Virginia Tech had ‘no doubt’ it would win the ACC Tournament title — now it’s Duke facing big questions

Virginia Tech had ‘no doubt’ it would win the ACC Tournament title — now it’s Duke facing big questions

NEW YORK — They made a little noise, ate some New York-style pizza, sipped a few Heinekens and brought up the Duke film on a projector screen in their hotel conference room. Mike Young took off his shoes and plopped him on the chair beside him. He went to work. 

“Shut the door and let’s lock in, boys,” Young told his staff.

The Virginia Tech coach and his guys kept going until about 4:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. They got three hours of sleep, then got up and met again. 

And one more time after that. They were looking for the alleyways, nooks and crannies of Duke’s defense. Where could an elite player like Duke center Mark Williams be taken advantage of? Young’s staff saw a way. They also found evidence in the Miami tape of how the Hurricanes did a good job of “tagging” Wendell Moore Jr. There were clearly chances to get Duke turned in switches. 

It was a lot to take in. But this game might mean everything.

“There’s a stream of consciousness,” Young told CBS Sports in the hallways of the Barclays Center, shortly before midnight on Saturday. “There’s just stuff flying everywhere. Some of it really bad. But you’re just trying to come down. We were back in there this morning at 8:30 and you’re narrowing it down. We had three film sessions with our team, 15 minutes, 20 minutes each. I don’t beat them up.”

Was Virginia Tech’s NCAA Tournament fate hanging in the balance of Saturday night’s ACC championship game? We’ll never know. The Hokies ended all speculation with a spectacle of a win over Duke, running away with an 82-67 victory, giving the program its first ACC Tournament championship in its history and its first conference tournament championship in more than 40 years. 

The team knew about 12 hours before the country saw what Virginia Tech was capable of Saturday night. The tape told the story. The prep was true. Duke was there for the taking. Senior Storm Murphy admitted it.

“I think it even it started on the way here to Brooklyn and even this morning,” he said. “I think a lot of the guys just had no doubt that we (weren’t) going to lose, and we completely realized we already had the game won. We just had to do our job.”

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A confident-yet-devastating quote. Virginia Tech put in the work, saw the weaknesses and envisioned the win for hours. When the ball was tipped, there were no surprises. 

Four days ago, this was a 19-12 team far off the bubble. It needed a buzzer-beating win Wednesday in the second round of the ACC Tournament vs. Clemson to survive in overtime and keep its chances afloat for the Big Dance. Young called that win “lucky as hell.” With Young and the Hokies, it’s hard to see how luck is much of a factor anymore. This team rated well in predictive metrics all season long, yet it lacked a signature win. At the last possible spot in the schedule, it earned such a victory for the clincher. One of the more unlikely and impressive ACC championship runs in recent memory. As a No. 7, Virginia Tech became just the second team in ACC Tournament history to go for four wins in four days. Hunter Cattoor scored a career-high 31 points and tipped Duke over as a throng of Virginia Tech fans were beside themselves at what was transpiring in front of them. 

“He had a Klay Thompson night,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

What turnaround. These Hokies were once 2-7 in the ACC ledger. January was ending and things are grim. 

“It was a dark place, we didn’t want to be there, we didn’t expect to be there,” Murphy said about the midseason swoon. 

Virginia Tech has lost twice since then. It’s won 13 times. It’s going to a fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament because Young never let his team feel like they weren’t good enough. 

“There’s an inherent pressure,” Young told CBS Sports. “I don’t respond very well to people ripping my ass. I want to encourage them. I’ve got really good guys.”

Nobody’s ripping Mike Krzyzewsi’s ass, but a loss like this will put Duke’s forthcoming NCAA Tournament appearance in a different light. Winning your conference tournament is not a prerequisite to winning a national championship; many teams don’t win the former before doing the latter. But it’s clear that Duke is not at its peak. 

“We couldn’t stop them,” Krzyzewski said. 

As Coach K said Saturday night, this team by most measures has had a successful run to this point. It’s 28-6, ACC champions of the regular season and, on Sunday, will be awarded with a quality seed. It was looking like a No. 2 before Virginia Tech put it in a blender. Now the Blue Devils could be a No. 3, a fate Krzyzewski hinted at. 

Quite obviously, it’s the defense that’s the problem. Yes, Young is a fantastic coach, one who commands respect around the country for his style and acumen. Virginia Tech might’ve been a bad matchup for Duke, true.

“They’ve been like a well-oiled machine,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re a team that you need two or three days of preparation for to put in your defensive game plan, and it still might not work. I think they’re the team they thought they were going to be at the beginning of the year.”

But it’s not like the Hokies caught the Devils on a bad day. Duke has been slipping more as of late on the defensive end. K said it after the UNC loss to close the season, and the players know it all too well, too.

“I think our communication has been a little off,” Wendell Moore Jr. said. “I definitely feel like the effort is there from all of our guys. I feel like we’re a little late on talks, a little late on the switches. So again that’s all little things we can clean up.”

Its talent (this Devils team could have five NBA players on the roster) is wasted if it can’t be used at both ends. Duke ranks 44th in defensive efficiency at The great Duke teams of the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s and ’10s were almost extensively ferocious, fearless and connected on defense. Facing them was hell. Those teams were an avatar for Krzyzewski’s vehemence. 

Can this team raise its ceiling? Duke’s had 34 games to show its will and want. To this point, it’s proven incapable of being elite, and now, it’s merely occasionally good at that end of the floor. Krzyzewski’s done this for nearly five decades. He knows that flipping a switch on defense in the middle of March is nearly impossible. Flexing out of bad habits is hard to do. But he said it’s doable. The team has barely held true practices since the UNC loss. For a young team, that matters. 

Krzyzewski said he was “very confident” Duke can turn its defensive reputation around “because we’ll be able to practice.”  

But as he admitted multiple times Saturday, this is a young team that revolves around three freshmen, two of them still 18, and that brings limitations. 

“An older team handles tired better,” he said. 

There’s a lot still to learn but not a lot of time to get there. How much more can this team grow, now that there are no more losses without consequences?

“We’re 0-0,” Krzyzewski said. “I think we’ll be a pretty good seed, and we’ve got to move on and learn from it. But playing this game helps us because this is the caliber of team and execution that you’re going to have to beat in order to advance.”

This title game was a collision of two teams coming from different angles. They ricocheted off each other, and now who’s to say which one — or both, or neither — will still be playing by the end of next weekend.

Young was perplexed over the idea that Virginia Tech could make it all the way to the ACC title game and still maybe not get in. But that’s off the table.

“The heck with that stuff,” he said. “Our name will be called tomorrow and we’ll be excited wherever we go.”

Young, Murphy, Cattoor and Keve Aluma sat on the dais together, drenched in celebration. They’re Hokies now, but they were all once Wofford Terriers in another time. That’s where Young used to coach, Aluma and Murphy used to play, and where Cattoor committed to in high school.

On Saturday night, they became ACC champions. They beat Duke, becoming either the last or the second-to-last team that will give Krzyzewski a loss. Virginia Tech will have its named called Sunday and enter the NCAA Tournament feeling as confident and free as any club in that 68-team bracket. 

Duke will walk in with a target on its back, the biggest draw of this tournament despite not being the best seed, not even likely to land in the top six or seven in the selection committee’s overall order. Krzyzewski is arguably the greatest coach in college basketball history, and with only a few weeks left in his career, he now needs one of the best coaching maneuvers of his life in order to get this season to end the way he and his players hope it will. 

Marcy Willis

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