Virginia and Virginia Tech Men’s Basketball preview: Interesting times for the commonwealth couple

The Atlantic Coast Conference has long been a college basketball juggernaut, with bluebloods Duke and North Carolina leading the way in such a manner that you forget N.C. State has a pair of National Championships. To their credit, Virginia is the most recent titlist and Maryland won it all while the Terps were a league member.

If you can see through the fog, you can actually see Wake Forest and Georgia Tech’s Final Four runs, while “newer members” Syracuse, Notre Dame and even Florida State have had their moments over the last 10 years. (Hey, this is the ACC we’re discussing — there are those who still regard the Seminoles as the new neighbors on the block).

It’s against this backdrop where the ACC is in the process of a potential changing of the guard: Longtime North Carolina Coach Roy Williams retired last spring, while Duke’s Mike Krzyzweski will spend one more season on the Blue Devils bench (ESPN may mention it at some point this winter).

But this league has seen new coaches before in Chapel Hill and Durham, and while there’s always a chance Hubert Davis or Jon Scheyer become a 21st century Les Robinson, there’s a Bill Guthridge or Bill Foster who cut down the nets in Greensboro. This is the world in which Virginia and Virginia Tech reside.

The Cavaliers were picked fourth in the ACC Preseason Poll, while the Hokies were picked fifth. First and third this year? Duke and North Carolina. The more things change …

Virginia‘s 18-7 finish last season included beating Syracuse in the ACC Quarterfinals on a last-second shot by Reece Beekman, and then having to head home after a COVID-19 outbreak. The Cavaliers then lost in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament to Ohio, a finish not as dramatic as losing to a No. 16 seed, winning a National Championship, or seeing their season sidelined due to the pandemic.

This year’s team, after being ranked No. 25 by both polls in the preseason, is off to an 0-1 start after their 66-58 loss at home to Navy Tuesday, a game where they allowed 52% shooting from three-point range and were out-rebounded by the Midshipmen 35-30. That’s when, upon closer examination, one realizes this winter’s unit has little to do with last year’s team: gone to the pros are double-digit-per-game scorers Sam Hauser, Jay Huff, and Trey Murphy III. Also gone are Casey Morsell (transferred to N.C. State) and Justin McKay (North Carolina).

Back are guards Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman, joined by transfers Armaan Franklin (42% three-point shooter at Indiana) and Jayden Gardner (2020 AAC Player of the Year at East Carolina). Early returns for the new Cavaliers are mixed: Gardner tallied 18 points with 10 rebounds against Navy while Franklin made 2-11 shots (and 1-7 from outside the arc) against the Midshipmen.

While one night in November is easily forgotten as a team comes together, Coach Tony Bennett’s team has No. 15 Houston on the horizon (next Tuesday). But I wouldn’t look past Friday’s foe, Radford.

Virginia Tech always felt a year ahead of schedule under former Coach Buzz Williams, and after finishing 16-16 in Mike Young’s first season, continued that trend by going 16-7 and reaching the NCAA Tournament. The Hokies received votes in both preseason polls and return the bulk of their nucleus. Yes, Tyrece Radford transferred to Texas A&M and Jalen Cone departed for Northern Arizona, but back are the twin towers of 6-foot-9 senior Keye Aluma (15 points and eight rebounds per game last winter) and 6-foot-7 senior Justin Mutts, as well as perimeter threats Nahiem Alleyne and Hunter Cattoor (the juniors each shot better than 40% from three-point range as sophomores).

New to the mix is Storm Murphy, who played for two seasons under Young at Wofford and averaged 18 points with four assists at the Southern Conference school last year. He had five points in his debut for the Hokies in their opening night victory over Maine, a game where Virginia Tech shined defensively in holding the Black Bears to 33% shooting and 4-22 from three-point range while turning them over 19 times.

The schedule ratchets up with games against preseason Top 25 teams Memphis, Maryland, and St. Bonaventure before tipping off ACC play against No. 9 Duke in Cameron Indoor (I hear that Coach K’s retirement tour is a big deal). But before all of that, Virginia Tech faces Cavalier-killer Navy Friday in Annapolis.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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