Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
Mike Young is excited about his first year as the head coach of the Virginia Tech men's basketball program, but knows this season will bring some challenges. Though hopeful, he is also nervous - out of the 15 players on the Hokies' roster, ten are sophomores or younger. The Hokies are youthful, to put it mildly.
“It worries the heck out of me," Young said. "The old adage, ‘Get old and stay old’. Well, we’re young. You can’t combat that. We’re not going to belabor it; we’re not going to pout about it. This is what we have... I’ve got really good players... We’re going to get better."
Two of Young’s more experienced players are juniors Wabissa Bede and P.J. Horne, who both saw good portions of playing time last season. Young says that Bede has been thrust into a more prominent role, but he wants more from both of them overall due to the youth at other positions.
Bede averaged 3.2 points, 2.3 assists and 2.5 rebounds per game last season, shooting 40 percent from the floor. He saw his minutes increase in late January due to the injury to point guard Justin Robinson, who missed 12 games.
In the last eight games of the season, starting with Tech’s victory over Duke, Bede averaged 5.5 points per game, scoring eight against the Blue Devils in the regular season and ten against Duke in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.
Horne also missed time due to injury last season, sitting out six games in late January and early February after an undisclosed injury against Wake Forest. He averaged 3.3 points and 2.2 rebounds per game, shooting 56.8 percent from the floor. It is understandable why Young wants more from him and Bede.
Another player launched into a prominent role this season will be redshirt freshman forward Landers Nolley. At 6’7”, 225 pounds, Nolley is suited for a small forward role, though Mike Young said that he will have to play at the “four,” the power forward position, “out of necessity.”
“I’m not a real proponent of that, but that’s what we have right now,” Young said. He will have to guard some bigger people, out of necessity… I continue to be impressed with his progress and he continues to get better.”
Last season, Nolley said at Virginia Tech’s basketball media day that he intended to be the most impactful freshman in the country. Though he redshirted last season due to the NCAA reviewing his academic credentials, he says his ambitions for this season have not changed.
“It’s still the same mission,” Nolley said. “I intend to pick up where I left off in high school. I still feel the same way and I’ve got the same energy.”
Young also mentioned how he thinks there are players who are freshman or those that used to be role players that are going to emerge this season.
“I’ve read it: ‘Let each man run his own race,’” Young said. “They’re not all going to progress at the same pace. That’s how the process works in this business… It’s difficult at times, but it sure is rewarding, too, when you see the lights come on for young people.”
One of those younger players that could emerge this season is redshirt freshman guard Tyrece Radford. He said even though he did not see the court last year, it was one of the most impactful seasons of his life.
“I learned a lot from the older players,” Radford said. “They showed me how to show the game down mentally, and I think that’s going to help me out big time this year.”
He’ll be joined in the backcourt by Naheim Alleyne, who reclassified to the 2019 recruiting class and committed to Young and his staff at Virginia Tech. He’s hopeful to have an immediate impact.
“I’ve been in the gym a lot, preparing my shot to get quicker against lengthier guys,” Alleyne said. “I’m a two-way player that can score on three levels and defend multiple positions… That’s why Coach Young recruited me – because I can score the ball and defend at a high level.”
The Buford, Georgia native also mentioned that Young’s style of play is similar to what he ran in high school at Mountain View, making his transition to Blacksburg a little easier.
Alleyne also said that he is the youngest guy on the team, a role that was portrayed by Isaiah Wilkins last year, who is now a sophomore guard for the Hokies.
“If I was to tell him Naheim anything, I would just tell him to play basketball,” Wilkins said. “You can’t allow people to get into your head.”
Wilkins, the 6’4” sophomore from Winston-Salem, should have a more prominent role this season. He played in all but one game last season, averaging 4.7 points per game and providing energy off the bench, especially late in the season. In Tech’s two games against Miami in March, Wilkins scored 21 points in 42 minutes, shooting 8-13 from the field and 3-7 from behind the arc.
Wilkins said he learned a lot from playing alongside Nickeil Alexander-Walker last season, the former Tech guard who is now playing in the NBA with the New Orleans Pelicans. He said seeing Nickeil play in the NBA is an inspiration.
