Since being hired this offseason, Mike Young has worked quickly to reconstruct the Virginia Tech men’s basketball roster. Tech might’ve made the NCAA Tournament each of the last three seasons, but the Hokies’ roster looks vastly different than it did just a few months ago.
Young has added four players since taking over in Blacksburg — Keve Aluma, Hunter Cattoor, Jalen Cone and Branden Johnson. Of that group, all are currently eligible to play right away other than Aluma, who could seek a waiver from the NCAA. Young “retained” Landers Nolley, a former four-star recruit who was ineligible to play for Virginia Tech last season. Wabissa Bede is also returning to the Hokies, withdrawing from the transfer portal.
Virginia Tech’s 2019-2020 roster is beginning to take shape. With these young men on the roster, it’s fair to start figuring out what the Hokies’ rotation will look like next season.
Likely starters: Jalen Cone, Wabissa Bede
Off the bench: Brendan Palmer, Tyrece Radford, Hunter Cattoor
Reeling in Jalen Cone was a monumental accomplishment for Young and Virginia Tech. Cone was the biggest fish on the board, and they got him.
Cone is on the smaller side, standing at just 5-foot-11, but he has a visible toughness about him. KipTJam on Twitter is a high school scout who regularly scouts prospects that Virginia Tech is interested in. He’s seen it all, and he’s very high on Cone’s ceiling.
1-While I no longer have to worry about comprising Top 100 lists, if I did still I would have Jalen Cone in that 45-55 area. The industry and my colleagues have him lower in the Top 100, some in that 100 vicinity even…
— KipTJam (@KipTJam) May 10, 2019
2-One of my national scouting colleagues who is well known & well respected has him a M + prospect. Meaning in 120-150 area.He is the outlier on the low side & I am probably the outlier on high side. So Cone probably is somewhere between the 2 outliers & where industry sees him
— KipTJam (@KipTJam) May 10, 2019
Cone likely won’t be an All-ACC player in Year One and he may never get to that point. But given the lack of talent on the roster, it’s hard to see him not getting the first crack at point guard. He’s quick and can shoot, and that alone right there makes him valuable.
Wabissa Bede isn’t going to blow anyone’s socks off, but he fits the role of a bulldog defender who can run the floor and make hustle plays. He has experience running the offense (albeit to varying degrees of success) and will play 35 minutes a night. He can guard multiple positions and he’s the best option available to play alongside Cone.
Likely starters: Isaiah Wilkins, Landers Nolley
Off the bench: Jonathan Kabongo
This is the arguably the weakest position on the roster. With Nickeil Alexander-Walker headed to the NBA, Ahmed Hill exhausting his eligibility and Chris Clarke basically being dismissed from the program, Tech is devoid of depth on the wings.
Keeping Nolley helps tremendously. Nolley may have started towards the end of last season had he been declared eligible and played off the bench to start the year, but sitting for several weeks ruined the year for him. Now he has a fresh start and is almost certainly going to play a lion’s share of the minutes at forward.
Wilkins isn’t a stellar player by any account, but he played in 34 games last season as a freshman. He shot 48.7 percent from the field and 40.7 percent from three in 2018-19, so he’s shown he can be efficient in limited opportunities. He’ll get a few more shots being in the starting lineup, but Hokies fans shouldn’t expect Wilkins to become an offensive force.
Jonathan Kabongo could work his way into a starting role, but Wilkins has a leg up on him in experience. He played in 13 fewer games than Wilkins last season and was far less efficient as a shooter. Kabongo arrived with a bit more hype though, and this year is a perfect time for him to show what he’s capable of.
The wild card here is Keve Aluma, who could be eligible this season if he receives a waiver from the NCAA. The
most forward-thinking organization in sports collegiate athletics governing body released a set of rule changes in April that allows incoming freshmen to transfer and play right away if their head coach departs before the first day of classes for the fall term. Though this situation doesn’t apply to Aluma, who just finished his sophomore season, the NCAA has granted all sorts of waivers to football players for them to play right away and the same could happen to basketball.
If Aluma is somehow declared eligible, then he starts right away. He started 34 games last season, making 66.7 percent of his shots and averaging 6.9 points per game. But until we hear something about a waiver being submitted, we must move on.
Likely starter: Branden Johnson
Off the bench: PJ Horne
Kerry Blackshear Jr. isn’t walking through the doors anytime soon, so Virginia Tech has to move on as if he’s gone. Recent graduate transfer Branden Johnson best fits the starting center mold, giving the Hokies an experienced 6-foot-8 big man from Alabama State.
Let’s be clear, Johnson didn’t put up exemplary numbers while at Alabama State. He averaged 4.3 points per game and 3.7 rebounds per game in 31 games last season. He averaged under 17 minutes on the floor each night and only started 15 games. Johnson doesn’t need to be an all-conference player, but he does need to fill out minutes.
The reason he needs to fill out minutes is because PJ Horne hasn’t quite developed into an ACC-level player. While Horne has been efficient from the floor — he’s a career 58 percent shooter — he often gets himself into foul trouble and fails to defend the rim against ACC players. Johnson might struggle too, but Horne is three inches shorter and Johnson hasn’t been given the opportunity yet.
Room for more
Virginia Tech has 11 scholarship players at the moment, including the likely ineligible Keve Aluma. That also assumes Brendan Palmer, a walk-on when he arrived in Blacksburg, is now on scholarship.
Having 11 players on scholarship gives the Hokies room for two more scholarship players, and it’d be surprising to see them not fill both of those slots. I do not have any inside information on who Virginia Tech is pursuing, but I know where they should be looking.
Finding another wing player is critical. Landers Nolley has zero experience at the college level and sat out the entirety of last season. Isaiah Wilkins has little starting experience and Jonathan Kabongo is the only wing on the bench. Virginia Tech needs bodies, if nothing else, on the wing.
After that, adding either a guard or a center would be prudent. Another guard would allow the Hokies to continue playing small and give them more depth in the backcourt, while adding a big man would give them someone other than 6-foot-5 PJ Horne as a backup center. Mike Young’s play style might determine which route the Hokies take.