I'm thrilled to join The Key Play covering Virginia Tech men's basketball. I graduated from Virginia Tech this past May with a degree in the newly-created Sports Media & Analytics major. I've always had a mind for numbers, which I incorporate into my writing. More than anything, I hope to provide unique insights into Tech hoops that don't necessarily show up in a box score. Expect a column or more per week on a variety of topics from me throughout the season.
The Hokies are off to a stellar start in 2021-22. They are 5-0, having climbed up to No. 26 in the KenPom rankings, ranking third in the ACC behind Duke and Florida State. Transfer point guard Storm Murphy has been as good as advertised, averaging 10.8 ppg on 67.6 eFG%, one of the highest marks nationally on the young season. Forward Justyn Mutts is perhaps the team's most complete player, locking down the defensive interior and providing numerous highlight-reel dunks. What's not to like? This team can shoot the three, score inside, rebound, and force turnovers.
At the risk of sounding too optimistic, the Hokies have yet to be tested by a comparable foe, and this week begins a brutal slate in which they play four KenPom Top 50 opponents in six games. That stretch begins at the NIT Season Tip-Off in Brooklyn, New York, as Tech faces off against a formidable Memphis squad.
Preview: Memphis Tigers
Fourth-year head coach Penny Hardaway has done a tremendous job assembling one of the most talented rosters in the country. Memphis is led by freshman forward Emoni Bates (13.3 ppg), who at 6'8 and shooting 42% from three may be the most versatile scorer in the country. He is complemented by Jalen Duren (15.0 ppg), another prize from the Tigers' 2021 recruiting class. Duren is a nightmare to contend with in the paint, averaging nearly five blocks per game. Rim protection is something Memphis does incredibly well — they lead the nation in block rate at 25.9%, albeit a small sample against lesser competition.
Though talented and young, this is not a team that puts style over substance. In fact, Memphis' defense (KenPom No. 1) is much better than their offense (No. 48), thanks certainly to shot blocking but also a high forced turnover rate (25.3%). Their one Achilles' heel is that they struggle to rebound defensively, so an opportunity exists for Keve Aluma and Tech's bigs to cash in on second-chance points.
Offensively, Memphis can shoot the ball from pretty much anywhere on the court. Their length and size (the average height of their starters is 6'8) allow them to rebound well offensively and draw fouls at a high rate. Turnovers have been the main issue on offense, as they rank a dismal 353rd in TO%. Otherwise, this team can light up the scoreboard.
Memphis is incredibly balanced, not just in terms of their scoring but their usage rates as well. KenPom has a stat called "possession rate" which measures how often a player is utilized in a possession. The Tigers have eight players that have a possession rate of at least 20% (for comparison, the pass-happy Hokies have just four). Among those players is old friend Landers Nolley II (8.0 ppg), who is now coming off the bench but still averages over 20 minutes per contest, fourth-most on the team.
On paper and on film, this team is loaded. The Tigers have nine blue-chip recruits (either a four-star or five-star), a figure bested only by North Carolina. This seems to be the first year that Hardaway's bunch is putting it all together; last year, Memphis had a solid squad but came up short in close games (2-5 in games decided by four points or less), ultimately costing them an NCAA Tournament bid. However, the Tigers used that disappointment as motivation, steamrolling their way to an NIT title with the No. 1 KenPom defense in the nation.
In the last three years, there are only two coaches in basketball whose defenses have ranked top five in KenPom multiple times: Tony Bennett and Penny Hardaway. Though Mike Young is an offensive mastermind, points will be hard to come by for Virginia Tech, though it might not seem that way because Memphis plays incredibly fast (third in adjusted tempo). That pace is more a byproduct of what the Tigers do on offense, as they rank seventh in average offensive possession length. Turnovers have something to do with this (their passing is pretty careless), but they also waste little time moving the ball; they seem to feed the post as quickly as possible and take the first available shot. Watching the film, I was stunned at how little off-the-ball movement there was. It's an iso-heavy, helter-skelter brand of basketball, but the Tigers shoot so well that it doesn't matter much, and you can't blame Hardaway for wanting to get his playmakers in one-on-one matchups. You'll see a lot of sequences like this:
Young will slow down the pace and make this a half-court game. Murphy, Hunter Cattoor, and the rest of Tech's guards will struggle with the Tigers' length. That said, I'm curious to see how the Tigers respond to a well-oiled motion offense like Tech has. Avoiding live-ball turnovers is crucial, because Memphis will kill you in transition. Because so much of the Tigers' defensive prowess comes from shot-blocking, it's crucial that Tech find ways to generate open looks. Of course, hitting open shots is always a good formula for winning basketball games.
Preview: Xavier/Iowa State
Virginia Tech will face the winner of Xavier-Iowa State on Friday. I think Hokie fans should root for Iowa State, because Xavier is a much better team. The Musketeers are very balanced, owning the No. 36 KenPom offense and No. 36 defense. Their leading scorer is fifth-year senior point guard Paul Scruggs (15.8 ppg), who distributes the ball well and is a menace defensively with a high steal rate. Also worthy of mentioning is sophomore guard Colby Jones (13.0 ppg), a tenacious rebounder averaging nearly five offensive boards per contest, and seven-foot junior Jack Nunge (9.8 ppg) who transferred in from Iowa. Nunge is certainly a force to be reckoned with — he can rebound, block shots, and draw fouls, with a pretty hook shot to go with it. He's quite mobile for his size, so the matchup between him and Aluma will be on to keep an eye on.
