Virginia Tech women’s basketball coach Kenny Brooks and men’s basketball coach Mike Young sat down with Learfield’s Evan Hughes and Mike Burnop on Monday, Sept. 28 to discuss the upcoming hoops season.
How’s the offseason been for you, your family and your program?
I’ll tell you, it’s an honor I’m with a Virginia Tech Hall of Famer and a Jim Nantz Award winner, so I am honored to be on this stage right here. I’m so excited to be here with Hokie fans. It’s been a while. We’ve missed you guys tremendously. We’re looking forward to seeing you guys. Everything is going great. I’m really excited about the group that we have. My family’s doing wonderful, they’re getting older. They’re getting older, turning into little women. That’s a problem in itself because I’m outnumbered, I’m outnumbered everywhere I go. Coming off a tremendous year. Looking forward to building off of that success and can’t be happier where we are as a program.
On the newcomers in the program:
Well, we have a lot. I think Hokie Nation is going to fall in love with this group. We have the whole starting five back, which is wonderful from a group that really started to blossom towards the end of the year. They all got older and they all got better. You can start with our point guard, Georgia Amoore, who I think is going to be one of the best point guards in the country. She’s a dynamite point guard. The light bulb came on with her [in] January, and ironically, that’s when we got better as a group. We took off. And to know that she has four more years. If you call her a sophomore, she will correctly tell you that she is a freshman because she has four more years. She loves Virginia Tech so much. Her counterpart, Elizabeth Kitley, turned into one of the best centers in the country last year and had a tremendous year. We’re very blessed to have her. We have Aisha Sheppard back. Aisha Sheppard is going to be one of the most decorated women’s basketball players in Virginia Tech history. I think ten games in, she probably will become the all-time leading scorer, which is tremendous, and I told her to really enjoy it and savor it because probably two years later Liz [Kitley] is going to break it.
For us to have those two kids on the same team is tremendous. We have a great supporting cast with Cayla King, who grew up last year. I think she’s going to be a tremendous asset for us. Azana Baines. But, we have a couple newcomers. A transfer from Purdue named KT, we call her KT, Kayana Traylor. She actually played here in Cassell her freshman year. We actually beat Purdue and all she remembered was what a great atmosphere this was and that was something that really came to light in the recruiting process, because she had a lot of places that she could’ve transferred to and she remembered the atmosphere at Virginia Tech, she remembered it. This is a kid who was second team All-Big Ten, so we’re going to add her to our backcourt, some depth. Then we have a young lady, Emily Lytle, who came from Liberty, who was Liberty’s leading scorer. So we have a lot more depth this year. We don’t have a whole lot of people, but we’re going to be really good, really talented. Once they put it all together, it’s going to be fun to watch.
How rewarding was the NCAA tournament trip and the First Round win?
It was tremendous. Obviously, we as coaches, it’s almost like you have an extra year, you can do it again, and do it again, but for that particular group, you want them to see the satisfaction of reaping the rewards of all the hard work they put into it. For Hokie Nation. You guys have stuck by me, my family, and this tenure to try and get us back [to the NCAA tournament]. Your support has been tremendous. So the year that it didn’t happen, it was gut-wrenching. I think it’s well-documented that I went into a little mini-depression. I started watching Little House on the Prairie and I couldn’t get out of bed. I was binge-watching little Laura Ingalls. It was depressing because you watch these kids work so hard to get to that point, the sacrifices that our fanbase did for us to get us to that point and then it’s ripped right from us. All we had to do was hear our name called and go play the games. We did all the work, but this group through COVID, through the testing, I think we realized that we got tested I think seventy times last year. It was very tough, so when we did the work this year and we were able to go to the selection show, I was so excited for the kids because all the analytics said that we were in and that we were going to get a good seed. We were so excited. The pressure was off of you. Go in and just relax. ESPN kind of did us dirty, they put us in the last pod. You kept watching everybody get announced and get announced and you’re thinking, ‘you’re there, you’re there, you’re there,’ and they got one last pod and you’re like, ‘What if we’re not there?’ But I remember when they called our name it was euphoria. I think I blacked out for a couple seconds. I know I was celebrating because they have film of it and I was doing some kind of hoot and hollering or something, but one of the coolest moments at that time, I looked at Aisha Sheppard. She was across the way from me, and we didn’t have to say anything but it was almost like “we did it.”
