Virginia Tech men's basketball coach Mike Young has found one positive from the current COVID-19 crisis — recruits are actually answering their phones now.
"If there's a positive, most kids are at home because of the circumstances and you can get them on the phone," said Young, who is coming off a 16-16 overall mark and 7-13 record in ACC play in his first year leading the Hokies. "I don't have to text them. You can actually talk to them. That's been a welcome change."
With in-person recruiting at a standstill due to the unprecedented circumstances the country is facing, Young said it's forced him and his staff to change the way they would typically evaluate prospects during this period. Instead, he's been forced to base things off of conversations and film.
"I take a lot of pride in evaluating kids live," Young said. "There's a lot of things you aren't going to see on film. I want to see them interact with teammates, their body language when a coach rips their back end for turning the ball over, how they respond when they're down six with a minute to play. I want to see how they warmup, how they look at 8 a.m. before three AAU games. We just have to do the best we can. It's as good as we can do right now."
This has been an especially busy offseason for the program with five new players expected to join the team next year in 2020 signees Joe Bamisile, Darius Maddox and David N'Guessan along with a pair of graduate transfers in Carter Diarra (Kansas State) and Cordell Pemsl (Iowa).
Young said he now has to rely on recruiting kids to Blacksburg despite them never stepping foot on campus — a task he called "daunting" for any coach. He added that while it's a less-than-ideal situation for all involved, he's comfortable that the Tech coaching staff has made the proper adjustments.
"It's awful," Young said. "We take great pride in doing the work and getting out and seeing people and looking people in the eye, having kids on campus and getting a real feel for Virginia Tech and the basketball program here. All of that is out. The thought of bringing someone into your program without visiting is very uncomfortable for me, but that's what we're all faced with right now. ... The normal recruiting way of living has been altered a great, great deal, obviously. All of us as coaches had to adjust and adapt and pray that we get it right."
As Young and the rest of the Hokies coaching staff continued to get adjusted to the new ways of recruiting, here are some notes from a Zoom session with the head coach on Monday morning:
1. Young is excited about the five newcomers.
Virginia Tech wasted little time making moves this offseason after and up-and-down first year under Young. One of the biggest additions was adding Kansas State 6-foot-2 guard Diarra (13.3 ppg, 4.2 apg, 1.2 spg), a veteran with loads of experience playing in the Big 12 to the Hokies backcourt.
Joining Diarra as a graduate transfer with just one year of eligibility will be the 6-foot-8 forward Pemsl from Iowa. He averaged just 2.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game last season, but dealt with a number of injuries throughout his career with the Hawkeyes.
"Cartier Diarra has done it in that league, been a very good player in that league," Young said. "I felt good about Cordell Pemsl. ... [Pemsl] was in a situation where he got stuck behind a couple of good players. The kid averaged eight [points] and five [rebounds per game] as a freshman. He battled through some injuries, but he'll help us along the front line."
Coming in as true freshman next season will be guards Bamisile (Monacan) and Maddox (Oak Hill) and another forward in N'Guessan (Mt. Zion Prep). Young praised Bamisile for his ability to get to the rim, said that Maddox will add length along the perimeter and added that he envisions N'Guessan as a player that could play either forward position on the floor.
"I knew, going back a year ago, that it was going to take us a bit to get the roster balanced and where we want it," Young said. "We're not there completely, but I do feel a lot better in a number of areas. We'll be deeper a year from now. We will be bigger and stronger. ... I like our skill level. We've made our team better as we look ahead to 2021."
With the five newcomers, Tech currently has 14 players on scholarship for 13 spots. Young confirmed that more attrition is coming to the Tech roster this offseason, but declined to go into detail about who or what the situation would entail.
"There's movement afoot here that I'm not ready to share with you yet," Young said. "It'll be coming out in the near future. It's an unfortunate deal that you'll hear more about in the upcoming weeks, I'd assume."
2. Tech will be a much deeper team next season.
The biggest advantage to gaining five new players is how much depth it adds to the Tech roster, Young said. With additions at both the guard and forward spots, there will be much more competition in practice — something he admitted was missing at times last season on a young Hokies roster.
"There has to be a physicality in October and November," Young said. "We pull that thing way back in conference play and there isn't a lot of contact, but the conditioning component that goes into it is big. We were playing two or three of these guys a lot of minutes. To have someone behind you or with you in that spot and competing day in and day out for a role, it is healthy. We didn't have as much of that as I wanted to have this past year. We've got pretty good competition at every spot across our roster now. I think we're pretty healthy. We'll be better because of it."
Simply having more bodies in the front court with John Ojiako will be beneficial, but Young also said he hopes to find more small forwards that are versatile. He noted that Tyrece Radford is the only player with that ability to play in the low post now, even though he's just 6-1, but said N'Guessan and others could emerge.
"I do feel so much better about the health of that roster going into year two than I did in year one, where we were an injury away from being in a horrific state," Young said. "We're lucky as all get out, playing P.J. Horne 32, 33 minutes per game. We caught a major break in that regard. We had to adjust our practices because of our lack of depth on the front lines. To be able to get back to practicing the way I want to practice, you have to have competition. I didn't feel like we had the competition that was healthy for a team this past year. We should have an abundance of that as we look forward to next season."
3. Keve Aluma will be a big contributor immediately.
6-foot-9 redshirt junior forward Keve Aluma received high praise for Young. Aluma transferred to Tech last year and sat out due to NCAA transfer rules after playing two seasons at Wofford under Young. Now, he's expected to compete for a starting spot in the Hokies lineup in his first year with the team.
