What an opening week for the 2020-21 Men’s Basketball season. The Hokies welcomed in several new faces including Keve Aluma, Cartier Diarra, & Cordell Pemsl in the opening day win over nearby Radford. Then as Tech headed to Connecticut for the Hall of Fame Top-Off tournament their game against Temple was canceled, only to be replaced by Villanova less than 24 hours later.
Virginia Tech controlled the first half and took the previously #3 ranked Villanova to overtime on their way to pulling off the upset. Sunday night’s win over South Florida seemed routine following Saturday night’s heights, but the way the squad managed that third win shows how the Hokies experience and new depth is going to be a big difference this season. Here are a few takeaways and thoughts from the opening three games of the year.
1 - A team built on balance & depth
From the start of Mike Young’s first year in charge the team quickly looked like NBA-potential Landers Nolley + a handful of experienced holdovers + a promising freshmen class. Very often if Nolley was off Tech wasn’t winning. Three games into the ‘20-21 season and it’s clear the Hokies are a much different squad this time around.
Tech has a variety of experience levels from five starting caliber upper classmen to an improved sophomore class who were thrown in early last season to another crop of talented incoming freshmen. Gone are the days of deep shooters with a limitation on interior threat or drive to the basket. These Hokies will not only match up better with the rest of the ACC, but will often times present personnel issues for their opponents.
2 - Size is no longer a limitation
Last year Coach Young had few options when dealing with opposition height or trying to establish a post presence on offense. Landers Nolley was a forward who liked to hit the three, P.J. Horne was functional at times, but undersized, and Ojiako was still too raw. That left Tech dependent on excellent three point accuracy to stay in contests.
Enter 6’9” Aluma and 6’9” Pemsl. The Hokies’ size on both ends of the court is immediately noticeable this season and was especially impactful against Villanova. Their addition to the squad provides a more flexible attack and defense, while allowing the younger Ojiako (Soph. 6’10”) and N’Guessman (Fresh. 6’9”) time to develop.
3 - Experience to compete in the ACC
Nolley’s points were always going to be a loss. But he often seemed like a solo player who happened to be Tech’s team rather than a part of a greater unit. Horne and Watkins offered some experience, but neither were consistently effective on either side of the ball. Now as the Hokies head into Coach Young’s second season, the squad is several steps forward as we look ahead towards conference play.
Aluma’s decision to follow Young, despite having to sit out last season, already looks like a gem of an addition for the next two years. Diarra’s transfer gives Tech a second experienced point guard. Pemsl will be utilized often to square off against the ACC’s big men and appears to be up for the challenge after a few seasons in the Big Ten with Iowa. Finally, Justyn Mutts (from Delaware) fits nicely into the squad as a utility player based on the offense Young calls out and/or dealing with opposition’s changes in personnel. Those four players grouped in with Bede, Radford, Cattoor, Alleyne and the return of Jalen Cone provide an impressive group that looks ready to move into the top half of the ACC.
4 - Point Guard depth
Last season it felt like most of the pressure was on junior Wabissa Bede to manage the game and create Tech’s chances. After three games it’s clear that won’t be the case this time around. Diarra is the perfect 1B option to Bede, bringing experience from Kansas State, hustle on the defensive side, and a drive towards the basket. You can see his leadership and will be a huge help to rotate time with Bede this season.
Two questions to watch as the season plays on are (1) once Jalen Cone returns to fitness, can he develop into the best third point guard option, or (2) will another player step forward from Hunter Cattoor, Nahiem Alleyne, Joe Bamisile or Darius Maddox? Baring injuries, the Hokies look set at the point for ‘20-21, but both of those options are likely gone and Mike Young will need a new leader. Unless....
5 - Red shirt consideration
At first glance the Hokies roster seems to be packed with potential and a difficult task for Coach Young to find minutes for everyone. Perhaps in a different situation Tech would consider red shirting a few players given the shortened season that could be disrupted at any moment. How many minutes will John Ojiako get with the size additions of Aluma and Pemsl? How much time can freshmen David N’Guessman, Darius Maddox and Gil Williamson expect once ACC play starts?
However, everything about this year is different, especially with the NCAA ruling on eligibility for fall and winter sports. Everyone has been granted an extra year of collegiate eligibility so even if someone has a very limited role this season there is little incentive to red shirt someone and potentially give them the ability to get a 6th year of eligibility (since they could red shirt a different season). It’ll be a rare situation, so Mike Young can most likely proceed with a full roster.
Now ranked 16th the Hokies have quickly entered the national radar as they return to Blacksburg for their next contest. Tech will host VMI on Thursday (12/3) at 8 pm. We will have the full preview later this week. For now enjoy the big win for VT and the excitement for the season ahead.