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No. 20 Virginia Tech men’s basketball is defying expectations as it climbs ACC standings

“Let’s not beat around the bush: We’ve got a pretty good team,” Virginia Tech Coach Mike Young said of his Hokies, who have three wins against ranked opponents. (Matt Gentry/Roanoke Times)

The 20th-ranked Virginia Tech men’s basketball team had just completed a 74-67 win against No. 19 Duke on Tuesday night when Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski began his postgame remarks by offering effusive praise to his counterpart, Mike Young, whose program continues to defy expectations.

The Hokies were picked to finish 11th out of 15 teams in the ACC in preseason voting but instead are near the top of the conference after scoring a third victory over a ranked opponent. They also have the most notable nonconference win in the ACC, having stunned No. 3 Villanova, 81-73 in overtime, in their second game of the season.

“They are really good,” Krzyzewski said. “Mike’s team knows who they are. Their substitution patterns were great. 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.”

The Hokies (10-2, 4-1) have won two in a row and six of seven heading into Sunday’s game against Wake Forest. The roster has a handful of players remaining from the previous coaching staff and others whom Young recruited since arriving from Wofford in the spring of 2019.

Only Louisville and Virginia, ranked 16th and 18th, entered the weekend ahead of the Hokies in the ACC. Virginia Tech lost to the Cardinals, 73-71, on the road this month but have a rematch Feb. 13 in Blacksburg. The Hokies also have two games left against Virginia.

They have managed to climb the standings in one of the most competitive conferences in the country behind sound fundamentals on offense and defense. Virginia Tech entered the weekend ranked fifth in the ACC in scoring (75.2) and scoring defense (65.1).

“I’ve got a pretty good team,” Young said with a hint of defiance. “Let’s not beat around the bush: We’ve got a pretty good team. I think we’ve got a chance to be really good. We’re not really good right now. I don’t think it’s anything more complicated than that.”

Young’s move from a mid- to a high-major program has been complicated amid the coronavirus pandemic, but the Hokies have flourished in his second season thanks in part to transfers such as Keve Aluma, who started 34 games as a sophomore at Wofford before leaving for Virginia Tech.

The 6-foot-9 redshirt junior forward sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules. Familiarity with Young’s system vaulted Aluma into the starting lineup this season, and the Berlin, Md., native has been the Hokies’ most productive player, averaging team highs of 15.6 points and seven rebounds.

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During an 80-78 win against visiting Miami on Dec. 29, Aluma had 26 points, six rebounds, four assists and three blocks; he’s one of four players in Division I to post that stat line this season.

Aluma’s defensive energy is spreading, according to Young, who pointed to a sequence in the closing minutes that helped secure the victory over the Blue Devils at Cassell Coliseum, ending a three-game losing streak in the series.

With Duke attempting to mount a final charge, Aluma sprinted downcourt to block Blue Devils guard Jeremy Roach’s shot from behind while keeping the ball inbounds, leading to a dunk by Justyn Mutts that expanded the Hokies’ lead to 73-64 with 1:02 left.

“We’re definitely a good team,” Aluma said. “We still have a lot of improvement that we can do. I think we have a good team. We just need to keep balling together. We have a great coaching staff, and they make it easy for us to go out and follow the scouting report.”

Underscoring the unselfishness throughout the lineup is Jalen Cone. The sophomore guard has not started a game this season but is Virginia Tech’s second-leading scorer at 13 points per game. Cone also is by far the Hokies’ leader in three-pointers with 30, 11 more than second-place Nahiem Alleyne.

Cone had 14 points against the Blue Devils, including eight in less than three minutes after entering for the first time early in the first half.

“He’s a beast,” Hokies guard Tyrece Radford, who scored a game-high 18 points against Duke, said of Cone. “You don’t want to chase him, but you don’t want to foul him on a three. He’s so quick, so smart. He jumps so high off the ground, so you’ve got to be extra cautious when you’re chasing him because in a split second he’s up in the air.”

Radford has started 12 games this season and is Virginia Tech’s third-leading scorer (10.5 ppg), but depth also has provided a major boost for the Hokies, who have four players averaging at least 10 points and nine averaging at least 11 minutes.

Radford is the only player averaging more than 30 minutes; Young substitutes liberally to keep the lineup on the court as fresh as possible down the stretch.

“I take nothing away from my guys,” Young said. “I’ve got good players that have played a lot of basketball around here now when you consider the minutes that Cone, Alleyne, [Hunter] Cattoor, those guys, played a year ago. I like my team and the things that each individual brings to the unit.”