When I recruited her, I said, “Hey look, we’re going to get this program back to where it should be, back to the prominence that it should be. It’s a great program, there’s so many wonderful things that can happen here.” She was my first recruit and I said “You’re going to help us get to this program, you’re going to share that vision, and get us back to the NCAA tournament.” When they called our name, we just made eye contact and it was one of those “aha” moments and it was really cool. These kids deserved it. They went there and it wasn’t just, “hey, let’s get here and celebrate,” they wanted to win, and we came away with a great win against a very tough Marquette team and then ran into a buzzsaw which was Baylor. Baylor was the defending national champion at the time, they had everybody back. I’m sure you guys watched the game. As painful as it was, it was a great teaching moment. It was a great teaching moment for our program and Kim Mulkey, [Baylor’s] head coach, she looked at me and she said, “You guys are just babies right now. You’re babies right now and you’re going to grow up.” So we did, we grew up over the summer, we learned a lot and we’re looking forward to this year.
How much better can Elizabeth Kitley be this year?
A lot. That’s kind of scary and some people may not believe it and a lot of coaches will ask me a lot, “Did you know she was going to be that good?” I have to be truthful. I knew she was going to be good, but she was only going to be as good as she wanted to be. This kid is the hardest working kid I’ve ever been around. She’s a perfectionist. I wanted to let her know that shooting sixty percent from the floor is a good thing because she just knows that she’s missed forty percent of the shots. She kind of compares it to like a chemistry test. This kid is a 4.0 student. She wants to be a doctor. She does a lot of volunteering now and she goes to hospitals. She’s doing tremendously and we’re very fortunate to have her. She’s a tremendous kid. She’s one of the hardest working kids. What I’m excited about most for Hokie Nation is that they’re going to get to know her this year.
Last year, they weren’t able to get to know her because you had to watch her from a distance and she’s actually blossoming into a wonderful young lady and represents our program, our university, our community in a very special way. I think she’s going to get even better. Imagine averaging 18, 19 points a game in the ACC, 11 in rebounds, 4 blocks, and everytime you did anything you had two or three people right beside you. She got double teamed more than any person I’ve ever saw in my life and for me, I wasn’t ready for that. I, as a coach, wasn’t ready for that. I’ve never had a center that’s demanded so much attention, so we just, in year’s past, we’d throw the ball inside and we’d get single coverage. Well, every game, she was double and triple-teamed and I had to get her to the point where she was comfortable passing out of doubles and getting comfortable with having two people around you. She would come up to me very early in the season and she says, “I’m not open” and I said, “baby, that’s about as open as you’re gonna get, you better learn how to shoot it with somebody close to you.” Tremendous kid. Love her to death. I think she’s going to continue to get better.
Thoughts on the transfer portal:
You know, you have to evolve. Whether we like it or not, it’s here. It’s kind of like when you let the toothpaste out of the tube, you can’t put it back in. So we’ve kind of given kids the opportunity [where] they can leave if they choose, without question. I don’t think it’s good, but you have to evolve and you have to learn how to deal with it. We’ve actually been recipients of it, we have some kids who have come in and transferred in and have done wonderful for us. We’ve had some kids who I think didn’t gave it a shot. Didn’t go through the adversity that we had to go through and that’s part of what college is, is going through adversity and how to handle adversity, but they can kind of leave whenever they want to and I don’t think that they are really facing the adversity enough.
Yeah, we go through it every day. I called my assistant, Shawn Poppie, down to my office today to talk about some schemes we’re going to do and he says, ‘sorry, I was looking at the transfer portal to see who was in it,’ and believe it or not, it’s September and there are a lot of kids in the portal who have put their name in the portal already. It’s something that you’re going to have to evolve with and learn and live with because it’s here to stay and we just have to try and make it work for us, as opposed to working against us.
On Azana Baines:
She’s a very special player, a very special kid. Just really is the unsung hero and she will do the dirty work, so to speak. She knows what her role is. Last year was tough for her. It really wasn’t fair because she never knew if she was going to be eligible or not, and for the first half of the year, she sat with the understanding that she was going to have to sit the whole year. Well, then the NCAA came out with a ruling because of COVID that you’re able to play right away, so they said you can play right away. Then the ACC, for some reason, they held it up a couple more games. So she didn’t know if she was playing or not playing and then all of a sudden, her first games were ACC competition and it took her a little while to get comfortable, but once she did, she was a tremendous asset for us. When she played well, we were very hard to beat. Great kid who wants to go out and work hard and make the team better and she does so.