Offensively, Xavier is not super eye-popping in any one metric except that they rebound well (33rd in offensive rebound%) and are effective shooting inside. They also share the ball, as evidenced by their high assist rate, which is a staple of head coach Travis Steele's offense going back to his assistant coaching days under Chris Mack. They take a lot of threes but aren't particularly good at making them (252nd in 3P%). This is a tall, strong, and physical team that makes their living in the paint.
Similarly, the Musketeers possess an elite interior defense, ranking third nationally in opponent 2P% and 17th in block rate. They avoid fouls and can clean up the glass. Because of the Hokies' depth at forward, I'm not too concerned about being overwhelmed with their size, especially if Tech can force Nunge to guard on the perimeter which will be an issue for him. That said, Xavier's guards are really quick and can get to the rim off the dribble drive. This will be a tough matchup against a proud Xavier program that is looking for their first winning season in conference play since 2018.
Iowa State, by contrast, is a program in search of an identity. The Cyclones are coming off an historically awful year which saw them win just two games and go 0-18 in conference play. That abysmal showing resulted in the firing of Steve Prohm, who oversaw an incremental downturn after inheriting a talent-rich team that, at one point, had made six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. In March, Iowa State hired T.J. Otzelberger, who was very successful at South Dakota State but had a losing record in two seasons at UNLV.
Gone are all five starters from last year's team, four via the transfer portal. To field a team, the Cyclones dipped back into the portal, scooping up senior guard Izaiah Brockington (13.5 ppg) from Penn State. If that name sounds familiar, it's because he scored 24 points on 8-of-11 shooting in a 75-55 drubbing of the Hokies last December. The team's most promising player, however, is freshman point guard Tyrese Hunter (12.8 ppg), a four-star recruit from Wisconsin that can jump out of a gym.
Senior guard Gabe Kalscheur (11.0 ppg) will probably have the ball in his hands most often, as he leads the team in FGA. However, he is not an efficient shooter, sporting a 35.9 eFG% and is a dreadful 3-of-20 from behind the arc. His struggles are emblematic of Iowa State's as a team: they're just not special in any offensive category, and when you take into account their 341st-rated strength of schedule, you can see why KenPom thinks so poorly of the Cyclones' offense (No. 174).
Defense is this team's bread and butter. They contest shots, force turnovers, and rebound. Though not particularly tall, the Cyclones are quick, long, and athletic, playing a suffocating man defense. You will see a lot of aggressive double-teams in the low post. Even so, it's hard to see Iowa State hitting enough shots to keep up with the Hokies, who possess a defense far superior to any the Cyclones have faced. For that reason, Tech would be highly favored in this hypothetical matchup.
Live by the Three
If you've watched Mike Young's offense operate over the years, you're probably aware that the ability to shoot the three-ball is a highly coveted skill. In Young's final season at Wofford in 2018-19, the Terriers went 30-5 and defeated Seton Hall in the NCAA Tournament. A big reason for this was their absurd three-point shooting: Wofford ranked second nationally shooting 41.2% from behind the arc, paced by guards Fletcher Magee, Nathan Hoover, and, of course, Storm Murphy.
Since the 2014-15 season, Young's teams at Wofford and Virginia Tech have ranked top 80 nationally in three-point percentage six times. Only two other coaches have done the same: Mark Few at Gonzaga and Randy Bennett at Saint Mary's. Over this timeframe, Young-coached teams have shot 38.3% from downtown, the highest mark among the 213 Division I basketball coaches with at least six years of experience under their belt. Get in a gym with Mike Young, and he'll get you buckets.
I bring this up because it demonstrates how Young's coaching philosophy has changed over the years in regards to shot selection. Young's earlier teams at Wofford were not particularly good shooting squads; aside from an outlier year in 2011, the Terriers tended to finish in the middle of the pack from three, bottoming out in 2013 with the 303rd-ranked three-point unit.
Since then, however, Young's teams have been on point from downtown, ranking top 10 nationally in 3P% three times. Magee certainly played a large role in this, but even subtracting his stats the overall percentages don't change much. Some of Young's players had to wait a couple years before they got the green light, but once they did, the results were stellar. Ryan Sawvell is a good example: the 6'8 forward had six three-point attempts in three years at Evansville, but in his senior year with Wofford, he shot 42% from long range on 67 attempts. You could also look at Aluma, who had just one career attempt from behind the arc in Spartanburg but nailed 35% of his triples a season ago on 57 tries.
The three-pointer is increasingly a staple of the NBA game, and its college counterpart is no exception: three-point attempt rates are up about five percent over the last seven years, as teams collectively shoot about 38% of their field goals from long range. I can't say if Young made a philosophical change around 2015, or if it just took him that long to find the right personnel; regardless, he clearly understands that the ability to shoot threes is critical for generating offense, not just in and of itself but also in terms of the spacing it provides in a motion offense. It's also an optimal strategy for teams that are smaller and don't have bruising big men who can dominate the paint.
In analyzing Young's offense, I think it's helpful not to get bogged down too much in the numbers. During the Virginia Tech-Navy broadcast, I found myself agreeing with the comments made by color analyst Steve Lappas: it's not that Virginia Tech necessarily has better shooters than everyone else, but their offensive system generates open looks which increases the probability of making threes. The Hokies make good shots because they take good shots. That's the beauty of the three-pointer: it is the great equalizer in the game of basketball.