Hoop Dreams

Virginia Tech will always be a football school. But any sort of hope for true, national success? That goes through Cassell.

[Mark Umansky]

Let's get in our feelings for just a second. Well, more specifically, let's get in our feelings for 14.6 seconds.

I think about this 14.6 second stretch way more than what a therapist would deem "healthy and well-adjusted".

via USATODAY

Virginia Tech was that close to pushing Duke to overtime in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, and had two shots beforehand to clinch their berth to the Elite Eight outright. If you have the time, I recommend watching the entire 12 minute clip of highlights. Not out of some sort of misguided attempt at self-flagellation, but because there's a feeling of true joy that comes with watching the best Hokie basketball team in program history play together for the last time.

Everything was cooking for Tech against the Blue Devils. Ahmed Hill and Ty Outlaw hit open threes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker found crafty ways to supplement an off shooting night, Kerry Blackshear put up a double-double (18 points, 16 rebounds) and Justin Robinson gave Buzz Williams everything the coach could have possibly asked for — lobs, threes, manic bursts to the rim, he did it all.

It wasn't the deepest team of the Buzzketball era — that was probably the year prior, when Chris Clarke and Justin Bibbs were also on the roster — but it was certainly the best. Williams had six guys who could play with anyone, and in the NCAA Tournament that's all you ever need.

I think about that game for what could have been. They would have played Michigan State in the next round, the same Michigan State team that lost to a diluted version of the Hokies just months later in the Maui Invitational. It's irresponsible to suggest that the two results are in any way related. You'd have to assume that Tom Izzo would have his team slightly more amped up for the Elite Eight than he did for an unimportant tournament in November. But it's enough to put the thought in your head.

Is that the closest Virginia Tech will ever come to a Final Four?

Earlier this month, Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide did the inevitable — they won the national title. The trophy was Saban's seventh as a head coach and sixth as the man in charge in Tuscaloosa. His run of dominance has completely challenged the landscape of college football over the last decade. That challenge?

'I have the resources and ability to go get whatever talent I want, and I dare any of you to do something about it.'

Two other programs have consistently answered the call. Urban Meyer turned Ohio State into an SEC team in everything but name, and Clemson has strung together an unprecedented run of success under Dabo Swinney. Everyone else? Well, at least they try.

The three programs are monoliths. They're black holes whose gravitational pull can draw in any player from across the country. They have more talent, more funding, better coaching and better branding than anyone else in the country. The other 127 teams in the FBS just can't keep up.

Since its transition away from the BCS, there have been seven College Football Playoffs. Which means 28 different teams have been selected for the chance to win the sport's ultimate prize. Let's look at how those 28 selections have broken down by program:

6: Alabama, Clemson
4: Ohio State, Oklahoma
2: Notre Dame
1: Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Michigan State, Oregon, Washington

You can't escape it. No one can. Not only are they too good to be left out of the playoff, they're too good to even make it interesting.

People clamor for playoff expansion, which is...fine, I guess? It won't make things any more competitive, just bank the sport a ton more money while delaying the inevitable. But the powers that be in big boy college football don't particularly care about competitiveness. They don't care about Cincinnati or Central Florida begging for a seat at the grown up table. Hell, they don't really care about Virginia Tech or any of the rest of the middle-to-bottom Power Five programs either.

They're not interested in you if you don't have any realistic shot to contend, and most programs don't. The teams that win all the time make the money, and those teams win all the time because they have all the talent. It's a circle of dominance that keeps the money and the power entrenched in a few select places, a tale as old as time.

And though it's most obvious in college football, talent all-but guarantees success in nearly every sport. The Patriots didn't become a dynasty because of the mythical "Patriot Way". They won with the best QB, head coach and defense in the league. LeBron James doesn't get to 10 NBA Finals by accident, nor does Tiger Woods stumble into 15 major wins. In fact there's only one sport where the most talented teams don't hold a suffocating grip on everyone else's chances for a title.