On the schedule:
With the schedule it was a little bit difficult this year, because obviously, with the success that you have, scheduling becomes a little bit tougher, it really does. We went after some games, we weren’t able to connect with them. We thought we were going to get a different opponent for the Big Ten challenge. Last year, we were supposed to play Michigan State, which would’ve been a great opportunity for us. I don’t know if you guys know it or not but we’re evolving from women’s basketball from what we used to call the RPI to what they call the NET, and that’s basically what the NCAA looks at as far as selection show and selecting the teams for the NCAA tournament and they’re different and so last year was the first year we went with the NET, so we’re just trying to understand it more.
We think we’ve put together a schedule that’s going to provide us the opportunities to get the best seed possible. Last year, we were a seven seed in the tournament. We think with the schedule that we have now, if we do what we’re supposed to do, we can come out with maybe a five seed, which gives you an easier path to what you’re trying to accomplish. We want to try to get to the Sweet Sixteen and then beyond if we continue to play well. That was our thinking with the schedule. Obviously getting Tennessee here, we played Tennessee here my first year here, it was a tremendous atmosphere. We came away with a win so hopefully we’ll be able to do the same.
On the San Juan Shootout:
I’m very excited. That’s a tremendous tournament. We went to it two years ago. The destination is absolutely beautiful. The hotel is magnificent. It’s a great opportunity for the kids to get away. I absolutely love Blacksburg, but Blacksburg in November is a little bit different than Puerto Rico in November. The kids get to get away but most importantly, it’s great competition. As I mentioned before, you know talking about trying to build your opportunity, your resume, to go to a situation like that and to get quality opponents on a neutral floor is a great opportunity. We’re going to do so. We get to have Missouri State, they were consistently in the top twenty last year, they went to the Sweet Sixteen last year, that’s going to be a quality opponent. Then we play UT-Martin and they win their conference every year so it’s going to be two quality opponents, an opportunity to get away a little bit and I’m very excited about it.
On recruiting and how it’s changed since he first arrived in Blacksburg:
Well, first and foremost, you have to have really good kids in your program, because they sell the program better than you can, because I’m talking to a recruit and I’m talking about Virginia Tech and I’m saying what a wonderful place it is: the fanbase, facilities, the community is tremendous. But Baylor’s saying the same thing and UCLA’s saying the same thing. Everyone is saying the same thing and then when you bring them on campus and they ride around on that golf cart and they see how beautiful campus is and the hospitality and everyone’s wearing maroon and orange and people stop you and they talk about what a great place this is. Then you put them with your kids, it’s the substance that matters. Because once you’re here, sometimes Cassell becomes Cassell, but the people in it are really going to help you sell it and that’s how it’s changed. We’re able to get involved with some of the top level recruits. We signed a kid – well we haven’t signed her yet, she’s committed – she’s a top-forty player in the country. I’m going to see a kid tomorrow and she’s a top-thirty player in the country. So we’ve been able to get in with a lot of those players because of the success that we’ve had, but also the success of our student athletes.
How pleased is Coach Brooks with the development of the program through his first six seasons?
I’m tickled. I really am because we have young ladies in the program, we have coaches in the program, we have everyone that’s involved with our program, we really understand the philosophy of what we’re trying to do and it’s not just all about winning basketball games. We want to make sure we’re providing every resource that we can for young ladies to go out and be successful in the community, in the world, and they’re doing so. They’re doing that. Some of the players that I’ve recruited, they’ve graduated, they’re starting families. I saw a picture of myself the other day, when I first got here I had a black beard, now it’s grey. A lot of different things have happened but it’s been a wonderful time.
I love where the program is, I love where the program’s going. My family adores Blacksburg, they adore being Hokies. My daughters walk around and they have more pride with Virginia Tech than I could’ve ever imagined. I wish I had a crystal ball because everyone told me when I first got here ‘you’re going to love it here’ and I had no idea what you guys were talking about, I just nodded, I said, ‘okay, what are you guys talking about?’ Six years later I know exactly what you’re talking about, what everyone’s talking about and now I’m able to reiterate that. Now when we get a new lacrosse coach, softball coach, baseball – I can tell everybody ‘you’re going to love it here’ and I know why they’re going to love it here. It’s been a tremendous process for us and I’ve loved every minute of it.
Updates on former players:
Taylor Emery, you guys will see in town. She’s back. She’s back and she’s in Vet school. She actually came over to the office the other day and she signed some paperwork that’s going to allow her to practice with us a little bit. Having her back is just tremendous, to be able to give back to the younger players. She tells me, ‘I don’t have very much free time’ because Vet school is kicking her butt. Me not knowing, I’m like, ‘How long is Vet School? A couple years?’ She says, ‘No, it’s four.’ And I’m like ‘ooh.’ Sami Hill, Vanessa Panousis, they’re all playing professionally right now and they’re doing a wonderful job, bodies are holding up. Lydia Rivers is in Belgium. I get to keep up with a lot of them and they’re loving life. They’re seeing the world, loving life and I’m very, very proud of them.
