech is different when their senior point guard can contribute ever-so-slightly on the offensive end. I will always contend that the biggest problem Bede has with the fan base is simply that he isn't Justin Robinson.
It's hard to replace a legend at your position, and Robinson is arguably (...inarguably?) the best pure point guard to ever play the game in Blacksburg.
(If you want to argue about it, I'll gladly mix it up with you in the comments, but if we're talking scoring/passing/defense/feel for the game I think Robinson rates better than either Malcolm Delaney or Zabian Dowdell. And please, don't call Dell Curry a point guard just to be a contrarian.)
But the senior's combination of defense and ability to run the offense makes him invaluable to Young. Tech's white hot first half against UNC in the ACC Tournament doesn't happen without Bede setting the tone defensively and throwing whip around passes to a teammate cutting baseline.
He'll never be a scorer. He's not Robinson, he'll never be able to pull the offense out of a scoring drought by calling his number on three consecutive possessions. But he does have to be able to occasionally take advantage of what opposing defenses give him. Not much, mind you, but juuuuust enough to make opponents respect him when the ball swings to him midway through the shot clock.
For instance, Bede had a moment against Carolina early in the second half. His defender wasn't respecting him, none of the Tar Heels' many shot blockers seemed to think he was a threat to drive, so they all vacated the lane. Bede made a quick move, got right to the basket and then...missed the layup.
It's just a little moment over the course of a bigger game, but opportunities like that are essential to making the defense show him a modicum of respect. I know it's a joke on Twitter, but the Hokies are more successful when Bede hits a three (they're 9-2 when he makes at least one from deep and just 6-4 when he doesn't.)
Florida is built to give the Hokies problems on the perimeter. Some of their best shot blockers are actually their guards, and they'll be able to close out in a hurry on Nahiem Alleyne and Hunter Cattoor. They'll need as much space as possible, and some of it will come from whether or not the Gators are afraid to leave Bede wide-ass open. He hits a shot, things open up and the scoring could get easier.
If Florida gets major production from more than one guard then the Hokies will likely lose
Any team can survive one person going off. The aforementioned Xavier Johnson wasn't the reason the Panthers beat the Hokies in early February, it was that Pitt hit 58% of their shots and 56% of their threes in the second half. Tech simply broke down defensively and couldn't keep up on the other end.
With the tragic loss of superstar forward Keyontae Johnson, Florida has relied heavily on Tre Mann to get them buckets. The 6'5" guard has been a bit of a machine of late, averaging 23 a game in his last five, including a 30 point flamethrower of a performance in their SEC tournament loss to Tennessee.
But the Gators really get going when they have a 1b to Mann's 1a. In their win over West Virginia, Castleton had 21. Noah Locke has an ability to hit from deep, as does Tyree Appleby. The Hokies can manage a nice night from Mann (or any other single Gator), but if two or more get going it'll be curtains for Young's squad.
If Florida turns Tech's guards over then the Hokies will have a bad time
We know the Hokies still turn it over a lot. It's the one thing from the beginning of the season that we all hope would get cleaned up that simply hasn't corrected itself. Most of it comes from only having one confident ball handler on the roster (Bede) after the departure of Cartier Diarra, and having to force guys into playmaking roles who may not be used to it.
But if the Gators' length consistently bothers Cattoor, Alleyne, Bamisile and Mutts, it'll be a struggle for the Hokies to get going offensively.
Now, that's not to say it would be backbreaking. The Hokies have won games where they've turned it over 15 times (Clemson, at Wake Forest), but they'll need to catch breaks and hope Florida doesn't get hot on the other end. It definitely won't be a fun experience, win or lose.
If Justyn Mutts plays like he did vs Carolina then the Hokies will cause some problems
Y'all Justyn Mutts is a mf PROBLEM.
My favorite thing about the High Point-to-Delaware-to-Blacksburg transfer is that he doesn't need the ball to be effective. If the game plan needs him to defend and grab rebounds, he does it. If they need him to space the floor for Aluma's post presence, he does that too.
And if they need him to put up more than 10 shots and dominate his defender with a combination of shooting, quickness and power, he can definitely do it. Over Tech's last seven games Mutts is averaging 14 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block and about 1 steal, while shooting 55% from the field and 40% from three, and has also defended his ass off in the process.
The man is on a tear, and is a matchup problem regardless of opposing length. Though the Gators will have the requisite bodies to throw at him, Mutts could be the difference maker this March. If Aluma can get going alongside his teammate, it'll cause immediate issues. Not many teams have the ability or the experience handling a big-to-big connection at that level.
If things come down to coaching at the end then the Hokies will win
This one's pretty simple. I think Mike White is an excellent coach who can bring in tons of talent but is also pretty underrated on the sideline. He doesn't get the publicity like Billy Donovan did for years in Gainesville, but all he's done is lead his Gators to four NCAA Tournaments in a row, winning at least one game in each of them. He's a hard out.
But when things get tight, this is where we're really going to see Mike Young's bag of tricks. It's not a coincidence that two years ago Wofford played Kentucky to a tight game, despite Fletcher Magee shooting 4-17 from the floor. Young just destroyed John Calipari from the jump — the Terriers came out with a plan and stumped the WIldcats offensively.
I'm confident in whatever Young has planned for Tech, and if it comes down to a few possessions at the end, I really like the Hokies' chances.