Kenny Brooks has never coached in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament. This season, the Virginia Tech head coach wants to change that, and he thinks it will.
The Hokies return all five of their starters from last season after earning a seven seed in the NCAA Tournament, only to fall to No. 2 seed Baylor in the second round. But coming back with Tech’s core this year is experience.
The experience of grinding out the last two years of the ACC schedule. Fighting through the challenges last season presented on and off the floor. Playing in and winning a first round game in the NCAA Tournament.
Tech’s roster is made up of veterans who have been in those moments.
“We knew where we wanted to get to, and we had to see [Baylor],” Brooks told reporters at the ACC Tipoff in Charlotte on Wednesday. “It was tough, but we learned so much from it. We’re going to continue to advance even further next year, and I think it’ll be because of games like that.”
Four of the five starters that return and nine of Tech’s 12 scholarship players are juniors or older. Fifth-year guard and two-time All-ACC First Team selection Aisha Sheppard returns for her last dance, using her extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA over the offseason.
“The Sweet 16, that’s our goal and our mindset,” Sheppard quipped. “We’re thinking top-five [in the ACC], and the ACC Championship. We’re high caliber and elite.”
Sheppard said she thought about turning pro after ranking third in the conference in scoring with 17.7 points per game, but chose to return to Tech to write her last chapter on her illustrious career as a Hokie.
She’ll walk away at season’s end as the most decorated player in the program’s history. A 2020 and 2021 All-ACC First Team Coaches pick. A 2021 First Team All-ACC Blue Ribbon Panel selection. The all-time record holder in 3-point field goals made in school history. And by season’s end, Sheppard will likely be the all-time scoring leader, needing just 345 points to break it.
“The biggest thing I want people to know is that I stayed the course, trusted the process and I allowed myself to be a great teammate,” Sheppard said. “I tried my best to be the best leader I could. And overall, I tried to be a Hokie — one that people can talk to and look up to. My character is something I want people to realize more than anything.”
Meanwhile, guards Cayla King and Azana Baines and center Elizabeth Kitley return as juniors. In addition, Brooks added guard Kayana Traylor (senior) from Purdue and guard/forward Emily Lytle (graduate) from Liberty in the offseason.
An All-Big Ten Second Team nominee last year, Traylor led the Boilermakers in scoring last year with 15 points per game. Lytle, who averaged 14.7 points per game a season ago with the Flames, was a First Team All-ASUN selection.
That’s a lot of veterans.
“We’re not deep in numbers, but rather, we’re deep in terms of talent,” Brooks said.
Sophomore point guard Georgia Amoore, a 2020 All-ACC Freshman Team selection, also returns to Blacksburg. She was VT’s main — and really, the only true — ball handler last season, but that’ll change this year. Brooks says the addition of Traylor will relieve some of the stress from Amoore.
“[Traylor is] as good as anyone could have advertised,” Brooks said. “We can put Kayana out there and she can take some of that responsibility away from Georgia. They’ll play together, they’re gonna be dynamite out there together.”
Brooks wouldn’t say which players he was planning to start and who he was planning to use off the bench. Rather, he hinted that he will be able to change the dynamic and personnel of his group depending on the different matchups Tech might see on a particular night.
“I can play a bunch of different lineups, different rotations without a major drop off,” Brooks said.
Though guarding the six-foot-six Kitley, who averaged 18.4 points and 10.4 rebounds per game last season, is a daunting task for any opponent, there isn’t much depth behind her.
Role players D’asia Gregg and Taylor Geiman, who missed all but eight games last season after tearing her ACL last season, return to man the frontcourt. Perhaps the biggest blow, though, comes from 6-foot-5 center Rochelle Norris, a transfer from West Virginia, who tore her ACL “in a freak accident,” as Brooks described.
Brooks said that guard Chloe Brooks will graduate in December and is on the roster, but the nerve damage in her foot won’t allow her to play, and redshirt freshman guard Shamarla King won’t be at full strength “until at least January” as she recovers from knee surgery.
ESPN rated Virginia Tech at No. 23 in its “way too early” season projections in April, while ACC foes Louisville (No. 6), NC State (No. 8), Florida State (No. 17), and Georgia Tech (No. 20) all rank ahead of the Hokies.
A year after going 15-10 overall and 8-8 in the ACC, VT proved it could hang with the best of the best when it knocked off then-No. 2 NC State in late January at home. The Hokies almost it again on the road a week later, before losing multiple double-digit leads.
Tech won six of its last seven regular season ACC games and won a game in both the ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament. Six of the current players on the Hokies’ roster played in their 70-63 win over Marquette.
Having an added season of experience for the core of the team could go a long way once the ACC and NCAA tournament roll around in March.
“An ACC Championship is the goal,” Kitley said. “We’ll have a lot of fun getting there.”