Virginia Tech Has The Ingredients For Their Best Season Ever
After making the tournament for the first time in 15 years, the Hokies have a veteran group with enough talent to meet their high expectations
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Last season was a banner year for the Virginia Tech Hokies. For the first time in program history, the Hokies notched a win against an AP top-4 team and had two players make First Team All-ACC in the same year (Elizabeth Kitley and Aisha Sheppard). They also made their first NCAA tournament in 15 years and matched the program’s best finish by advancing to the second round. VT’s party was abruptly halted by top-seeded Baylor in a thunderous blowout.
Despite how it ended, 2020-21 represented the latest step in Kenny Brooks’s rebuild of Virginia Tech. He arrived from James Madison six years ago, and his first three teams finished below .500 in ACC play and made the WNIT, a feat at Virginia Tech. In 2019-20, Brooks finally broke through with an 11-7 record in the ACC. The team was hoping for an NCAA tournament bid before COVID put a pause on everything.
With the tournament monkey off their backs, Virginia Tech is aiming higher. The roster has a combined 14,343 minutes of D-I experience and two of the best players in program history in Kitley and Sheppard. They were picked to finish 4th in the ACC, their highest projected finish since joining the conference in 2004. The question is can the Hokies not only meet those expectations but if they can surpass them.
The roster certainly seems up to the task. Every player who averaged 20 or more minutes per game last season is back, except Asiah Jones, who transferred to Jacksonville. The Hokies also added two intriguing veterans through the transfer portal in Kayana Traylor from Purdue and Emily Lytle from Liberty. Traylor made All-Big Ten Second Team last season and adds another energetic bucket-getter to the backcourt. During her time at Liberty (about two hours away from VT), Lytle scored 13 or more points in all three meetings between Liberty and Tech. She’s a sharpshooter who can play guard or wing. These round out an already solid group and give Brooks a ton of options.
“I'm like a kid in a candy store,” said Brooks of his roster after VT’s win over George Washington. “I don't know what you categorize this as. Maybe just a well rounded team that can do a lot of different things.”
Make no mistake, though: the Hokies will go as far as Kitley and Sheppard take them. Kitley dominates around the basket offensively as a scorer and rebounder. While she doesn’t stretch the floor, she can attack from the elbow, finish creatively around the rim, and has flashed some passing ability. Kitley opened the season with a lackluster offensive performance against Davidson. She has since responded by scoring Tech’s first 14 points against George Washington en route to a career-high 34 points and by recording double-doubles against George Mason and Coppin State.
“She's our centerpiece,” said Sheppard after the GW game. “Obviously, we struggled last game, like a lot, because she wasn't scoring as much as she normally does. So it was a big, big plan for us to get the ball inside. She finished for us every time.”
“[Kitley] has six points the other night and you wouldn't have ever known it in the locker room,” explained Brooks. “She was as happy as anyone else because we got the win. She's just been a joy to coach because she's gotten better and better every time we step on the court.”
Kitley does not succeed in a vacuum. She benefits greatly from Virginia Tech’s spacing. Last season, the Hokies had the 18th highest three-point rate (39.3%) and 21st best shooting percentage from deep (36%) in the nation. They have been bombing away even more and hitting a higher percentage this season.
Sheppard is a big reason why Tech is so effective from deep. She set school records for threes in a career and a single season last year. She jacked up 9.8 threes per game to lead the nation in 2020-21 (tied with Sydney Wagner of William & Mary) and made 35.4%. This year, her attempts are down slightly but she leads the nation in three-pointers made and is hitting 54.6% of them in this small sample. Most of her shots came from the slot or the wings as you’d expect from a player with the ball in her hands often. Her shooting will keep her on the radar for the 2022 WNBA Draft.
Beyond her three-point shooting, Sheppard provides leadership and confidence. She could have gone to the WNBA draft last year but decided to enroll in grad courses to return. She told the Roanoke Times that her badly sprained ankle at the end of last season made her feel like she had room to grow at VT. She believes this team will be unlike any the program has seen. Sheppard is giving the team whatever they need so far. Her scoring is about the same as last season, but she is getting more boards, assists, and steals so far.
With Kitley dominating inside and Sheppard (among others) bombing away, Virginia Tech can be tough to stop offensively. Sheppard and Traylor also get downhill quickly to provide rim pressure, while Cayla King waits for threes. Georgia Amoore is a sparkplug who can shock the system when the Hokies slow down. They could have the best offense in the ACC by the end of the year.
The defense is a bit of a work in progress. The Hokies finished 6th in opponent points per game in ACC play last season. A big improvement seems unlikely with largely the same group. George Washington exploited the Hokies’ over-aggressiveness on switches with slips and caught Tech ball-watching for easy baskets too often in the first half. Brooks can chalk up a lot of the miscues to the early season, but the Hokies have some defensive deficiencies. Sheppard will have a lot on her shoulders at the point of attack as Amoore and Traylor can get overpowered. Kitley leads the nation in blocks currently (16) but may struggle with more athletic bigs who face up. GW’s Mayowa Taiwo blew past Kitley on the baseline multiple times.
However, the Hokies should be able to overcome their weak spots to compete for an ACC title. The challenge may end up being mental. The Hokies like to go with the flow during games and don’t force things offensively. The “whatever works” mentality is good for distributing the ball and taking what the defense gives you. But it has also led to Tech being on its heels to start games. Against inferior opponents, the slow starts have not hurt. But conference play is fast approaching and these starts won’t cut it.
“I think we just got to hit teams earlier,” explained Sheppard when asked what it will take for the program to take the next step. “We kind of wait to kind of see how people were playing us first, and then we kind of take the first punch. I think we got to be the aggressors early on to finish out this season.”
“When we get down or like in a rut, it takes a bit [of time] to get out of it,” said Kitley. “So if we just play as we did in the second half [against GW] the whole game, then I don't think there's anyone that we can't beat.”
Pointing out these issues this early in the season may seem like nit-picking. However, Virginia Tech is facing the greatest expectations that this program has had in a long time, maybe ever. Brooks has his most talented roster ever, but they’ll need to continue improving to move up in a conference as strong as the ACC.
“I think we have the ingredients, we have the pieces, we just have to continue to get better,” said Brooks. “Roles have changed a little bit and [we are] trying to get acclimated to each other. I'm still getting used to the rotations and where I'm going to play them. So, it's going to be a work in progress. But I think that's a really good recipe for success and I think we're going to continue to get better.”
The Hokies have three good tests in non-conference play with Missouri State, Tennessee, and Wisconsin on the schedule. The path to the ACC regular-season title goes through NC State and Louisville as always. This year, the Battle of the Techs should be awesome with how Georgia Tech looked in last season’s tournament. The Hokies will lose games as a team so reliant on the three, but the key to success will be responding to those losses and remaining aggressive every game.