In the last seven NCAA Tournaments, no program has reached the Final Four more than twice, and the last few years alone have seen the likes of Texas Tech, Auburn, Loyola-Chicago, Oklahoma and South Carolina all make the the national semi-finals. The variance of a single elimination tournament opens the door for any well-coached team to make a run at cutting down the nets. But it's not just the tournament that closes the talent gap.

Duke and Kentucky have a combined 60 players on active rosters in the NBA today. They're powerhouses at the prep-to-pro transfer, sending guys like Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson into another stratosphere of fame before they jump to the league.

And while Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari and boatloads of other coaches went out of their way to court elite high school talent, Tony Bennett quietly built a juggernaut in Charlottesville. Bennett came to Virginia as a system coach whose defensive tactics could muck up anyone. When he took over, the Wahoos didn't exactly have a recent history of excellence — they had made just three tournament appearances in the last 13 years under three different head coaches. They needed a system, structure and something to build a future on.

And while things started slowly out of the gates, Bennett was a good enough coach that his team never cratered (they were exactly .500 in his first two seasons). But he put a plan in place, and just needed enough of his type of players for that plan to come to fruition.

After winning 22 and 23 games respectively in years three and four, Bennett's vision became realized. Since the 2013-14 season, UVA has gone to the NCAA Tournament in six out of six years. They've been a one seed in four of those six appearances, and capped their miraculous run with a championship in 2019.

And while it's not like the Hoos ran short on talent — they currently have seven guys in the league — they found themselves attracting a type of player who fit what Bennett wanted to do, and he made the most of it. Not only did they win the NCAA Tournament, they also showed that there's a place in the sport for good coaches to get good players and run their system. Though you can win with oodles of NBA talent — Duke and Kentucky each hold their share of titles — it isn't a requirement to do so.

The Virginia Tech men's basketball team sits at 11-2, 5-1 in the ACC. They're tied for second in the conference, and already have wins over three ranked opponents. It's far too early to discuss a deep postseason run, or even a tournament bid at all. But when you take a step back to look at the larger picture, Mike Young's quick ascension in Blacksburg looks an awful lot like Bennett's.

Just three days after their loss in the Sweet 16, Williams took the job at Texas A&M. Four days after that, Alexander-Walker declared for the draft. Robinson, Hill and Outlaw graduated, Blackshear transferred leaving Young to inherit a tournament team in name only.

Like the Cavaliers, Tech had made just four tournaments in 13 years under three different coaches (with three of those four trips coming under Williams). Young came into a relatively blank slate with a system, and an idea of the type of player he wanted to recruit.

And because this is Blacksburg — not exactly a magnet for McDonald's All-Americans — Young had to get creative when filling his roster. He grabbed players from everywhere–transfers from Wofford, Delaware and Iowa, an unheralded recruit with no big offers from Orlando, not one, not two, but THREE kids who reclassified and skipped their senior year of high school. He took a 5'10" shooting guard, a 6'1" power forward and a kid who couldn't get off the bench at Wofford, threw them into his system and made it work splendidly.

This is not saying that Young will follow Bennett's path and have the same kind of fortunes that the silver fox found in Charlottesville. To be honest, that would be insulting to the kind of program UVA has built over the last six years (that specific path may not ever be replicable).

But the door for sustained success is wide open. When Young was hired, I found myself openly skeptical. After names like Seton Hall's Kevin Willard and Marquette's Steve Wojciechowski floated around, the idea of a coach from the Southern Conference felt like settling. Sure, he went 30-5 with the Terriers, but a 55 year old coach who racked up nearly 300 wins at one small school? It seemed like a small potatoes kind of move.

But that's the kind of thinking you get from the fans of a football school. If a Power Five program fails to make a splashy football hire, it's deemed a failure. You're already behind before your new coach even starts.

But in basketball a good head coach can come from anywhere, from Wofford to Washington State, Arkansas-Little Rock to Wisconsin-Milwaukee. And when you have a good coach with a good system, who can recruit his players, anything can happen.

