We could have believed him. It would've saved a lot of heartburn.
"I have a good team", was something Mike Young would tell anyone who would listen from media day all the way through the end of the season. He said it at the beginning, when he called his Hokies collectively maybe "the best shooting team he's ever had", allowing fans to envision a squad that would unconsciously bomb away night after night, running overstretched opponents off the floor.
He expressed it after two excruciating losses in Brooklyn during the NIT Season Tip-Off. The Hokies faded down the stretch against a Memphis program that would subsequently lose four straight, and then Tech blew a lead versus a ranked Xavier squad. The Musketeers had just four reliable players, and still Tech couldn't shut the door.
He reiterated it after tough losses against average-to-bad competition. After his group — of seasoned, heady upperclassmen — continually failed to close things out down the stretch, and lost heartbreaker after heartbreaker. He even said it the day the levees seemed to finally break, and Miami's Charlie Moore hit a half court buzzer beater to sink the Hokies in Cassell. Tech had a five-point lead with 2:24 to go, up 75-70, and failed to score a single point the rest of the way. Moore's shot fell, and the Hokies fell to the Hurricanes 78-75.
At that moment, just about everyone was done with Young's overly positive assessment of his guys. While he may have seen a "good team", we saw...something else.
We saw a roster who didn't have the guy to finish a game with less than five minutes to go. A group whose defense suffered noticeably after switching Wabissa Bede for Storm Murphy. A team who, while still very skilled, may not have had enough athletic talent to compete with the top competition in the league. A locker room full of nice guys from Wofford who were destined to be a perpetual 3-seed in the NIT.
Man, we really should have listened.
After the Hurricane heartbreak, Young went to the podium with the posture of a man who'd been through some serious shit over the last month. A coach who may have been the last person on earth who truly believed the Hokies were a good team. Not an average one or a decent-if-not-underachieving one. But good.
And when he was asked what he said to his players after Moore's prayer was answered, he beat the drum again:
When asked about his message to his guys after the loss, Young's best qualities were on display. "I'm very proud of you and I appreciate your effort and this thing's going to turn," he said. "We've got a really good basketball team. We have deserved better outcomes, but that's the game, man. Doesn't owe you a damn thing. You've got to suck it up and play better."
I'd call it prophetic if it wasn't so damn honest and heartfelt. He loves his guys, and believes in them even if he's the last person on earth who truly does.
And guess what. Just after that moment, Tech did turn it around. They ripped off six straight wins and didn't just look good, but instead like the top-25 lock that was promised in October. They made shots and played stifling defense. They played up to the expectations of their coach.
They played like a really good basketball team.
But they didn't just stick to good. As the calendar turned to March, they became excellent.
They beat Clemson off what was maybe the most stone cold shot in recent Tech history:
We all know what happened next. They beat Notre Dame, beat the hell out of North Carolina and exorcised the devil out of Duke to expel whatever demons remained in their locker room and win the ACC Tournament. It proved Young's assessment correct. It proved, once again, that maybe as fans we don't know as much as we'd like to pretend. In beating the best three schools in the conference, the Hokies didn't just go on a hot streak. They proved that they belonged there all along.
No, Tech doesn't have the athletes Mike Krzyzewski or Hubert Davis have down in the Triangle. They don't have lottery picks, seven-foot shot blocking skyscrapers or conference players of the year. But they do have a system. They have shooters, matchup nightmares in the post and a gaggle of gangly defenders who can switch one through four.
This is Mike Young basketball. At its worst, it's a complex system that raises the floor whenever his program is inexperienced or depleted of talent (the 2019-20 Hokies had no business finishing .500.) At its best, it's, well...
It's an ACC Champion.
The Hokies will never be Duke. They'll never be Carolina, but they can be — gulp — Virginia. Or Notre Dame. Or Wisconsin, Tennessee, Texas Tech or Iowa. Programs that are consistently good, can be great with the right amount of older players and can be special with one or two NBA guys.
And you know what's incredible? The Hokies are really good, but even after providing the most exciting thing that's happened to Virginia Tech athletics in over a decade, this program could absolutely stand to get better. Imagine this offense with Justin Robinson at point guard or Nickeil Alexander-Walker running on the wing opposite of Maddox. Imagine the defense with a true anchor at center ("what if the Hokies hadn't missed on PJ Hall" comes to mind right about now).
Don't get me wrong, I'm not taking anything away from this team. They won the ACC Tournament for god's sake! Keve Aluma strung together four of the most impressive all-around performances of his career, playing solid defense and stepping up when his squad needed him most. Hunter Cattoor's targeted bombing overshadowed Aluma scoring six straight points in crunch time to put the Blue Devils away.
Justyn Mutts continued to be Tech's most important player, particularly when the box score may not have shown it. Mt. Cattoor — who hadn't scored more than 14 points in over a month — erupted for 31. And Storm Murphy quietly became the point guard Young said he'd be, constantly probing longer, faster defenses. Moving the ball with borderline reckless speed. Wonder how the Hokies ended up blowing out both Duke and Carolina? Maybe you should look at Murphy's assist totals (13 in the tournament's final two games), or the fact that he was finally confident enough to pull shit like this:
The Hokies are a good team. Their coach knew it. Then they knew it. Then fans and everyone else finally started to wise up.
How they end up performing in the NCAA Tournament is almost moot at this point. They could lose to Texas and the 2021-22 season couldn't be considered anything but a raging success. Why? Let me say it again:
THEY WON THE ACC TOURNAMENT.
Sorry, that sentence really never gets old.
But to spit a cliche as old as March Madness itself, Tech is playing its best basketball at the right time. The Hokies are truly scary right now, no one in the field wanted to see them in the first round. Especially the Longhorns:
That is the face of someone who watched the ACC Tournament on Saturday night.
Tech could absolutely make a run to the Sweet 16. And once they get there, who's to say they can't go farther? It's not a likely outcome, but if this season has taught us anything it's this:
If you can sustain a regular amount of success in college basketball, you always have a shot to make some noise in the postseason. Sometimes it happens, sometimes you end up watching a team stumble over themselves without ever figuring out which way was up. But with a good coach, a good system and players who can excel in it, even the highest of highs isn't out of the question.
The combination of single elimination tournaments mixed with your average dose of March Madness volatility means anyone in the mix has a shot. So next time Mike Young tells us his Hokies are really good, let's take his word for it.