Offense has rarely seemed a problem since Mike Young became the coach at Virginia Tech. This year, the Hokies hope to make defense a strength, too.
Coming off a disappointing 19-15 season that was marked by defensive deficiencies, Young has the Hokies focusing more on that end of the floor. They did it on a nine-day trip to Europe and have continued since practice began.
“We spent a great deal of time on it over the summer and our first few practices,” Young said of stopping the other team after a handful of October workouts. “We’ve focused more on defense. You’re always going to spend more time on offense because of the way the ball moves, but defense has been a focal point for us.”
Virginia Tech had offensive better numbers than its opponents last season, but those advantages fell off against the stiff competition in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where they finished 8-12, lost in their second game in the conference tournament and made a quick exit from the NIT.
They also lost scoring leader Grant Basile (16.4 points per game), all-around glue guy at both ends of the floor Justyn Mutts (13.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and Darius Maddox, who hit several big shots for them but transferred to George Mason.
Back are No. 2 scorer Sean Pedulla (15.0 ppg, 67 3-pointers) and Hunter Cattoor (10.8 ppg, 78 3s), young players who got ample time last season and several reinforcements from the transfer portal.
Young expects sophmore MJ Collins to take a defensive load off Cattoor by guarding the other team's best player, an assignment he embraces.
“That sparks a fire in me knowing that my coach wants me to take on that challenge in just my second year," Collins said.
Graduate transfers Mekhi Long from Old Dominion and Robbie Beran from Northwestern impressed Young early and should help shore up the front line.
Cattoor and Pedulla can both light it up from long range, but will need both an interior threat as a scorer and passer and other players to prove they can make shots from beyond the arc to draw attention away from them.
Young frequently hailed Mutts as the Hokies' most important player, even when his stat line wasn't eye-popping, and the numbers eventually confirmed the label. Mutts led the Hokies in rebounding, assists (152) and steals (48). Long (10.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg) and Beran (7.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 39 3s) are expected to help fill that void.
“You look back at your career and you’re always losing good players," Young said. "New guys will emerge, we’re going to be playing differently. He was exceptional at finding what was coming, so smart and cerebral. He will be missed.”
The trip to Switzerland and Italy gave the Hokies a head start on blending old and new, and young players like Collins, fellow guards Rodney Rice and Tyler Nickel and center Lynn Kidd a chance to see where they'll likely fit in a different scheme.
The Cassell can be a very hard place to play with fans close to the court and it is very loud when things are going well. The Hokies' long-time propensity to shoot, and make, 3-pointers will be key, but actually slowing the other team will be, too.
The Hokies open the season against Coppin State on Nov. 6. The early schedule includes games against South Carolina, Wofford — Young's former team — and either Iowa State or VCU at a tournament in Orlando. They open ACC play with Louisville on Dec. 3 at home, face No. 13 Miami twice, No. 2 Duke at Cassell Coliseum on Jan. 29, No. 19 North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Feb. 17 and have their typical home-and-home with rival Virginia.
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