Hokies’ swoon concludes in thud at ACC Tournament

2020 ACC TournamentRemember when Virginia Tech was 5-3 in the ACC, 14-5 overall, win over Michigan State from Maui on the resume?

Had to be feeling NCAA Tournament then.

Then the carriage turned back into a pumpkin.

The Hokies flamed out down the stretch under first-year coach Mike Young, losing 11 of their last 13 to finish 16-16, with a quick two-hour cameo in a 78-56 loss to North Carolina in the first round of the 2020 ACC Tournament as the send-off.

That Young guy, he must be a proto-positivist, because he was asked at the postgame presser how to assess his first season in Blacksburg, and his answer was …

“You know what, pretty damned good,” said Young, who took five of his teams at Wofford to NCAA Tournaments, including his group that went 30-5 last year, and took Kentucky to the brink in the Round of 32.

He had more talent at Wofford.

“Considering what I found on April 8th with good players graduating, 7-13 is never going to be good enough in Blacksburg, nor should it be. 16-16 is never going to be good enough in Blacksburg, nor should it be. 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, but we’re off and running now, if you will. Things are in place. The foundation is in place,” Young said.

The jury is very much still out on that.

No question, though, that the cupboard had been left bare by the departing Buzz Williams, who took the Hokies to a Sweet Sixteen a year ago, but left for Texas A&M as the guts of that group dispersed, to the G-League, to the transfer portal, wherever.

Credit to Young for taking the leftover pieces, plus a redshirt, Landers Nolley, and figuring out, for a while, how to win games with a lineup featuring the 6’7” Nolley playing most of his minutes at the five.

The high point, after the Michigan State win in November, would be the two-OT win over North Carolina in Blacksburg on Jan. 22.

That was the one that ended with Tech at 14-5 overall, 5-3 in the ACC, a game ahead of defending national champ, and in-state rival, Virginia, in the conference pecking order.

A road loss at Boston College three days later started a five-game skid, and after a 67-57 home win over Pitt on Feb. 15, there would be another four-game skid.

Nolley, who carried the team for the first couple of months, faded down the stretch, averaging just 9.0 points per game over the Hokies’ last 10 games, shooting 24.5 percent from the field over that stretch.

Holy God.

There’s been talk about this kid thinking about leaving school early for the NBA.

Um, no.

Nolley certainly didn’t indicate anything after the UNC game other than thinking about getting ready for next season at the college level.

“We played well together, got better as the season went on, did what we always did,” Nolley said, assessing the Tech season at a glance. “That got us some success early in the season. Hit some rough patches, but tried to weather the storm and get back to playing Hokies basketball, and we just came up short.”

Young has some tape to watch ahead of exit interviews, and then it’s on to next year.

“We start back with our spring workouts, and it’s not new. We have done it,” Young said. “We know what we’re looking at now. We know how things are going to operate, and how we’re going to run, and I am looking forward to that.”

All in all, it could have been worse.

The Hokies, after all, had been picked to finish 14th in the ACC in the preseason.

They beat Michigan State, the eventual Big Ten co-champ, started 14-5, and then the clock struck midnight.

“I’ll be honest with you now, there were times I thought I was hanging on for dear life trying to get a little bit more, and we did,” Young said. “We had a tough stretch late January, February. This isn’t the best league to be young and small in. As many of you that have covered this league for many years, I’m not sure that there’s a league in America that’s good to be young and small. We’re going to look a lot different a year from now, I can assure you of that.”

Story by Chris Graham

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