Virginia Tech will always be a football school. No amount of ranked wins, Jalen Cone threes or sick social media art will ever change that. But if Hokie fans are looking for the program that's most likely to ever have a shot at a title, they shouldn't be towards Lane Stadium.

Tech basketball has the coach. The coach has the system and a knack for finding guys to build a team. And the team adopts a certain identity that resonates perfectly well with Hokies everywhere:

If Young's program can continue to compete like it has, it builds a culture of consistency and winning. Once you have that kind of structure and system in place, all you can ever ask for is a shot. It won't happen this year, and it probably won't ever happen while he's on the sidelines in Cassell Coliseum.

But this is college basketball, you just never know.

Comments

Spectacular writing. Well done - and right on the money. I am a Hokie because I went to school there. But I grew my Hokie fandom through Frank Beamer's successes on the football field. We were a working class school with a working class team lead by humble coach with huge integrity. Their rise was easy to root for. Hard not to see the parallels with Mike Young's program. Hokie fans are lucky to have this success in basketball at a time when football is so challenged.

Great article. But I have to disagree that Tech will always be a football school. That really depends. 50 years from now, if Tech has had unprecedented basketball success, including some Final Fours and a national title, the generation alive then will see Tech as a basketball school. Tech being a football school, is a pretty recent phenomenon - about 30 years - in the grand scheme of things. And it hasn't had the kind of football success that brands the school as always a football school - not like the powerhouses of football you mentioned

50 years from now

🦃 🦃 🦃

Fantastic writing. Up until a decade ago, college football wasn't so blatantly top-heavy and we all dreamed the Hokies had a legitimate shot at a title. But in 2021, the hoops team not only has a more realistic chance but is far closer to that level of national success than the football team will be for at least the foreseeable future.

I just sit on my couch and b*tch. - HokieChemE2016

Up until a decade ago, college football wasn't so blatantly top-heavy and we all dreamed the Hokies had a legitimate shot at a title.

I disagree with this. The BCS got scrapped because it was top heavy, and SEC started to dominate. Boise, TCU, etc were never going to play for a national title. While more unique teams cycled through the title game, they were typically the same group of teams.

SEC: Alabama, LSU, Florida
B1G: Ohio St
ACC: Florida St
Pac10: USC
BXII: Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska
Big East: Miami

Outliers: Notre Dame, Auburn, VT, Tennessee

Conference realignment opened the door for the playoffs, but diluted the talent below the top programs. Add in the impact of social media, and the haves widened the gap with the have-nots.

However, there is a trend starting, and that's the G5 coaches staying put. If they can build programs at Cincy, UCF, or hell, Coastal Carolina, then yes, there's a chance they can build enough of a reputation to slam their way into the final four of CFB. Hell, Cincy had the best shot, possibly ever this year. It's going to take time.

TKPhi Damn Proud
BSME 2009

Counterpoint: Cincy had the best shot ever, and didn't get close. UCF had 2 near undefeated seasons in a row and didn't get close. A G5 team will NEVER make the playoff as it is currently constructed.

Get Angry, Bud!

Unfortunately, I 100% agree with you. I think we need to have a 8 team playoff with 1 spot guaranteed for a G5 team. I don't care if that G5 is 12-1. Let them get blown out, then at least they can say that they had a shot.

He took a 5'10" shooting guard, a 6'1" power forward and a kid who couldn't get off the bench at Wofford, threw them into his system and made it work splendidly.

Love me some CMY, but this is quite the hyperbole. Assuming Radford is your 6'1" PF is Radford, who is clearly a guard and has always been. Aluma started 34 games on a tourney team and had worked in his system. I know a lot of people are surprised by his season, but it's the type of jump you would expect from a player who starts all year as a sophomore to look like.

Young has certainly done an excellent job at getting the most out of what he's got and helping to develop players, but let's not pretend he's done something he hasn't.

Always choose joy.

