Hokies the Better Team in 74-67 Win over Duke – A Glimpse into the Puzzle

Stop me if you’ve heard this storyline before: “Virginia Tech knocks off a ranked Duke team in Cassell Coliseum.”

It happened again, though it wasn’t shocking this time. The Hokies didn’t have to pray that a Grayson Allen half court heave at the buzzer was going to rim out, cross their fingers that someone would hit clutch free throws to seal the game or hope that Seth Curry was going to commit some dumb turnover to hand Tech the ballgame.

The Hokies’ win didn’t surprise anyone, because they were the better team. And they played like it.

How No. 20 Virginia Tech (10-2, 4-1 ACC) performed in its 74-67 victory over No. 19 Duke (5-3, 3-1) has slowly become the expectation in year two of the Mike Young era.

Accurate and efficient shooting from the floor (50%) and from behind the arc (43%). Winning the battle on the boards (34 rebounds to Duke’s 33). Taking care of the ball (16 assists, ten turnovers). Getting defensive stops when needed. Three players in double figures with Tyrece Radford stuffing the stat sheet.

It’s become the standard.

In mid-January of last season, Virginia Tech sat at 14-5, 5-3 in the ACC with losses to No. 10 Duke, at No. 9 Virginia and vs. Syracuse. Though the run from there on out wasn’t pretty — the Hokies won two of the remaining 13 games — Tech was clearly building for the future.

“16-16 is never going to be good enough in Blacksburg, nor should it be,” Young said after Tech’s loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament that ended his inaugural season. “But to cobble that together and do so with some really quality people and scrap and claw and some great moments, some not-so-great moments. … Things are in place. The foundation is in place.”

I remember having a one-on-one conversation with Jalen Cone after that ACC Tournament game. I asked him about the future of the program, about what he thought the 2020-21 season would look like.

“I think we’re going to be just fine next year,” Cone responded, as confident as ever. “I think next year, we’re going to have a good shot at the big dance.”

Clearly, the Hokies are better than fine. They proved that against the Blue Devils, Tech’s fourth win over Duke in the last five meetings in Blacksburg.

This is a team Young practically built from scratch, though.

Above is a chart of every player in the Virginia Tech basketball program over the past three seasons.

In the offseason when Young was named head coach in April of 2019, the Hokies lost six players. Young was left with seven guys — two sophomores in Wabissa Bede and P.J. Horne and five freshmen. The only player 6’7″ or taller was Landers Nolley.

Young and his staff accepted the challenge and brought in two transfers, Keve Aluma was one of them. They hit the recruiting trail hard and earned four commitments. Still, Aluma had to sit out in 2019-20 and Tech was one of the most youthful teams in the ACC.

It was a similar situation in this past offseason, the Hokies lost six players to graduation, medical issues or the transfer portal. Yet just like before, Tech found success in recruiting and in the portal, adding four freshmen and three transfers. And, for the first time since 2015-16, a Virginia Tech basketball team had four scholarship players taller than 6’8″.

Additions of Aluma and Justyn Mutts, who transferred from Delaware, have been golden. The two are averaging 23 points and 12 rebounds per game.

There’s Wabissa Bede, the veteran of the program, and potentially the only player in school history to go to four NCAA Tournaments, should the Hokies reach that mark. There aren’t many better ball handlers in the ACC.

The 6’2″ Radford, the lone player of Buzz Williams’ final recruiting class remaining in Blacksburg. Potentially the best inch-for-inch rebounder in the country, the Baton Rouge native is ever-so efficient.

The signees from last offseason, the trio of sophomores — Hunter Cattoor, Nahiem Alleyne and Jalen Cone — are clicking and have all played major roles in Tech’s success. Alleyne has started 38 of 44 games in two seasons while Cone and Cattoor have been electric off the bench. The duo averages 20.6 combined points per game, which is 77% of Tech’s bench points per game this season.

Young has solved the puzzle for Tech’s success in such a short amount of time, yet it seems like the Hokies have played together since they were ten when they’re out on the court. At times, that’s been the difference.

“They’re really good,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “In the first half, they really hit us hard. They played great defense, really strong, physical and tough. It knocked us back – we have not played in an ACC game like that.

“We learned a lot tonight on how hard an ACC top level game is.”

The chemistry was on display against Duke.

Radford (18 points, 12 rebounds), Aluma (17 points, seven rebounds) and Cone (14 points, 3-5 3FG) led the way for Tech, but it was a team effort. Eight Tech players scored and grabbed at least one rebound while seven recorded at least one assist.

At many points throughout the game, that teamwork showed. It was there when Cattoor found a wide open Radford for a layup with 30 seconds to go in the first half.

Also evident when Cone hit a streaking Aluma for an easy transition bucket with 11:28 to go in the second.

There was also the spectacular moment where Jeremy Roach drove towards the bucket with 1:30 to play. Roach released a floater from the block and Aluma grabbed the shot out of the air, miraculously saving the ball from going out of bounds.

It reminded me of a Deron Washington play from a 2007 game against Miami. Check the 30 second mark.

Plays like that, with extraordinary togetherness — one teammate covering for another — helped the Hokies knock off Duke.

Tech never trailed, starting out the game with a quick 11-2 run. After shooting 63% in the first half, the Hokies led by 12, 46-34.

The Blue Devils didn’t mess around to open the second half. They blitzed out of the gate and put up 12 to Tech’s two points over the first 2:30. From there, margin stayed under ten points, dropping as low as one with 13:12 to play after a Matthew Hurt three-pointer.

The Hokies picked up the pace, though, and outscored Duke 18-12 the rest of the way. 11 of those 18 points came from Aluma, while Cone added a three, Radford hit two free throws and Mutts capped the game off with a dunk with 1:02 to play.

“I saw a level of poise [in the second half],” Young said. “I didn’t want to call a timeout there when Duke took off on us in the second half. Part of that was by design. I wanted to see us figure it out and fight through it.

“We didn’t have our best start, but I knew we would figure it out. I was pleased with their patience, their poise, and togetherness. They continued to share and I do think that is the mark of a team that’s been there and done it and knows what it takes to get out games like that with a win.”

Despite Hurt, Roach and DJ Steward scoring 20, 22 and 14, respectively, the Hokies kept Duke at bay for their fourth ACC win of the season.

It’s been a work in progress for Young & Co., but the process is starting to pay off. Virginia Tech has proved it is one of the best teams in the ACC, though there’s a good chance that it’s not the last time this season that the Hokies earn a result like this.

“Let’s not beat around the bush – we’ve got a pretty good team,” Young said. “I think we’ve got a chance to be really good.”

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