Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
The greatest coaching era to date in Virginia Tech men's basketball history came to an end this past spring as Buzz Williams left Blacksburg for Texas A&M days after the Hokies lost a heartbreaker to Duke in the Sweet 16. Williams left an impressive legacy over his five-year tenure as he led the Hokies on their second-deepest NCAA Tournament run in program history in 2019 while becoming the first Virginia Tech head coach to reach three-straight NCAA Tournaments.
However, the end of the Williams era has led to the beginning of the Mike Young era.
For Young, this is the ultimate homecoming after working his way up the ranks to building a Wofford program over two decades into a consistent winner that could become a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now, Young gets to lead the program that he grew up watching, and that kindled his passion for basketball.
Despite the successes of the Buzz Williams era that proceeded him, expectations aren't nearly as high for year 1 of the Mike Young era.
A big reason for that is because the Hokies lost almost all of last season's stars with Wabissa Bede being the only somewhat regular starter back this season. The Hokies also have lots of youth with only one season on the roster in Alabama State transfer Branden Johnson. something that Mike Young has talked about as a major concern with this team.
All of that change has led to significantly lowered expectations that aren't too much higher than the first year of the Buzz Williams era. That showed when the Hokies were picked 14th out of 15 in the Preseason ACC Poll.
However, the offseason that has been full of intrigue with roster management and exciting recruiting news is over with the Mike Young era ready to kick off in full with a season-opening challenge unlike any other in years, a road ACC game.
With the ACC expanding from 18 to 20 conference games, the ACC has decided to have all teams play a pair of conference games in November and December, allowing them to play in front of students instead of adding them on during winter break. The decision to play a round of season-opening games has been heavily debated, but is reality for tomorrow night with the Hokies taking on a Clemson team eager to surprise and make a run at a postseason birth in the NIT or ideally, the NCAA Tournament.
While there definitely are matchups that could have been tougher for the Hokies, this trip to Clemson won't be an easy start for a young Virginia Tech team looking to find their rhythm before heading to Maui in a few weeks.
With that said, here's my three things to watch followed by my pick for tomorrow's game.
1. Who Will Be The Focal Scoring Point?
This was asked in last week's Inside The Lunch Pail mailbag and still remains unclear. The top candidates are clearly Wabissa Bede and Landers Nolley, but it remains to be seen how those guys step into those lead scoring roles and whether those 2, or someone else like Jalen Cone and Isaiah Wilkins, can assert themselves as the focal point.
Bede does feel like the best candidate for this role going into the season. Yes, Bede hasn't bee called upon to be much of a scorer but when given the opportunities, he's shown the ability to attack the rim and be effective from three-point range. Given that Cone isn't in the starting lineup, expect a lot of Bede running the show and being an offensive focal point whether Cone is in the backcourt with him or not.
Nolley remains an unknown of sorts, but he's shown the talent to be a highly-productive scoring wing. The Hokies have had wings take on lead scoring roles in the past including Justin Bibbs early in the Buzz Williams era, and Nolley may be that type of focal offensive player for the Hokies this season.
Outside of those 2, Jalen Cone is definitely a name to watch as a potential 25 minute player off the bench who has lots of scoring ability. Isaiah Wilkins has also been a streaky scorer at times and could be the sleeper to watch with this team.
2. Freshman Expectations
Virginia Tech has plenty of new players, but the greatest attention will be on the freshman class, especially Jalen Cone.
Part of that comes with Cone being a top 100 recruit even after reclassifying to 2019. It's also well-documented that Cone's best attributes are on the offensive end which inevitably increases the excitement. It's reasonable to expect that Cone will be able to be a productive scorer in ACC competition as a freshman on a consistent basis, but we'll get a clear answer tomorrow night.
Hunter Cattoor may have been the lone former Wofford commit that Mike Young brought with him in his first class at Virginia Tech, but the attention on Cattoor will definitely be greater after he was named to the projected starting lineup. Cattoor definitely has plenty of scoring potential, but it remains to be seen whether Cattoor will have a significant role, or if he'll be used early in the season as a spark plug on the offensive end to start halves similar to Shane Henry previously.
John Ojiako and Nahiem Alleyne's roles are even more unknown with Ojiako being the more likely of the 2 to play significant minutes given the need in the frontcourt. Of course, Mike Young may also try to redshirt a player or two to provide some roster balance with 4 true freshmen and 2 redshirt freshmen (Nolley and Tyrece Redford) on scholarship not being ideal for building a team that gets old and stays old as Mike Young hopes to build.
3. How Will Virginia Tech's Frontcourt Rotation Look?
Virginia Tech's frontcourt remains somewhat of an unknown with P.J. Horne not having the size of a 5 and Landers Nolley having the length of a 4, but the traits of a 3. Despite that, Nolley and Horne will be the starting frontcourt, but it wouldn't be surprising to see them play at the 3 and 4 respectively. The question that remains is how much especially with some true centers in transfer Branden Johnson and freshman John Ojiako?
There's no place that is tougher to transition to the collegiate level usually than the frontcourt with plenty of big men needing time to adjust. Don't be surprised if Ojaiko has early season struggles and his minutes are limited in games against tougher competition as he adapts.
Branden Johnson wasn't the most productive player at Alabama State, but what he should be able to provide is size that can rebound and give the Hokies a solid shot blocker. Additionally, Johnson should bring collegiate experience that can be valuable in staying out of foul trouble and giving the Hokies the option to go bigger late in games without having to worry about fouls. At least, that's probably part of the hope for Johnson as Ojiako transitions to the collegiate game.
However, don't be surprised to see the Hokies go small simply because their best lineup is likely the one with Nolley and Horne at the 4 and 5. That will present some challenges but VT will have to go with it, at least for this year with Wofford transfer Keve Aluma having to wait till next season to make his VT debut.
Unsurprisingly, Virginia Tech is going mostly with a (projected) starting lineup of experience that includes Wabissa Bede, P.J. Horne, and Isaiah Wilkins along with a pair of players making their collegiate debuts in Landers Nolley and Hunter Cattoor, surprisingly. However, almost every player will be either making their collegiate/VT debut or playing in a significantly larger role than previously.
Meanwhile, Clemson may be replacing a good amount of players in their own right, but they've brought in talented transfers like Khavon Moore from Texas Tech and Tevin Mack from Alabama to go with returners like Aamir Simms. Additionally, Clemson has had the opportunity to play meaningful games with this teams having been the U.S. team that won the men's basketball title at the 2019 World University Games. While they do have lots of youth and fresh faces, that experience should prove beneficial in this game.
The Hokies will need their star players like Wabissa Bede and Landers Nolley to have big games while also needing to be efficient and protect their bigs from getting in foul trouble, especially with size still being an issue, even if there has been some improvement made. There's a lot of unknown which makes picking a competitive ACC game like this difficult, but Clemson will take advantage of playing on their home floor against a young Virginia Tech team to keep Mike Young from opening his VT coaching tenure with a victory.