BROOKLYN, N.Y. — You can’t see through the confetti, the raucous rainstorm of flimsy orange flakes falling from the Barclays Center ceiling. Given the week’s proceedings, it makes sense. Throughout the ACC men’s basketball tournament, now in its fifth and final day, the occasional fleck of paper film has prematurely made its way onto the court — yes, even in the midst of live action. Whoever stuffed these confetti cannons went way over budget. Like an over-full garbage can, they simply smushed that confetti down and kept packing in more and more and more.
So, yeah, Saturday night when they finally fired off? Kaboom. Good luck getting a glimpse of anything in the immediate aftermath. Except, on a night like this, when the word “historic” isn’t hyperbole, you at least have to try.
Because you don’t want to miss a second.
Specifically, train your eyes to the side of the scrum. Feels a little silly, sure, but it’s worth it. Underneath the basket, you have commemorative-T-shirt-slinging trainers, frantic family members spinning in circles and quite the crowd of cameras descending on Virginia Tech. But it is Darius Maddox — whose game-winning shot Wednesday night against Clemson was the only reason the Hokies were still in New York — who has the right idea at this ridiculous time. So listen to the sophomore guard, bouncing from group to group, calling out in search of a single answer:
Two points: One, how often in a game coached by Mike Krzyzewski are folks looking for a different Mike? Uh, not many times in the past three decades.
And two, to repeat Maddox’s question, where, exactly, is Mike Young?
Off to the side of the scrum, of course. Not yet commencing into full-on celebration, but instead showing the sort of humanity behind his rise from the Southern Conference to the ACC three seasons ago. He’s hugging Hunter Cattoor — hard. But that street goes both ways; Cattoor’s clutching his coach, too, the man he first committed to at Wofford and then willingly followed to Blacksburg, Va. That’s a heck of a leap of faith — for the former No. 551-rated recruit in the class of 2019 to suddenly switch schools at the last second, but also for a first-time ACC head coach, counting on that caliber of player to contribute in one of the country’s best conferences. But, hey, it’s called faith for a reason. You might not be able to see the future, but you follow your gut regardless.
Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes it does.
On Saturday, it sure as heck did. And let’s be honest here: Nobody expected us to be talking about the Virginia Tech Hokies on the eve of Selection Sunday. Young’s club starts two Wofford transfers (All-ACC big man Keve Aluma and point guard Storm Murphy), a Delaware transfer (Justyn Mutts), Cattoor and a second three-star, sub-400-ranked recruit (Nahiem Alleyne). In January, after a miserable buzzer-beating loss to Miami, Young’s not-young team somehow sat at 2-7 in conference play. Dead last. “As we’re 2-7 and losing games we’re not expecting to lose,” Murphy said Saturday, “that weight, that burden, that doubt creeps in, and that’s tough. It’s tough to have that.” Especially so in a supposedly down season for the ACC. Being last in your league is one thing, but the cellar of a crummy conference? Woof.
Six weeks later, it’s some sort of turnaround. Look at this scene: Young and Cattoor on the verge of tears, arms wrapped around each other, celebrating Virginia Tech’s stunning 82-67 ACC championship game win over top-seeded Duke. The Hokies were NIT-bound not even a week ago and needed Maddox’s miracle 3 just to make the quarterfinals. Now? “To heck with that stuff,” Young said from the postgame podium. “Our name will be called tomorrow, and we’ll be excited wherever we may go.” It’s all still a whirlwind but a welcome one. Cattoor says as much when he finally pulls away from his coach’s embrace and holds him at arm’s length. His black “ACC Champions” ballcap is on backward, but his eyes are straight ahead.
“I’m glad,” Cattoor said, “you believed in me.”
As if Young was capable of anything else. This man doesn’t doubt his squad or any of his players. He knows everyone else did — he read those late December headlines: “Maybe Virginia Tech isn’t very good” — but the three players who joined him for Saturday’s postgame news conference all jumped schools to stay on a journey with him. An auto-bid is an impressive turnaround for a team whose advanced metrics outpaced its on-court accomplishments the first three months of the season, but that kind of belief is big-time, too.
This is the payoff, then: the first ACC tournament championship in school history, and the first conference tournament win of any kind since 1979. (Fun fact: The old-school Virginia Tech logo on the staff’s gray pullovers Saturday came to Brooklyn courtesy of that 1979 Wayback Machine.) Virginia Tech could crash out of the NCAA Tournament by next Thursday, but the banner that’ll hang in Cassell Coliseum will be a reason for get-togethers centuries from now. As Murphy put mighty well: “Now it’s forever. Like, it’s etched, it’s ingrained, that we’re forever champions. That’s just something to be proud of, and it’s really special. And no one will be able to take that away.”
No, they won’t. And try as Duke did Saturday to do so, it couldn’t. The Blue Devils, in their Hall of Fame coach’s send-off season, sport potentially five future first-round NBA Draft picks. The Hokies have … none. (Aluma has a shot to go in the second, but even that would be something of a surprise.) But it didn’t matter. As Coach K repeated right and left Saturday, the better team came out on top.
So, why was that Virginia Tech? Truthfully, these teams had one heck of a battle back in December when Duke was still looking like a Final Four favorite. But in that game, Krzyzewski cranked up his small-ball (or “ballhandling”) lineup late, and that was enough to combat Virginia Tech’s motion offense. When you can put Paolo Banchero — a 6-foot-10, 250-pound wing who just won freshman of the year — at center, well, good luck to the other team. En route to winning 13 of its past 15 games, though, Tech has improved mightily. Per KenPom, Young has the No. 4 3-point team in the nation, with five players hitting at least 35 percent from behind the arc. Naturally, Krzyzewski said his staff wrote at the top of its scouting report, “No 3-pointers.”
