Virginia Tech played 20 games last basketball season without enduring consecutive defeats. Then the Hokies went one-and-done in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, falling to North Carolina and Florida.
As with many outcomes during the pandemic, this two-game slide merits closer inspection.
Virus protocols sidelined Tech (15-7, 9-4 ACC) for nearly two weeks prior to the conference tournament and canceled seven of their final nine regular-season dates.
Indeed, a more game-ready group might well have summoned the legs to withstand the Tar Heels in the second half and survive the Gators in overtime.
But pandemic notwithstanding, watching a season that included victories over No. 3 Villanova and No. 8 Virginia end with a two-game losing streak left scars.
“That stings a lot,” fifth-year senior forward Justyn Mutts said during the Hokies’ second week of full-scale practices.
Relieving the sting is the return of veterans such as Mutts, Keve Aluma, Nahiem Alleyne and Hunter Cattoor, plus the arrival of newcomers such as freshman Sean Pedulla and Wofford graduate transfer Storm Murphy.
“We feel like we can go the distance,” Mutts said.
He meant winning the national championship, quite the aspiration for a program that’s never reached a Final Four or an ACC tournament title game. But Virginia Tech is absolutely capable of cracking the ACC’s top five for the third time in four years, and a top-five ACC team often equates to national contention.
“I try to temper those expectations,” said Mike Young, the Hokies’ third-year coach. “... [But] we’re going to be pretty good.”
They sure are, and the upbeat vibe starts with Aluma, the conference’s best returning player.
No, I haven’t forgotten about Syracuse’s Buddy Boeheim, who during a four-game postseason stretch scored 112 points and made 24 of 43 attempts beyond the 3-point arc. But Jim Boeheim, Buddy’s dad and the Orange’s Hall of Fame coach, didn’t nominate his son for all-ACC last winter.
Nor am I dismissing Miami’s Isaiah Wong or North Carolina’s Armando Bacot, third-team all-league selections.
But the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Aluma, a Wofford transfer, finished sixth in all-ACC voting conducted by the conference’s media and coaches, four points behind Virginia’s Sam Hauser for the final first-team spot. He led Tech in scoring (15.2 points per game), rebounding (7.9 per game) and blocked shots (29) and was among three Hokies who made at least 35% of their 3-point attempts.
Aluma competed at the NBA G League Elite Camp in late June, where scouts told him to improve his conditioning and consistency. Resisting his sweet tooth and working religiously in the gym allowed Aluma to remake his body and elevate his game.
“It was really beneficial to hear what they had to say,” Aluma said.
“He’s there,” Young said. “He looks different. He is shooting the ball at a very, very high clip. Now he is shot faking and getting places. ... He’s still exploring and still expanding his game to this day.”
Team fifth-years Aluma, Mutts and Murphy with juniors Cattoor and Alleyne — the latter three on the perimeter — and the Hokies could start one of the nation’s most experienced and versatile lineups, one in which everyone is green-lighted to take 3-pointers.
Young thrives with such teams, witness his 2018-19 Wofford squad, which ranked second nationally in 3-point accuracy at 41.4%, finished 30-5, went undefeated in the Southern Conference and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Aluma, Mutts and Young are scheduled to appear Tuesday at the ACC’s preseason gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina, where media will vote on a projected order of finish, all-conference team and player of the year. Since joining the league in 2004, Tech has been picked among the top four only once — second in 2011.
Duke, Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Virginia, in that order, will be my top five, with preseason POY Aluma joined by Boeheim, Bacot, Wong and Duke freshman Paolo Banchero on the all-conference squad.
Such polling is notoriously inaccurate, but I’m intrigued to discover the consensus perception on the Hokies and Aluma. That voters almost certainly will forecast Tech in the upper half of the 15-team conference is testament to the prospects Young and his staff have signed, even while losing players such as Tyrece Radford, Jalen Cone and Joe Bamisile to offseason transfers.
“I think that part of it has been pretty damn good to this point,” Young said of his program’s recruiting.
Young’s assessment came Monday, the day after the Hokies secured a commitment from four-star guard Rodney Rice of DeMatha Catholic in suburban Washington, D.C. By the time Rice is expected to join the program next year, Tech could be reveling in its fifth NCAA tournament appearance in the past six seasons.
While Mutts did not hesitate to voice the ultimate aim, Young always prefers a more general goal: That his team reaches its potential.
“That will be a real success for me,” he said, “and I’ll get back to the mountains of North Carolina this spring and fish with a big smile on my face.”