Position labeling is more about who you can guard on defense, and at this point I feel as though Radford spends more time guarding front court guys than he does back court. He's also a bit of a unique piece that wouldn't work everywhere so kudos to CMY for figuring out a way to put him in positions to succeed.

last year Nolley & Horne & Nolley guarded the 4's & 5's for the most part.
this year Mutts & Aluma guard the 4's & 5's for the most part.

Radford has played spots minutes the "4" when we go with a small 4-guard lineup, but that has certainly not been the regular lineup under CMY

Radford was a default forward last year but would have been a SF

I just sit on my couch and b*tch. - HokieChemE2016

Great article. This made me both happy and sad

Wow! What a great article. Thanks for writing.

Honestly, this year is so weird that it could be the kind of year where a Virginia Tech (or any team ranked in that 15-25 range like... Missouri or someone) could have a legit run. With all the blue bloods down and covid making things chaotic, March Madness could be even more mad than usual. Sadly, the other side to it is that some deserving teams (hopefully not us) will probably be forced to sit out the tournament due to covid.

The future of college basketball, unlike football, seems kind of wide open with most of the blue bloods falling apart for now. They all opted for the 1 and done strategy, which is backfiring now more than ever.

Regardless, that 2018-19 Virginia Tech basketball team is my favorite team ever in any sport. They were just so fun and so good, and experiencing that as a student was special. And remember what that team had to go through with Clarke's suspension, Nolley's ineligibility, Robinson's injury, etc. If Robinson doesn't hurt his ankle, we end up a 3 seed or better, and 100% make the elite 8, maybe the final 4. We honestly could have won the national title that season if so much didn't go wrong.

Unpopular opinion: I still think the Clarke suspension made the team better. He turned the ball over at a ridiculously high clip and was a non-shooter that clogged driving lanes. I think Outlaw is a worse player, but was a better fit for that team. I used to think the Nolley thing was a huge deal, but as we saw last year in ACC play maybe not the worst thing.

Clarke at least provided some facsimile of height, which that team lacked sorely. If nothing else having another body to go out there and try to keep a leash on Zion would have been helpful. What I (maybe wrongly) remember about Clarke's play is that he was a big guy who would do ridiculous athlete shit when you weren't expecting it.

Old sigline: I've been cutting back on the drinking.

New Sigline: lol it's football season.

CC would have helped a ton with rebounding and ball-handling, especially when Justin Robinson went down. I agree that Nolley would really not have made a difference, but I do think Clarke would have been huge.

Put in Donlon

Defense as well he was tall and moved very well making him someone that could guard multiple positions.

Yes, Clarke turned the ball over a ton but he was our best rebounder, a great defender, and a great facilitator. We missed him. It's not an either/or of Clarke/Outlaw, it's both. Ahmed Hill ended up evolving his game to make up for a lot of what Clarke did, but again if we had both/all of those guys, that would have been huge.

Even if we didn't have Clarke, Nolley would been useful at times. Remember, we were playing 6 scholarship players when Robinson and Horne were hurt.

Yeah, you're not wrong. I remember floating a "are we sure they're not better without him?" when he got hurt in the middle of the 2016 season. The one thing that made him so interesting was that you could basically replace Bede with CC and play 5 guys who could all handle the ball and push the tempo (Robinson, CC, Hill, Kerry, NAW). It was extremely versatile, even though he couldn't shoot a lick. It also just gave Buzz more options for lineups with 7 guys he could count on + Bede and Horne filling in with spot minutes.

Outlaw was 100000% a better fit for what Buzz needed (floor spacing for Robinson, NAW and Kerry.)

Biggest thing for me is that he would make huge splash plays and then kill you with turnovers and ill-advised gambles in the passing lanes. Don't get me wrong, he did a ton of good things, he was a fantastic rebounder and got to the line a ton, but I think the 7 guys we played that year were the guys we should have been playing the most anyway. I think Clarke being there and having the ball in his hands takes away some of the development we saw guys like NAW, Hill, and even Blackshear make.

I think at this point we are more likely to find the elusive "team championship" in either wrestling or men's soccer. Basketball definitely is a more realistic path than football.