Why should Virginia Tech fans be excited about this team?
Because they represent Hokie Nation to the fullest. It’s not just basketball. It’s everything that we preach about Virginia Tech, they exemplify it. I’m very, very proud of them and I think because of those things, they will be successful on the basketball court.
On the first practice of the year:
Thirty-sixth first practice in my career. And like the previous thirty-five, we’re not going to stop practicing any time soon. We got a long way to go. But [it was] encouraging. Encouraging and really good group of guys and great to be on the floor again.
On the success of both the men’s and women’s basketball programs:
[It’s] fulfilling and rewarding. I think the world of [Kenny Brooks], I think the world of his staff, his basketball team, I don’t want to say his girls, you think of Gabby, Chloe, and Kendyl, but his team, and certainly Kendyl and Chloe are still a part of his team. I mean, they are wonderful young ladies and easy to cheer for and everytime I see Aisha Sheppard, I tell her she’s the best shooter in the building and I think she is. Liz Kitley, I know her dad, her dad was a good player at Wake Forest. They’re an easy team to cheer for. They work really, really hard. I see them in the weight room, I see them on the floor. They’re very serious baseball players and great representatives of Virginia Tech and I admire them greatly.
How is everyone handling expectations after last season?
So far, so good. It’s such a different time. This thing is really, with the exception of the two weeks at the end of exams and the spring semester, the period between first and second session of summer school, two weeks before the start of the fall semester, you know we’re going all the time. We’re not going as organized as we are now today with the start of another season, but we’re on the floor together literally twelve months a year. There’s really no true offseason, I’m not sure that that’s entirely healthy.
Now, I don’t want to give you the wrong impression, we’re not grinding on it in April and May and June, July, but we are on the floor. We are doing a lot more skill development in the summer months. I just think now, and we’ve got thirty practice opportunities in forty-two days, that’s how the NCAA rule is stated. Now it’s all about our team and getting five guys to play together to get thirteen men into a cohesive unit prior to playing November 9 and then what we hope will be a thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight game season. That’s the phase of the program that we’re in now.
On associate head coach Mike Jones:
He’s as good as advertised, as good as I hoped he would be. He’s a really good basketball coach, I knew that, but his ability to connect with young people. You know, Mike was a really good player at Old Dominion for Oliver Purnell, who I worked for in 1988 at Radford University. I’m just so pleased with how he’s comported himself since coming here, he’s done great work for us on the recruiting trail and he’s a heckuva basketball coach. As I typically do, I’ve been lucky, I’ve had great luck. We got it right again and I’m happy about that.
On the new additions to the roster:
Don’t let me leave anybody out here. I can’t stand doing that. Storm Murphy, I had a lot of history with. We won a lot of games together for two years before I came here and he stayed back and continued a really remarkable career. That’s so much fun to see him in the building and it’s kind of like deja vu. I see him walking on the sidewalk and I’m like, ‘holy cow.’ I love that kid, I love his family. He’s going to be a good player for us. Jalen Haynes, the young man from South Florida, that is big and strong and knows how to play, good basketball player. Sean Pedulla, point guard from Edmund, Oklahoma, we needed an old Okie around here. Lynn Kidd was at Clemson a year ago, was stuck behind a really good player and wanted more opportunity, and I thought we could offer him that opportunity here. The two walk-ons, Ben Varga and Camden Johnson, are great team guys and adding a lot to our program.
On what the first game back in a packed Cassell Coliseum will be like:
I think a lot of the same emotions I had when our football team ran onto the field against North Carolina. That was a little emotional for me. You know, to play in the Cassell with nobody there, or very few, that was hard. It’s hard to explain. We’re playing college basketball, that’s motivation enough, but that place is supposed to be full and hot and crazy. It was far different from that, as Lane Stadium was last year, but to see Lane Stadium full of Hokies again and the activity before the game and Enter Sandman as our football team comes on the field, that’s college athletics, or a big part of college athletics, and certainly a part that we all missed being together, so it’ll be fun.
On Keve Aluma and him testing the draft process:
It’s not so much what I tell them. They hear it from me all the time. I had a young man at Wofford, was a great player and he worked out with the Celtics, the Lakers, several others, and when he was in L.A., the general manager at the time was Magic Johnson. So when Magic Johnson says something to you, they accept that differently than they accept it from me, so I don’t get into that conversation a lot. I’m supportive. If he asks my opinion, I’m going to express my opinion, but that’s really a tricky and a tightrope, if you will, those conversations [between] coach and player. I never ever want them to feel like my comments to them are selfishly-motivated. They wouldn’t be, but even with a young man like Keve, who I have such a great relationship with and we’ve been through so many things together, but he did have the opportunity, it was different with COVID.
