Mike Young had been to numerous media days during his 17-year stint as the head men’s basketball coach at Wofford, but certainly not one the size and stint of ACC Operation Basketball.
After all, the Southern Conference’s annual media day consisted of a smaller media contingent and certainly not catered meals filled with the option of pulled pork, pulled chicken or smoked beef brisket.
“This is a little different than what I’m accustomed to, I can tell you that,” Young said, laughing.
Nonetheless, the 56-year-old rookie Virginia Tech head coach handled himself with ease, telling stories, giving analysis of his team and even occasionally needling media members, as he and players Wabissa Bede and P.J. Horne represented the Tech program at ACC Operation Basketball held Tuesday at the Marriott City Center in downtown Charlotte.
Young took over the helm at VT in early April after Buzz Williams departed for the head job at Texas A&M. In essence, the Virginia Tech job is his dream job, as Young grew up in Radford. He went to games at Cassell Coliseum as a kid before playing at and later coaching at Emory & Henry. He worked as an assistant at Radford for one season before spending the past 30 years at Wofford,13 as an assistant and 17 as the head coach.
All along, though, he wanted to coach in the ACC and wanted the opportunity to do it at Tech. Tech Director of Athletics Whit Babcock gave him that opportunity, and he’s been living his best life ever since.
“The fastest roller coaster you’ve ever been on in your life,” Young said of his Tech experience so far. “It’s been awesome. To be a part of Virginia Tech and to meet so many passionate Hokie fans has been a great deal of fun. It’s been a lot of work, from getting here April 8 until now, and that’s ongoing.
“But I’ve said it before, I’m coaching basketball at Virginia Tech, and I’m the happiest guy on Earth. Whatever lies ahead, bring it on. We’ll meet it head on, and we’ll continue to plug away at it.”
Since arriving in Blacksburg, Young has been going non-stop. He secured a staff, finalized a roster, coordinated summer workouts and, of course, recruited. Then this past week, he coached in his first official practice.
Like most coaches, he headed into this fall with a simple goal – just to get the most out of this year’s squad.
“It’ll be the same 10 years from now – to make this team, help this team be as good as we can possibly be,” Young said. “If we do that, that’s coaching. It’s a mistake – I’ve never done it, will never do it – to say that I expect to do this, or expect to do that, or expect to make the NCAA Tournament. Get better. Get the foundation in place. Get a style of play in place that we can build upon as we go along.
“But the short answer,” Young said, “is let’s take care of this team, and let’s make this team as good as we can possibly be. If we’ve done that, at the end of the year, sign me up.”
Young certainly inherited a transitional situation. A season ago, Tech made its third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance – a first in program history – and won two games in the tournament. But nearly all of the key parts to that team, guys like Justin Robinson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kerry Blackshear Jr., Ty Outlaw and Ahmed Hill, left following the season.
His current roster features just one senior – graduate transfer Branden Johnson. Only five players on the roster played a minute for the Hokies in 2018-19.
Thus, the Hokies will not be predicted to finish highly when the league’s preseason poll comes out. Actually, they may be picked to finish near the bottom of the league standings, and because of that Young preaches patience.
“I’m trying my darndest,” Young said of being patient. “I’m having a great time and really admiring our team, but there has to be patience. That’s largely because of a lack of complete familiarity with the program and how things are structured and non-negotiables and that sort of thing. Because we are so new and we are building this thing foundation first, patience on my part is a necessity. It’s a reality.”
Tech has a couple of exhibition games/scrimmages coming up, and Young figures to know more about his team then. He learns more each day, as he prepares his team for its season opener Nov. 5 at Clemson.
More importantly, he likes that they’re buying into his philosophy, schemes and teachings.
“I think [it’s going] very, very well,” Young said of the buy-in. “[Any] hesitancy is more a lack of the familiar than buy-in. Not one day have I left that campus thinking that there’s questions there. Not in the least. Again, it’s the first time in 30 years that I’ve coached a different team. We had that thing rolling for so long. But in terms of their willingness to take us in as a new staff, I couldn’t be happier or more proud of how that’s gone.”