Don't sleep on our track and field program, either. We won the ACC team title recently.

TKPhi Damn Proud
BSME 2009

I was specifically talking about the money making sports. Olympic sports just don't move the needle, though their title would obviously be just as valid.

(How many times did we roll our eyes when UVA started to talk about the number of trophies they won in olympic sports?)

I really don't think VT has more of a chance to win a national title in basketball as they do in football. I think wrestling is even further.

The non-bluebloods with titles in the last 30 years are UVA (multiple final fours), MSU (hall of fame coach) and Arkansas (I dont know how that happened) So that is slightly better than Football, but as long as committees choose seeding, blue bloods will be king.

Is Villanova a blue blood? Also Butler has two shots at the championship in 2010 and 2011. Georgia tech was in the championship game in 2004. Gonzaga and Texas Tech have been runner ups. I wouldn't consider UConn a blue blood either. If you look at all the runner ups, there are a lot of non blue bloods there. If you can get to the Final Four I think you can have a chance at taking it all home. It's just two more games that you play well.

Only 6 schools have more titles than Villanova. They have as many as Kansas. Uconn has more than Kansas.

If they aren't then you only have Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Indiana, and UCLA that really can be called blue bloods.

Gonzaga has been a top program for 20 years or more. Mark Few has built a fantastic program. They sit right below the blue bloods.

Sure all these teams made a final four but they didn't win. We don't see underdogs winning the championship game. If GT, or Butler had one then sure there is a chance, but I just don't see that happening.

Oh that clip... I was on the opposite end of the arena (up in the very last row of the upper deck) for that game. I dont think I had ever had a quicker flash of unhinged excitement immediately followed by minutes of unbelievable despair.

This isn't a good article. This is a GREAT article. Nicely written! I'm loving what Mike Young has done, both with the culture of the program (crediting Bud Foster and Beaming is an awesome tribute) and the results on the court.

Whenever we face a top-5 team in hoops, I'm always like "Okay, let's see what happens..." rather than, "Oh man, this is probably gonna be ugly."

The doll's trying to kill me and the toaster's been laughing at me.

I was already pumped for the continuing era of CMYBALL, now it's doubled. Shootyhoops it is

21st century QBs Undefeated vs UVA:
MV7, MV5, LT3, Braxton Burmeister, Ryan Willis, Josh Jackson, Jerod Evans, Michael Brewer, Tyrod Taylor, Sean Glennon, and Grant Noel. That's right, UVA. You couldn't beat Grant Noel.

Wonderful article and sums up how I feel at the moment on the position our teams are in. At this point I'm more likely to win the lottery than football being nationally relevant so I'm all in on basketball and hoping young can keep climbing the ladder.

Directions from Blacksburg to whoville, go north till you smell it then go east until you step in it

Wrestling ?

Even when you get skunked; fishing never lets you down. 🎣

Yes, we have already had an individual National Champion there, we have wrestlers ranked in many of the weight classes, and while it requires a ton of individuals all performing at the top, the team is there for consideration.

I realize there are also blue bloods when it comes to wrestling, mostly from the BIG10, but we are a Top 10 program.

I am not naive that it's likely to be Penn State, Ohio State or Iowa. We aren't even the top ranked ACC squad, with NC State at #4 and we sit at #8.

My comment was more geared towards the fact that we are at least in the upper echelon of the sport, as we have been in men's soccer the last few seasons.

the team is there for consideration.

That is exactly what I mean. I believe that the wrestling team is closer to becoming a blue blood than any other VT sport.

Even when you get skunked; fishing never lets you down. 🎣

Outstanding article Brain. I do think that the VT men's basketball team can make it to a title game. I had season tickets at George Mason for over 25 years and they had that one magical season with a veteran team and a great coach. I think CMY is well on his way to pulling off something special at VT. It might not happen this year but I am very happy with his progress. I do agree with you that our chances of winning a football title are just not realistic or possible in college football today. The rich keep getting richer.