He went to the combine and Paul Hewitt’s a great friend of mine. Many of you know Paul was the head coach at Georgia Tech and Paul is with the Clippers now as a scout and I asked Paul to get him on his team and he did. There were a number of NBA executives there. They’re very honest. They gave him great feedback. I think it was pretty evident early on in that process that it was going to be in his best interest to come back. I just wanted what was best for him, whatever that might be. Needless to say for our team, I’m thankful that we have him in a Hokie uniform again. He’s terrific and he’s gotten better. He’s playing, and it’s not even close, the best basketball he’s ever played. He looks great. He’s in the best condition he’s ever been in. He’s poised to have a really remarkable final year with us.
What kind of offseason has Justyn Mutts had?
Maybe the best of anybody in our program. He’s put the work in, sometimes twice a day, sometimes three times a day. He looks like a statue. He’s ready to go. Excited, as I am, to see him compete. I think those two guys [Mutts and Aluma] make up what could be, arguably, certainly one of the better front lines in the Atlantic Coastal Conference. You know, they’ve done it. Aluma sat out our first year here, so he knows the atmosphere and he knows what Cassell’s all about. Never played when it was packed to the gills and hot as all get out. Mutts hasn’t experienced that, and that’ll be a lot of fun for him. We’ll enjoy that together.
Has Mike Young ever had a starting five that shoots as well as this one?
No. I’ve talked about that with some others. I’ve never had that team, and I’ve had a bunch of really, really good teams, and I’ve had teams I could put four on the floor that could really stretch you. I don’t think I’ve ever played with a true front line, and all five guys can shoot it. That really gives you heartburn on the defensive end. Nobody wants to guard that, that’s really tricky. If I’m guarding your team and you can’t shoot, well I don’t have to guard you, so I can stay back here and cover up some other things. When I’ve gotta get out to you, and the longer that possession goes, the farther out those defenders get, now you can drive it and do some other things. The opportunities, I’ve had a great time this summer just imagining and toying with things, that’ll be a lot of fun for me.
On Sean Pedulla learning from Storm Murphy:
He’s an old Okie, now. I’ve mentioned him before. He’s not much of a sit back guy. He’s kind of a front-and-center guy. He’s taken nothing for granted and I admire that, I’m okay with that. He fights, not literally. He scraps and claws, takes nothing for granted. I think that’s the mark of a darn-good basketball player. You know, I’m here to compete. I’m here to help this team win and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve been really impressed with Sean Pedulla.
On the schedule, specifically late night games:
I cannot stand those nine o’clock games. That’s the longest day. My last one, Mike, our first year together, if you recall, was a nine o’clock Wednesday against Miami that went to three overtimes. I just got my rear end beat, I don’t know why I looked down at my watch and it’s 11:45 p.m., that’s too late for all of us. But we got five of them, at least, in league play. I did talk to assistant commissioner of the league today Paul Brazeau, who’s a friend, and I asked him if he could please take a look at that and maybe, and he said that those conversations were ongoing. He was going to try to help, I hope he can. Those 9 p.m. starts are tough.
What makes this year’s team special?
[They’re] great human beings. We’ve got a chance to be really good. I come from the school of we undersell and overserve. We all know we’ve got a chance to have a good team. We’re a long way from being a good team right now. It’s the first day of practice. We’ve got a lot of hurdles to cross and adhere to the process and enjoy each day. I’m doing it with a bunch of old guys probably. Probably if we started today, we’d start Aluma, Murphy, and Mutts. Three fifth-year seniors. Three fifth-year seniors and two juniors in Cattoor and Alleyne, that have played a lot of basketball around here.
I love coaching those guys and David N’Guessan is ready to take a step forward, Darius Maddox is ready to take a step forward, John Ojiako. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Let’s take care of tomorrow. We had a good practice today, got it kicked off, let’s have another good practice tomorrow and again, enjoy. I’m going to enjoy every day, I’m not going to look ahead. Maine will be here soon enough. Maryland in College Park will be here soon enough. Memphis in Brooklyn will be here soon enough. And we’ll be ready to go when those opportunities occur.
Virginia Tech has held the Commonwealth Cup for 289 days. #Hokies
— Commonwealth Cup (@CommonwlthCup) September 28, 2021