“Seeing him playing professionally, along with Justin [Robinson] and Ahmed [Hill], it’s mind-blowing,” Wilkins said.
After a season in which Virginia Tech set a school record for wins, Wilkins said his biggest strength that he brings to this team is his grit to win.
“I just want to win. Period,” Wilkins said. “If we win, I’m a happy camper.”
Jalen Cone, another freshman guard that reclassified, might have the highest expectations of the freshman players this season. The 4-star recruit out of Walkertown, North Carolina, is expected to contribute immediately to Mike Young’s team.
When Cone reclassified and committed to the Hokies in May, his reasoning was the system that Young and his staff are looking to implement.
“His system has Jalen Cone written all over it,” Cone said.
Though it was mentioned that Cone might turn into a go-to scorer for the Hokies, Young said that scorer has not revealed itself just yet, though he thinks they will be fine.
“I think we’ve got enough pieces here that can score the ball, create a little bit for themselves and create a little bit for others on the floor,” Young said.
Another freshman, Hunter Cattoor, committed to Mike Young and his staff at Wofford. When Young decided to leave Wofford and venture back to Southwest Virginia, Cattoor decided to follow.
The 6’3” guard from Orlando said he’s hit the weight room and been working on his all-around game in preparation for his first season in the ACC.
As for the frontcourt, Branden Johnson and John Ojiako provides the Hokies some depth alongside Horne and Nolley. Though ineligible to play this season due to NCAA transfer rules, Keve Aluma will provide Tech depth in the future as well.
Johnson, a 6’8” graduate student, transferred to the Hokies from Alabama State, where he averaged four points and four rebounds per game in the 2018-19 season. He said Mike Young really swayed him on his visit to Blacksburg.
“The things we talked about through my entire official visit were very appealing,” Johnson said. “I felt that I could fit in very well here and help everybody as one of the older guys.”
Like Johnson, Aluma also made his way to Tech from another school to play for Mike Young and his staff.
The Berlin, Maryland native played for Young at Wofford last season, starting 34 of 35 games for the Terriers last season. Averaging seven points and seven rebounds per game, he was a key part of Young’s team last year that ventured to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, falling to Kentucky.
Aluma, who knows Young’s system after playing in it for two seasons, said his teammates are starting to learn that Young knows what he’s talking about when it comes to his style of basketball play.
“It’s helping the whole team gel together, and I think it’s coming together,” Aluma said.
Though the 6’9” forward has to redshirt this season, he still hopes to have an impact on his teammates.
“I think I can help them see stuff and guide them through it because I’ve played in this system before,” Aluma said.
Throughout this season and going forward, all Hokies' players will also get to learn from one of the greatest basketball players in Virginia Tech's history, Ace Custis.
Young is optimistic as well that bringing in Ace Custis will help with mentoring not only the newcomers, but the team as a whole.
“Anytime a person like Ace can mentor this team, and you can look into the rafters and there he is—number 20—with his jersey retired, that’s pretty powerful,” Young said. “I am thrilled that he’s back at Virginia Tech as a member of our staff… He’s the Mayor of Blacksburg.”
The Hokies have less than two weeks until their season opener at Clemson on November 5th, territory that Mike Young is all-too familiar with. However, Young is certain his return to the Palmetto State won't be a distraction for him or his team.
“Let me assure you this: there will be zero distractions,” Young said. “Like every other season opener, I’ll be a nervous wreck. But I look forward to getting back to the upstate and facing the Tigers. I think the world of Brad Brownell… We’ll look forward to it.”
Young identified some strengths of the team at Virginia Tech’s basketball media day on Tuesday, taking a positive away from the team being able to shoot the ball, and hopes a strength will come from being strong on the defensive end, both in the half court and in transition.
“We can shoot it,” Young said. “We are going to be a good passing team… The transition defense has got to be a real strength. It’s not yet, but it should be… We’re a team that takes care of the basketball and gets a good shot every time down.”
As for how many players will see time on the floor to open up the season, Young is hopeful.
“I’m excited to see how it all shakes out,” Young said. “I think I could play nine, maybe 10, on opening night. I hope to. You put the guys on the floor that give you the best opportunity to win.”