There is no denying that the current state of Virginia Tech men's basketball is considerably better than it was when Buzz Williams took over the reins 5 years ago. Say what you will about the way Buzz left for College Station — the man is principally responsible for elevating the profile of Virginia Tech basketball. Four straight 20-win seasons. 3 consecutive NCAA Tournament berths, including a Sweet Sixteen appearance less than a year ago. Those words were unthinkable when I was a freshman at Tech during the Ricky Stokes era.
When Mike Young was hired by Whit Babcock last spring, he immediately got to work assembling a staff capable of capitalizing on the foundation built during Buzz's tenure. It was one built on the premise that elite basketball prospects are willing to come to southwest Virginia to hone their skills and succeed in the most competitive basketball conference in America.
What the Hokies got was a man who understood the area, having been born and raised a stone's throw from Blacksburg. He is amiable and folksy. He spends his Saturdays shaking hands and crushing beers at football tailgates. He oversees pregame shootarounds casually devouring a bag of popcorn the size of a small child. Who can't relate to a guy like that?
He's not focused on building a carefully crafted personal brand complete with marketable hashtags. He's focused on building the Virginia Tech men's basketball program into a perennial contender on the national scene.
Shortly after Young's hiring, Wake Forest Special Assistant and former Elon head coach
Ernie Nestor noted:
"When you look at his teams play," Nestor said, "he's taking guys and making them much better and getting them to play his style. ... He's not going to be doing backflips on the bench and all that stuff. It will be about the team, not the coach. That's just who he is.
All of this isn't to say that Williams wasn't trying to succeed every step of the way. But during his time at the helm, it was at times difficult to distinguish between the Virginia Tech basketball program and Buzz Williams' basketball program.
I don't get the same impression from Young. There's a genuine, everyman nature to him that I find incredibly endearing and more authentic to Blacksburg. Oh, and his teams shoot the snot out of the basketball.
So Far, So Good
Given the low expectations ahead of the season, there's no denying that Young and his Hokies are playing with house money.
After convincing Wabissa Bede and Landers Nolley II to exit the Transfer Portal, he was faced with a roster short on experience and devoid of star power. In addition to Bede, the Hokies returned two guys that had played meaningful minutes (P.J. Horne and Isaiah Wilkins) and were about to lose a largely inexperienced Jonathan Kabongo to injury.
Young and his staff built an incredible inaugural recruiting class, regardless of the circumstances, and went from barely having a full roster (seriously) to having a dangerous collection of young talent. And while the Hokies' first five games have largely been against lower tier competition (their Strength of Schedule is #353 out of 353 teams in Division I according to KenPom), they've displayed a lot of the traits that Hokies fans can come to expect from Young-led teams. They aren't afraid to fire from deep, they crash the boards as a team, and they patiently operate in the halfcourt.
The opening five games were somewhat of a godsend for this youthful squad. Yes, the Hokies were inches away from an Elite Eight appearance last year. And, sure, recent history has established the Virginia Tech program as one worthy of some higher profile early season games (luckily this year's schedule provided five games before a clash with No. 3 Michigan State in Maui). But metrics like Strength of Schedule and RPI are less important for a team simply looking to get their sea legs under them and figure out who they are under a new head coach.
The season couldn't have started much better for Tech, beginning with the surprising road win at Clemson. Guard Hunter Cattoor, who decommitted from Wofford and followed Young to Blacksburg, found himself in the opening night starting lineup. Guards Nahiem Alleyne and Jalen Cone should have been preparing for the start of the high school senior seasons, and Nolley and Tyrece Radford were dusting off the cobwebs after a redshirt year. Despite all of that, the Hokies knocked off the Tigers in their season opener and got Young halfway to matching his two predecessors' Year 1 conference win totals.
Looking back at their opener against the Tigers, the Hokies seemed significantly more confident and considerably more comfortable playing alongside one another. On the heels of their offensive outburst against Delaware State, which saw the Hokies set new ACC and program records for made 3-pointers in a game (21), they look surprisingly formidable. Despite their youth, there's a quiet confidence to them. They're not arrogant — there's a business-like demeanor to their play — and, since the first half at Clemson, they've looked unafraid to let it fly.
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