There's maybe nothing more repetitive in the entire world than the word Maui when you watch the Maui Invitational brought to you by Maui Jim sunglasses. Because when you host a basketball tournament in Maui you want people to know about it, and when you run a sunglasses company called Maui Jim it's only logical to spread the word about your product by sponsoring said tournament in Maui. Because not only do you pepper audiences with commercials for Maui Jim sunglasses, but every rejoin fans get the poetry of Dan Shulman welcoming them back to the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. Because just in case you forgot, the tournament takes place in Maui.
And as the Virginia Tech men's basketball team squared off against Michigan State in Hawaii's famous early-season tournament, there was only one thing that felt more repetitive than the name of the host island. It was the Hokies' ability to sink clutch shots when they needed it most.
Tech beat the third-ranked Spartans 71-66 in the first round of the invitational, a stunning win for a group expected to take their lumps against quality competition in November. Tom Izzo rolled out the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year in Cassius Winston and multiple NBA prospects (Rocket Watts, Xavier Tillman, Aaron Henry) yet the Hokies never blinked. Sparty had more size, more skill, and more pedigree, but Tech held their own from the opening tip.
Mike Young's squad did just about everything it takes to knock off a top ranked team. They drained almost half their threes (10-21, 47%), played tight perimeter defense, and did their best to not let a large rebounding discrepancy (43 for Michigan State, 27 for Tech) kill them. Landers Nolley II–a future pro in his own right–lead all players with 22 points, including two backbreaking triples late in the second half. One pushed the Hokies' lead to 10:
The other came when State cut the lead to one and his team needed a hero:
Just your average, nothing-to-see-here, cold-blooded dagger to pick up quite possibly the biggest non-conference win in program history. But the poise shown by the freshman in that moment could be seen in the eyes of every player in orange. Nolley, Wabissa Bede, P.J. Horne, Nahiem Alleyne, Hunter Cattoor, and the rest of the group were all killers out there, which reminded me of something I'd overlooked when thinking about this team.
Throughout the whole offseason the conversation was, rightly, focused on the coaching change. Buzz Williams resuscitated this program in a way very few people could. He took them to consistent heights which previously seemed unimaginable and when he left, it felt like the wins would leave with him.
And, though through no fault of his own, Young seemed like Whit Babcock's third fourth fifth choice. Even the biggest Young supporters were prepared for another rebuild. But the one factor many of us never considered?
Bede, Horne, Nolley, Tyrece Radford, and Isaiah Wilkins were all part of a team that went to the Sweet 16 last season. They've experienced big games and give a little seasoned leadership to a squad built for the future. Horne didn't blink when he pulled up for a crucial three with the Hokies down by two in the second half. Bede didn't just put the game away with free throws (yes he went 3-6, but it still counts), but also pulled down the final two crucial rebounds–skying his way to the glass through guys six inches taller.
Young's team knows how to win. They won't always do it–it took Winston sitting for most of the first half and a bounty of unforced Spartan turnovers to pull this one off–but they'll win their share.
And even if they fall to a good Dayton team in the next round, the Hokies should feel great about their trip to Maui They'll come home with a big win, an NBA-caliber scorer, and a warning to the rest of the ACC that they can't be taken lightly.