More notes from ACC Operation Basketball:
UPDATE ON KABONGO
Tech’s staff expects guard Jonathan Kabongo to miss a significant portion of the season with an injury. The 6-4 Kabongo played in 21 games last season as a freshman. His best game came against Maryland Eastern Shore when he scored a season-best six points in a season-high 14 minutes. There was some speculation that Kabongo would miss the season, but Young hopes to see his return to the court in January.
“We are not, by any stretch of the imagination, closing the book on him playing later this year,” Young said. “I don’t think there’s any chance we could have him back before January, but if he’s back in January, and he’s healthy and we get the go-ahead from our training staff – and I think Jonathan Kabongo could help us win basketball games – then he’ll play.”
WEBSTER WITH THE ASSIST
Williams took all of his staff with him to Texas A&M with the exception of Christian Webster, who joined Williams’ staff in 2016. Young decided to keep Webster on board, and HE has been thankful he made that decision ever since. Webster originally served as a conduit between Young and the current players until Young got to know the players, and he continues to make an impact both as a coach and in recruiting circles.
“He’s been great. He’s been terrific,” Young said of his assistant. “People spoke highly of Christian. I saw Coach [John] Beilein [now the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers] do that at a couple of stops – West Virginia, Richmond – with an assistant coach, and I thought that could be invaluable for me and it has been,” Young said. “Christian Webster has done a great job.”
After Williams’ departure, Bede decided to put his name in the transfer portal to give himself the option of moving on. But the 6-foot-1 point guard, who averaged 3.8 points and 2.3 assists per game, decided to remain in Blacksburg after several meetings with Young.
“I just believed in what he told me,” Bede said. “I felt like he was saying the right things. I asked my mom, and she felt like he was saying the right things as well, and she believed in his message, too.”
For Young, keeping his potential starting point guard was a top priority.
“What people don’t know is that it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction,” Young said. “He didn’t come in two days later and say, ‘I’m staying.’ It was like a recruiting process.
“Sometimes, I’d ask him to come up [to his office]. Sometimes, he’d come up and knock on the door and close the door and we’d visit for 15 minutes. Nothing about style of play, as much as, ‘How’s your mom?’ and how much he enjoys Virginia Tech – being a student, the people there, Alise Svilha, our academic person.
“Things that should matter, actually matter to him,” the head coach said. “I think back to that experience, and I thought it was an indication of how smart he is and how self-aware he is. What a fine young person he is. He’s great. I’m thankful for a lot of reasons – point guard, leadership and experience. He’s been great for me, I’ll tell you that.”
HORNE READY FOR EXPANDED ROLE
Horne, a 6-5 post player, showed flashes of being a solid ACC contributor last season as a sophomore, scoring 13 points against North Carolina A&T and 11 against Maryland Eastern Shore, but a knee injury midway through the year really slowed him and he wasn’t the same player the rest of the season. Horne insists he is 100 percent and ready to make a big contribution.
“I’m feeling great,” Horne said. “I’ve got that past me. I’m ready to play.”
Truthfully, the Hokies need for Horne to stay healthy this season because they lack depth in the post. Freshman John Ojiako is their tallest player at 6-10, with Grant Yates, a sophomore from Gainesville, Virginia, and Johnson, the graduate transfer from Alabama State, checking in at 6-8.
“Incredibly,” Young said when asked how concerned he was about Tech’s frontcourt. “I’m a traditional guy. Bigger front line. I’ve been different at the four spot [power forward] – I’ve played a guard there. But if I had my preference, I would play 6-9, 6-10, 6-11 at the four-five spot.
“If you guys know anything about recruiting, post players are hard to come by, and in April, they’re really hard to come by,” Young said. We did the best we could, and that’s been a point of emphasis through the summer and fall. We’ll get that corrected. It’s just going to take a little time.”
–Jimmy Robertson, VT Athletics