"I thought a year off would be valuable for him physically and it has been," Young said. "I love his game and he was very good for us in practice this past year. He had a year in the smokehouse, as I refer to it, and he'll be better because of that. I'm really excited about what he'll bring to our roster."
At Wofford, Aluma started in 34 contests as a sophomore and averaged seven points and seven rebounds per game and was second on the team with 239 rebounds. Young said even if Aluma doesn't fill up the stat sheet for the Hokies, he'll be a very key piece to their success.
"He's going to help us a lot," Young said. "I'll tell you right now that if you think he's going to average 16 points next year in the ACC, you're wrong. He's not that kind of guy. His toughness and his athleticism, his second jump — he's a really good shot blocker. I thought when I brought him here, he'd be another piece to the puzzle. He was a piece to the puzzle [at Wofford] and he'll be the same here."
4. Transfer portal is the new normal in college sports.
One of the biggest storylines out of Blacksburg this offseason was the departure of standout freshman Landers Nolley, who was an All-ACC Freshman team performer last year. He recently committed to Memphis after entering the transfer portal and mulling offers from a wide number of schools across the country.
"I don't like it, but it's not turning around anytime soon," Young said. "It's the new landscape. We're all in roster-management mode every day. I have not been affected by it. Certainly none of us are immune to it. All you can do is treat them well. You have to coach them and we have an unbelievable environment here with a world-class education. We've got it all at Virginia Tech. We lost one. That can happen. You move along and bring someone else in that you hope and think can help you win games and that's what we've done."
When asked about players leaving their programs much quicker nowadays, Young said it doesn't concern him. He said he thinks there's no conference better in the country than the ACC and said he doesn't see attrition being an issue for his program moving forward.
"You better have great relationships with your team," Young said. "You better spend a lot of time in the locker room before and after practices, on the road. Addition by subtraction? Maybe there are instances like that, but I've never felt that way with kids I've lost. We've had very little attrition through the years and I don't think that'll change. Let's see how it plays out as we move down the line."
5. Redshirts could be on the table for next season.
With depth as a major concern last year, it's understandable why Young opted not to redshirt any of his true freshman. Ojiako would have been the best option, Young admitted, but the lack of depth in the frontcourt didn't allow it. That could change this season with a fully healthy roster now intact.
"I'm not opposed to it," Young said. "That's probably too many. I'd like to get to a point where we can redshirt one, maybe two. I've never redshirted a kid in my 18 years as a head coach and regretted it. I think it's an incredible opportunity to grow physically. It gives you a better understanding of the game. It's too early to make those determinations. Those things will work themselves out. I do like the character on our roster and the basketball abilities of the kids on our roster. They're good players, smart players. We'll get further down the road before I have a better handle on that type of things."
6. Tech's non-conference schedule is complete.
Another positive that has come from COVID-19 is Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock's ability to quickly line up a non-conference schedule. While Young wouldn't go into detail about every opponent the Hokies will face next season, he did say it is complete several months earlier than it would be normally.
"It's done," Young said. "I'm putting the finishing touches on it. The schedule is better. That's a consequence of this crisis. Everyone is at home. You can get people on the phone. Most years, you are getting your schedule done in July or early August. We put that thing to bed a couple of weeks ago. We have a couple of contracts out, but don't anticipate any issues in that regard. Never in my career have I finished my schedule in April. I have to be honest with you — I feel great about that."
Young did confirm that Tech will travel to Oklahoma City this season to take on Oklahoma State and head coach Mike Boynton. The Cowboys will return to Blacksburg in the 2021-2022 season. Boynton was an assistant for Young at Wofford in 2007.
Up until now, Young said he hasn't seen any issues with the non-conference scheduling due to COVID-19. He said things could easily change if the current pandemic lasts into the fall and if it does, he said he's ready to make any changes necessary to help out the program and Virginia Tech as a whole.
"At this point, it isn't," Young said. "I haven't heard anything of the sort. Now, I've talked to colleagues in it and we're hearing things like that going on at other places. We haven't heard that at Virginia Tech. Now, if I get that call from Mr. Babcock, that's where we're headed. These are difficult times. You're part of this place and you're going to do your part to make the necessary changes to help. Whatever is asked of me, I am on board."
7. Young unsure of what practices and games will look like.
Since the end of the season, things have been unusual for Young. He said he never had a chance to have exit meetings with his players in person and everything changed so quickly, that it's been hard to grasp at times.
"It was nothing short of bizarre," Young said. "You don't have the opportunity to see your team, address them as a group, individually on their thoughts about our year and what everything looks like moving forward. That was difficult and I didn't like that. It's where we were and where we found ourselves. As different as it was, you still have those conversations. I've had so many Zoom calls, it drives me crazy. That was very different for me."
The hope moving forward is that things are back to normal for all sports to start on time next academic year. Young said he's well aware how important it is that another sport, football, takes place in order for other sports to have an opportunity to play as well.
"I don't think any of us know at this point," Young said. "We don't. I do know this — this is my 35th year in college athletics. There are much bigger issues than college athletics, obviously, but that ol' football needs to be tossed around in the fall. Is there a different schedule? I don't know, but I hope. I just pray to goodness we can get these students back on our campus in late August, early September and get the thing up and running again. There are so many issues and so many things to consider as we deal with this unprecedented crisis."