Date: Friday, March 19
The Big Dance gets underway on Friday afternoon as 10-seed Virginia Tech takes on 7-seed Florida from Hinkle Fieldhouse.
The Hokies enter the Indianapolis bubble having played just three games since Feb. 6, including their loss to North Carolina in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament. COVID-19 has been the story of the program for over a month, but now Tech wants to change the narrative with a run in March Madness.
“I do feel a lot better coming into the NCAA Tournament. We gave them a day off after Greensboro,” Head Coach Mike Young said. “We practiced really well, we had to take yesterday off for obvious reasons, travel and testing. But here we are, we’re going to play a good ball game, and I look forward to it.”
This is Tech’s fourth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, earning bids in Buzz Williams’ final three years in Blacksburg. In just his second year as head coach, Young has already put the Hokies back in the field, bringing the program back at a much faster pace than expected.
“Thankful, appreciative of the people I work with on a daily basis, the people I work for, and the players. We still have work to do. We’re still chipping at it, and we’re still pounding on that door,” Young said. “We’re going to continue to get better. We have, I don’t want to get ahead of myself because we still have mountains to climb with our basketball program, but doing it the right way, we’ve hit all the stops and we’ve done things the right way.”
In the Hokies’ last appearance in the tournament, they made a run all the way to the Sweet 16 before a heart-breaking loss to top-seeded Duke. In order to get back to that point, a tough first weekend awaits, starting with the Gators.
Florida matches the Hokies with three wins over tournament teams throughout the season, including a late-January victory over West Virginia in Morgantown. However, the Gators lost five of their last nine games down the stretch, including a home loss to South Carolina, ranked 121st by Ken Pomeroy.
“They are really good. They are in a really good conference, and they have been able to have a really successful season,” forward Justyn Mutts said. “Going into that game energized and ready to compete because this is March Madness, and only the best make it. If you go into any game asleep you are going to get beat. So just trying to figure everything else out.”
At the head of Mike White’s team is sophomore point guard Tre Mann, who leads the team in scoring and assists. Mann seems to have hit a new level as the calendar turned to March, scoring 20 or more in four straight games. In his final game in the SEC Tournament, Mann dropped in a career-high 30 points in the Gators’ loss to Tennessee.
With Mann as the catalyst on offense, the Gators’ specialty defensively is their ability to protect the rim. Florida is fourth in the country in blocked shots per game, averaging over five swats per contest. The leader of the group is Colin Castleton who contributes over two blocks per game himself.
“It poses issues. Castleton’s done a nice job for them, the transfer from Michigan. He’s long, I’ve been impressed with some of the things he’s done offensively,” Young said. “Right hand, right shoulder, left hand jump hook. He gives them a presence down there to throw the ball to. He’s skilled, he passes the ball well.”
The Gators’ defensive prowess in the paint presents a large challenge for the Hokies’ dynamic duo on the block, Keve Aluma and Justyn Mutts. Aluma will have to play much better than he did against UNC in the ACC Tournament, when he scored just nine points. The Tar Heels are another team that prides itself on erasing shots down low.
“He looked tentative, caught the ball on the charge circle, left shoulder, right hand, and he looked a little spooked. Maybe the two of us would be spooked as well when we turn and see a gentleman the size of Armando [Bacot] staring us in the face,” Young said. “He had a couple good cracks at it from three, didn’t get them down. Going back and looking at it, he played a good ball game. He didn’t score the ball as well as he did for most of the year.”
For Mutts, the Hokies will look for another performance just like the one from last week when he posted a season-high 24 points. Mutts dominated from every spot on the court, knocking down a career-high three shots from long range and driving by defenders for monster dunks.
This game may be decided by the performance of Mutts and Aluma, as the Hokies may struggle to have success from downtown. Not only will the Hokies be without three-point specialist Jalen Cone, but Florida is among the best teams in the country defending beyond the arc, allowing just 30.5% of three-pointers to go down.
The winner of Friday’s opening game between the Hokies and Gators will get the winner of the South Region’s 2-15 match-up between Ohio State and Oral Roberts. In tournament history, the 15-seed has only pulled off the upset eight times, but surely the winner of Tech and Florida will be rooting for the Golden Eagles later on Friday.
Tech will look for just its fifth ever trip to the Round of 32 with a win on Friday. This opening matchup is one of the most hotly contested games in the first round, as the Hokies are getting the highest percentage of picks to advance among double-digit seeds according to ESPN’s Tournament Challenge.
“They know where we are, they’re smart people and understand what’s at stake. I’m not going to add any unnecessary pressure,” Young said. “Let’s go play, let’s have a great time, we’re playing in the best tournament of them all, let you ears back and let it rip. That’s what I expect our team to do on Friday.”