This summer, Last Word on Basketball looks to profile college basketball teams and their journey through a season played during a pandemic. Our previous installment took a look at UNC Asheville from the Big South. You can also check out prior installments, starting with Wofford. The final program in our series is Virginia Tech basketball. Mike Young just completed his second season with the Hokies.
Young has quickly vaulted Virginia Tech into competing in the ACC. He went 16-16 in year one, the most wins by a Hokie first-year coach in 20 seasons. This past season, Virginia Tech basketball went 15-7 and made the NCAA Tournament, making Young the quickest coach to do so in school history. The season started with a bang by knocking off third-ranked Villanova, vaulting the Hokies into the Top 25 for most of the rest of the season. Virginia Tech would go on to finish third in the ACC, though they only played two games in 33 days leading up to the ACC Tournament due to COVID protocols. I had the chance to talk to Young about how Virginia Tech had a meaningful season despite all the challenges his team faced.
The Story of the 2020-21 Virginia Tech Basketball Program
The pandemic altered the NCAA landscape as teams prepared for last season. Some teams were able to gather in the summer, while others weren’t. Mike Young’s team was fortunate enough to get that time together. Still, he knew they had to be careful as they looked to install their game plan for 2020-21.
“Last time I checked, number one on my job description is to keep everybody safe,” Young said. “We did a lot of small group stuff. We did have some opportunities to practice as a unit, which I felt great to have that opportunity. But, you were beyond cautious for obvious reasons, so that part of it was very disjointed and unfamiliar to all of us.”
Young was also aware of the inevitability of COVID having an effect at some point, not just at Virginia Tech, but across the country.
“Prior to the vaccine, you’ve got so many kids who are part of a college community,” he stated. “The likelihood of there being a problem on your campus, I don’t care the size of the campus, was probably pretty good.”
Still, Young’s goal for his group was to have a meaningful season. That started with non-conference play and finding a way to get games played.
Philadelphia Switch Up
Virginia Tech played a full non-conference schedule, which was capped at seven for the 2020-21 season. The Hokies went 6-1, only dropping a game to Penn State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. However, included in that win total was a massive victory over Villanova. Virginia Tech picked up that game against the Wildcats less than 48 hours before tip-off, replacing Temple on their schedule.
“Thursday, Temple is out,” Young remarked. “We need another opponent. The tournament organizer said, ‘Mike, we’ve got the perfect fit for you. Villanova will be available. I have not talked to Jay [Wright] yet.’ So, I went to bed not knowing if that game was going to be played. I got a call…during the night that Villanova wants to do it. You’re on.”
Young noted that Villanova wasn’t an ideal opponent for his team that early in the season as they were trying to figure things out. But, at the same time, he didn’t want to back down from an opportunity like that. He and his staff prepared as best they could in such a short amount of time.
“They’re in the same boat we are,” Young said. “They are as unfamiliar with Virginia Tech as we are with Villanova. We did the best we could. I thought we had a good feel for them going into the game.”
The Hokies won the game 81-73 in overtime and entered the AP Poll the following week. For Young, that win felt like it kickstarted the special group of players he had.
“What that win did for us was incredible in terms of the confidence that our team gained after competing against a terrific program and terrific team,” he exclaimed. “We played a really good basketball game, and that was kind of the start of something really cool.”
Making an ACC Run
Virginia Tech basketball entered January 2-0 in the ACC after taking down Clemson and Miami in December. The winning continued in the new year, as the Hokies went 5-2. That included huge victories over Duke and Virginia, both ranked at the time. Still, COVID reminders were there with the other game against Virginia and a game against Boston College lost due to protocols. For Young, it didn’t change how he prepared, but he acknowledged the frustration of it.
“I didn’t spend any time thinking, well, Syracuse may have a problem,” Young stated. “Louisville had two situations where they were in route to play on the road…land, and taxi back out and head back to Louisville. We didn’t have any of those situations, but it’s exhausting. It’s unnerving. It’s frustrating, but it didn’t discriminate. We all had our own set of issues.”
Sitting at 7-2 in the ACC entering February, Virginia Tech was in the thick of a conference title race. Then, COVID forced the Hokies to have their own pauses. Five games were canceled in total, including both contests against Florida State. Young had nothing but praise for the way the medical staff kept his group safe during that challenging time.
“We don’t talk about the athletic trainer, the amount of water those guys had to carry,” Young said, “in terms of testing two, three, four times a week ensuring that everyone is following the proper protocols. It was the first time in my career that I asked our athletic trainer after every practice if he had anything he needed to share with us. Virginia Tech and our medical staff did an unbelievable job of taking care of all of us.”
The Hokies entered the ACC Tournament as the three-seed, earning their first double-bye since the league tournament expanded in 2014.
The ACC Tournament became newsworthy for all the wrong reasons last season. Duke and Virginia both had to be eliminated from the tournament due to COVID protocols. The Duke cancellation occurred the game before Virginia Tech was set to take the court against North Carolina. Young noted that to be eliminated that way is awful, but trying to expend energy thinking about COVID “what-ifs” wasn’t worth it.
“I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought, to be honest,” he admitted. “Was I nervous about it? Sure. Was it in the back of my mind? Always. But, I wasn’t going to lose sleep over something I had no control over.”
Tech ended up losing 81-73 to the Tar Heels and had to switch their attention to preparing for the NCAA Tournament. The Hokies were seeded as a 10 and paired with Florida. Young felt like the bubble in Indianapolis had everything they needed to prepare for the week.
“The NCAA did a remarkable job,” he said. “It was unique. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. You have your own hall. Everybody has their own room so you mitigate contact tracing and all the other things that could go wrong. You have your own meeting space. We had a dining room that was a conference room made into a dining facility. You had a film room close by. There were two makeshift floors that you could do a walkthrough.”
Virginia Tech and Florida played in the first game of the first round, with the Gators ultimately winning 75-70 in overtime. It wasn’t the result the Hokies wanted, but it wasn’t lost on Coach Young on how difficult it is to reach the greatest tournament in sports.
“We felt great to be there,” he remarked. “We had a good plan, and we played well enough to win in spots. That’s quite an accomplishment for any team to play in that tournament.”
Reflecting on Virginia Tech Basketball
Mike Young looks back on those final few weeks of the season knowing that his team was trying to get back into basketball shape from their pauses. However, he doesn’t use that as an excuse for losing those final two games of the season.
“We both know if you’re on the shelf for that period of time,” he said, “and basketball is such a fine motor skill, and the conditioning, and there’s no substitute for game conditions…and the contact that goes along with it. Did we lose something? Probably. That’s not the reason we got beat by North Carolina and Florida, but it certainly didn’t do us any favors.”
Still, Young was proud of the way his players helped each other out all season.
“In hindsight, our guys did a great job of caring for one another,” he stated. “Young people are even more resilient and tough than I ever thought possible. Day in and day out, testing two days a week, three days a week at seven in the morning, and getting those test results back, and all the protocols. Just getting to the practice floor was an accomplishment.”
As for what Coach Young learned last season:
“You better be able to adjust and adapt,” Young noted. “And I also learned that I hope like hell that I never have to do it again. I have my fingers and everything else on my body crossed in hopes that 2021-22 is more like the first 34 in my career.”
Regardless of what next season looks like, Virginia Tech basketball is in good hands and should be a contender once more in the ACC.