And then Cattoor came out unconscious, knocking down his first four, a sign of the eventual career-high 31 points he’d drop.
“He had a Klay Thompson night,” Krzyzewski said, referencing Golden State’s sharpshooting savant. “Just figure out how long did he have the ball to score 31 points.”
Answer: not very long. And though Cattoor has done this before this season — he made nine of his 11 3-point attempts against Florida State — it had been a while. One night earlier, North Carolina’s Leaky Black made Cattoor’s life hell, limiting him to a single made field goal. He hadn’t scored in double digits yet this month. And yet, there he was, his arms engulfed in figurative flames, with Hawkeye-like accuracy from 3-point land.
“We want him to just get every shot up when he’s hot like that,” Murphy said. “It’s just like sitting on the couch watching TV. He’s just not missing a thing.”
Cattoor did most of his damage before halftime, yet Duke still managed to limit the deficit. A measly three-point lead at the break after all that? And with Virginia Tech playing a fourth tough game in four nights? Well, fatigue is indeed a factor, even with college kids. It was all too easy to say thanks for playing, Virginia Tech. Nice try. Good effort. Surely, the team with superior talent would win out.
Uh, about that. Young isn’t undefeated in conference championship games for a reason. The man can coach, clear as day. On the first possession of the second half, Mutts stole the ball off a poor Wendell Moore pass, tossed it to Alleyne and, welp, there’s Krzyzewski burning a machine-gun timeout 35 seconds after intermission. So much for that superior talent.
And the rest of the half, not to oversimplify things, was kind of obvious. Virginia Tech played harder than Duke. More cohesively than Duke. Just straight-up better. “We weren’t as sharp as we needed to be,” Krzyzewski said, “but obviously, they were the better team.” In the end, the Hokies’ hustle translated to advantages over Duke in 3-pointers made (10 to four), points in the paint (38 to 30), points off turnovers (16 to five), second-chance points (15 to seven) and total rebounds (37 to 26), among other things.
The punctuation mark, from a performative standpoint, came with 2:27 to play. Mutts, the 6-foot-7, 230-pound do-everything player on this team, elevated for an exclamation point dunk over Banchero, sending the future lottery pick flying to the floor. You want to talk about turning the crowd on its head? In that second — snap — the droves of Duke fans in attendance were drowned out by the ooohs and aaahs of the Hokies faithful. “I think it was that moment,” Aluma said later, asked when the reality of it all started to sink in, “and I just started smiling. I didn’t want to smile too much, but it was showing a little bit.” Young promptly called timeout, recognizing even a 12-point cushion at that time wasn’t guaranteeing anything. But the players had a slightly different perspective. “We went to the huddle,” Murphy said, a wide smile breaking out, “we were like, we can taste it.”
Exactly 1:01 later, when Krzyzewski called off the dogs and subbed out his starters, that taste became a full-on meal. For such a hungry team this week, finally, the feast it first dreamed of back in November. Remember: Young’s team was picked to finish fifth in the preseason ACC poll, even receiving five first-place votes. Then the struggles, the shadows in the valleys, made almost everyone forget.
“They’re the team they thought they were going to be at the beginning of the year,” Krzyzewski quipped.
Which is one that once again is going dancing. Any in-season doubters, any fear that the future was coming too fast, too soon? Screw that. At No. 7, Young’s team is the lowest-seeded side to win this event. Virginia Tech just became the first team since 1980 to beat North Carolina and Duke on consecutive days by double digits. Maybe the Hokies end up a No. 8 seed in the Big Dance or a No. 9. Who wants to be the No. 1 seed with this squad in its region?
No raised hands? No takers?
So, considering what a rocky ride this season has been, as treacherous as any mountain in the school’s surrounding landscape, damn right Young and his program are going to celebrate. He’s posing for pictures, saying the same thing over and over as if to convince himself: “We did it. We just won an ACC championship.” Confetti is still falling, and Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” is blaring over the Barclays sound system. If this is what going off the wheels feels like, one figures Young’s players would sign up all the same. As Young finally follows his team to the championship pedestal, a mess of men and emotions and the experiences that elicit them, the fans behind them are still cheering so loud that they drown out the celebratory presentation. HO-KIES had been heard plenty of times Saturday night, echoing throughout the arena, but not this strongly. Not this loud.
A half-hour later, Young finally moseys into the postgame news conference, which for him is akin to holding court at the local watering hole. He points to people he knows, loudly laughs at the idea that Cattoor is shoving confetti in his shoes just to carry some back home. (“I just wanted to keep some,” Cattoor said, shrugging. “Put it in the scrapbook or something.”) It’s a mixture of gratification and greatness, having stared at the mountaintop from the bottom and decided to climb anyway. A crazy climb, right? But it’s the only possibility Young and the players who push for him ever considered.
Who knows where this team goes from here? Maybe there’s more magic to be wrung out of this sponge. The only thing we do know, that Virginia Tech knows: where it came from to get here and how much sweeter, how much more special, it made this spellbinding Saturday.
“I knew when it came together it was going to be a beautiful thing, and it came together,” Young said, his voice hoarse from coaching but also trying not to cry. “You know, I didn’t think it would culminate in this, but here we are, and we’re not giving it back — I can tell you that.”
(Photo of Justyn Mutts celebrating the Hokies’ ACC tournament victory: Mike Stobe / Getty Images)