As I watched Virginia Tech seal the program’s first-ever ACC Championship in men’s basketball, I began re-tracing the Hokies’ steps in my head.
You remember the Hokies sitting at 2-7 in the conference, reeling from a buzzer-beater defeat at the hands of Miami in Cassell Coliseum? I mean, how could you not? It was Virginia Tech’s third-straight defeat, a streak kicked off by an inexcusable loss to Boston College.
Tech fans across the spectrum admitted, either internally or externally, that this season probably wasn’t going to end in an NCAA Tournament appearance. No matter what folks say on Twitter these days, we all thought the same thing on Jan. 27 — barring a miracle, Virginia Tech’s season was essentially over.
An attempted resurrection would require some key improvements and changes, all of which came to fruition down the stretch. Virginia Tech not only salvaged their season, but ended on an impressive run that featured consecutive wins against the conference’s top three tournament seeds — Notre Dame, North Carolina and Duke.
So what changed? How did we get here? It’s worth a deeper examination.
Opening Up The Rotation
Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young didn’t add players to the rotation as much as he extended more minutes to his bench players already playing. This was critical down the stretch.
The biggest difference came in Darius Maddox, who spent much of the early ACC schedule in the FBI’s Witness Protection Program. Maddox, however, played 23 minutes in the Hokies’ Jan. 29 win over Florida State and from that point forward, Maddox played a key role in the team’s offense. After that momentum-building win, Maddox shot more than 48 percent from the field for the rest of the season.
Maddox’s shooting came off the bounce and off the catch. Maddox nailed two game-winners down the stretch — he returned the favor to Miami in a 71-70 thriller and buried Clemson with a buzzer-beating three in overtime.
Sean Pedulla, who just finished a solid freshman campaign, saw more and more minutes as the season progressed. After Tech’s loss to Miami on Jan. 26, Pedulla played at least 10 minutes in every game except the ACC Tournament final vs. Duke. That’s 14 straight games of 10 or more minutes, often times playing upwards of 17-to-18 minutes. Pedulla was handed more responsibility as a distributor and as a scorer, and it resulted in a smoother offense.
Pedulla’s six threes against Florida State was his coming out party, but Pedulla had six games of seven or more points after that contest. Prior, Pedulla had just two such games.
Understandably, Young relied heavily on his veteran core for much of the season. But he needed his younger players to give the team a shot of adrenaline, and they did just that.
Storm Murphy was one of Tech’s players who struggled for a portion of the season. Through January, Murphy had games where he seemed to lose confidence in his jump shot, and struggled trying to find and fix the problem.
Maybe fans placed too high of expectations, but the prevailing thought was that Murphy, who averaged 17.8 points per game as a fourth-year player at Wofford, would transform a Tech offense hindered by the defensively-sound Wabissa Bede. Murphy’s skill set didn’t exist on the Hokies’ roster, so he was supposed to give Tech something they didn’t have — unbridled scoring ability.
While Murphy never became a consistent elite scorer in a Tech uniform, he did improve his game to the point it began to to make a noticeable difference on both ends of the floor.
In keeping with the trend, after Tech’s win vs. Florida State, Murphy scored 38 points in the Hokies’ next two games. And while he lost his shooting touch for a few contests, Murphy found success as the Hokies’ lead distributor. Over Tech’s final 15 games, Murphy totaled 99 assists to just 56 turnovers.
Murphy’s performance in the ACC Tournament was especially productive, as he scored 15 against Clemson and 16 vs. Notre Dame before dishing 13 combined assists vs. North Carolina and Duke. Murphy’s 48 percent shooting and 2.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in Brooklyn couldn’t have come at a better time.
A Winning Culture
Building a productive culture can often be used as a cliché, as everyone wants to build a “winning culture.” But what does that look like?
For Virginia Tech, it looks like a team that finished 13-2 in the team’s final 15 games, rebounding from a frustrating start to the year. It looks like a collection of rag-tag players that were overlooked by many top-tier programs coalescing around a coach from the Southern Conference.
Four of Virginia Tech’s starting five — Murphy, Hunter Cattoor, Justyn Mutts and Keve Aluma — were originally recruited to play below the high-major level. Murphy spent four years at Wofford and Cattoor would’ve ended up at Wofford if it weren’t for Young bringing him to Blacksburg. Mutts came to Blacksburg from Delaware, and went to Delaware after starting at High Point. Aluma played two seasons at Wofford before sitting an entire year after transferring to Virginia Tech.
And the coach? Just a good ole’ boy from Radford with an endearing personality and a never-say-die attitude that took on three consistently successful programs and bounced each of them from the ACC Tournament.
The Hokies could’ve folded back in January, but they held together as a team and figured out how to win. Not only did they figure out how to come out on top, they won something that no other Tech team has won before.
Can they do that again in the NCAA Tournament? The odds seem against them, but I said the same thing about the Hokies even earning a bid to the Big Dance.
See how that turned out?