Over the course of this season, I have told you many things.
I told you that Virginia Tech couldn't finish close games. I told you they looked slow, small, and unathletic. That they weren't capable of competing against the upper-echelon of college basketball. I told you that their point guard play was dismal, that they couldn't score off the dribble, that their forwards couldn't carry the load. I told you that their defense was in a free-fall, and that their offense was one-dimensional — too reliant on shooting, not reliant enough on physicality.
But sports have a way of humbling us all. And today, I consider myself very humbled.
The Virginia Tech Hokies are the ACC Tournament champions. They did it without prized recruits or a Hall of Fame, national championship and gold-medal winning head coach patrolling their sidelines. Instead, the Hokies won college basketball's most prestigious conference tournament with their two best players unrated by recruiting services coming out of high school. They won it with their highest-rated player coming off the bench, and their second-highest rated player a complementary piece that was largely a non-factor in the final two games.
Above all else, they won it with a head coach in Mike Young who spent 17 years at a mid-major program, and who used the basketball knowledge he had accumulated in that time to recruit a roster full of 11 scholarship players that he deemed good enough to play at this level. Despite all those concerns and more, Young's judgment proved to be right in the end.
Virginia Tech — a school that has been in the ACC all of 18 years — slayed the two behemoths of the conference in North Carolina and Duke, not only beating them but doing so soundly. Per ESPN Stats and Information, the Hokies are the first team in the Mike Krzyzewski era to beat those two teams by double-digits on consecutive days. The Hokies took down the league's top three seeds and became the highest-seeded team ever to win the ACC Tournament. None of this would have happened if not for Darius Maddox's game-winning buzzer beater to beat Clemson in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
Sometimes, all you need is a bit of luck to show your true potential.
Much to my dismay, Virginia Tech is an 11-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and will face the sixth-seeded Texas Longhorns on Friday. I would've hoped for a better seed given that they just won 23 games and a major-conference championship (albeit in a historic down year), is top 30 in KenPom, BPI, and the NET rankings, but I guess we can't have all the things we want in life. The Hokies will have to earn their way through this tournament like all other 67 teams.
But unlike most of those 67 teams, Tech has all the wind at their back. What goes into a turnaround like this? Simple: a group of young men that isn't willing to fold when the times get tough.
Last week, I said that the story of the 2021-22 Hokies will be one of missed opportunities. Looking back, it is clear that the true story of this team is overcoming adversity.
All season long, Virginia Tech unperformed relative to their potential. Every statistical metric and analytic told us what we could see on the court: yes, this team is good. They have talent. They are well coached. They just can't win games.
As a numbers guy, I loathe myself for not fully appreciating the Hokies' potential.
"Oh, they have good metrics, but they don't have the athletes to close out games."
"Yeah, they can shoot threes, but they are soft inside. You can't win like that."
"Virginia Tech has a limited ceiling because they do not have any individual playmakers."
For a time I believed all of these things. How quickly the narrative can change.
Offensive and defensive efficiencies tend to correlate well year-to-year. You can make fairly accurate projections based on what a team has done the previous season, combined with the talent they return. Ken Pomeroy includes multiple years of data in his preseason projections. Virginia Tech was good last year, and they returned most of their best players. They were destined for improvement.
But that luck stat? It's a whole lot of nothing. Zero correlation from one year to the next. A total anomaly. It's hard to see that when you are 2-7 in a mediocre conference and keep losing every game by three points, but it is true. Virginia Tech is a really good basketball team, and they showed us why this past week.
Recipe for Success
I want to lay out the following elements which I view as most crucial to the Hokies' historic turnaround. There are no advanced stats or numbers to cite — I wrote solely from the heart.
Virginia Tech would not have won the ACC without their defense. I could not have imagined such drastic improvements on that end of the ball one month ago, when they were getting carved up by the likes of Florida State and Pitt. Down the stretch, the Hokies were much better at communicating defensively and quicker with rotations. Darius Maddox was able to improve his on-ball defense to the point where he wasn't a liability. On ball screens, Tech hard-hedged or soft-hedged almost everything, which you can do with a forward like Keve Aluma who has the quickness to recover. The guards helped him out by playing with high hands and not constantly getting beat 1-on-1.
Against Duke, the Hokies did an excellent job rebounding, bringing in their guards to help clean up the glass. They got back on defense and prevented fast-break opportunities against both the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels, neutralizing an area in which those two teams are so dangerous. They deflected passes and fought for loose balls. Rarely do I resort to vague generalities, but watching the championship game it is clear to me that the Hokies just wanted it more than Duke.
Offensively, there were two major developments. The first is the growth of Storm Murphy. Sean Pedulla provided a spark off the bench this season, and his improvement has allowed Murphy to take on a lighter load.
But no good team has ever been led by their backup point guard. While Pedulla has performed adequately in a limited role, Tech did not truly take off until Murphy played to his full capabilities. He scored 31 points in the first two tournament games and showed the highlight-reel plays exhibited at Wofford: driving to the rim, finishing over longer defenders, finding open cutters. I couldn't be more happy for him to prove all the critics like me wrong. If you watched Murphy in this tournament, you would genuinely believe that he was a top point guard in college basketball.
The second development was that of Maddox. I hate to sound like a parody of myself, but when you see him play you can tell that he's a four-star player. There is so much finesse and fluidity to his game, and can hit shots at an elite rate from anywhere on the court. A key element of sports is having guys that can make special plays that few others can, and Maddox is precisely that. The Hokies wouldn't be where they are without him.
Then again, I could say that about most of the players on this team. Hunter Cattoor has played top-notch defense and moves off the ball better than almost anyone. Justyn Mutts makes incredible passes that put his teammates in position to score. Yes, he is good for three dumb turnovers a game. You just have to accept the good with the bad. Thankfully, there is a lot of good.
I view Nahiem Alleyne as a complementary player. He is not a go-to scorer, which is why I believe he struggled so much earlier in the year in the absence of Tyrece Radford. The progression of Murphy and Maddox have allowed him to settle into his role, focusing on playing good defense and occasionally hitting threes.
Having a roster composed of talented freshmen and one-and-dones is perfectly fine, but there is no substitute for experience. Virginia Tech's age and maturity showed up in this tournament, and combined with production off the bench from the likes of Pedulla, Maddox, and David N'Guessan, they won four games in four days, taking down the best of the ACC.
No, on second thought: the Hokies were the best of the ACC.
Attitude of Gratitude
I will leave you all with this.
Of the 160 teams to finish ranked top 20 in KenPom over the past eight years, only one has done so without the services of a top 200-ranked high school recruit.
It was Wofford in 2019.
The Terriers went 28-5, won the SoCon championship, and won their first NCAA Tournament game in program history. It was a magical season that helped their head coach, a southwest Virginia native, land a job at the school he grew up rooting for. Now, he has taken his new team to a peak many never could have imagined.
Appreciate Mike Young as the head coach of the Virginia Tech basketball program. He's a player-developer. He's a class act. He's a winner.
And most importantly, he's the Hokies'.