Back in October at the ACC Tipoff in Charlotte, Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young called Justyn Mutts a difference maker.
The fifth-year senior from Millville, N.J. has been crucial to the Hokies’ success this season. Through 24 games, Mutts averaged 10.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game.
On Saturday against Syracuse, he had the game of his life. Mutts became the second player in school history to record a triple-double, totaling 12 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists, in Virginia Tech’s 71-59 win over Syracuse.
He joins Chris Clarke, who had the school’s first triple-double on Dec. 17, 2016. Only Clarke did it against The Citadel. Mutts did it in conference play, and he got it in style, off an alley-oop from Hunter Cattoor.
— Virginia Tech Men's Basketball (@HokiesMBB) February 13, 2022
“It feels amazing, it’s my first one,” Mutts said of his first career triple-double at any level. “I was aware, but I was just trying to get the win. … I was more-so concerned with trying to push the lead.”
Like Clarke when he played for Tech under Buzz Williams, Mutts has great awareness and court vision, along with being a solid passer. He’s had some sloppy games here and there, however, like two contests prior at Pittsburgh when he had eight turnovers.
Against Jim Boeheim’s infamous 2-3 zone, Young plugged Mutts into the middle of the defense at the free throw line. He operated well in there, and with that Pitt game in the back of his head, he finished with a career-high 11 assists. And he only turned the ball over once.
“The poise of that person in that slot is everything, and I moved Keve [Aluma] in there some,” Young said afterwards. “Keve’s a really good passer and decision maker. And then I’m a brilliant basketball tactician. I see at halftime Mutts has eight assists, one turnover. Thought we better keep him in there a little bit more than anybody else.
“He was really, really good. Rebounded the ball, 14 rebounds. Just all over the place. … Just active. He was ready to roll from the opening tip, and great night for him.”
Virginia Tech (15-10, 7-7 ACC) finished with 20 assists on 23 made baskets. On top of that, the Hokies turned the ball over just four times, a season-low.
They were patient, took their time and worked the zone. Though they didn’t shoot lights out – a 38.3% clip, 23-of-60 – they got the looks they wanted. Time and time again.
“I feel like that’s where a lot of my assists came from,” Mutts said, describing his team’s offensive game. “Guys moving, not staying stagnant. Making their zone spread out as well. … Just tried to make the right play every time. One thing we’ve been focusing on a lot lately is just hit the singles. Don’t try to hit a home run every time you get the ball.
“You’ll win a lot of games when you take care of the ball like that.”
Tech dominated points in the paint (26-16), and despite only making just one 3-pointer in the second half (8-of-27 for the game), the team continued to get good looks. Most importantly, Young’s crew found a way to the free throw line, and they made them when they counted. 13-of-16 in the second half, 17-of-21 for the game.
Five VT players scored in double figures, headlined by Aluma’s 20 points. Cattoor had 14, Nahiem Alleyne dropped 11, and Darius Maddox added ten off the bench.
And for the fifth time in six games, the Hokies controlled the boards. Against Syracuse (13-12, 7-7), both teams recorded 41 rebounds, but it’s been a growing trend as of late that Virginia Tech has won the battle – or at least broke even – on the glass.
“I was nervous about that,” Young said. “Syracuse, they really go. They really go get it. [Cole] Swider and Jimmy [Boeheim] and they’re physical in there. We made a real emphasis on that category going into the game, and I thought all-in-all, pretty good.
“We’re playing a little bit better basketball. If you had to ask me what’s the difference, we’re just rebounding the ball better. More physical box outs and tougher on the glass.”
The Hokies had stifling defense, too. Syracuse made 24 of its 64 attempts (37.5%) from the field and was 10-of-27 from three (37%), and the numbers cooled down in the second half. Buddy Boeheim (21 points, 8-19 FG, 4-10 3FG) and Joe Girard (16 points, 6-14 FG, 4-7 3FG) carried the Orange, but it wasn’t enough.
Tech was connected defensively, a key that the team has harped on and mentioned over this five-game winning streak. Playing as a unit on that end of the floor has been so crucial, and that was present again on Saturday.
“I thought we did a good job staying connected, following the gameplan,” Mutts said. “Our coaches were giving us different … defenses that we switch up at any given time, and for our team, I think we do a really good job of being on the same page and knowing what we’re doing.”
And in the blink of an eye, the Hokies are back to .500 in the ACC. 17 days ago, they were 2-7 in the league after Miami’s Charlie Moore drilled a half-court buzzer-beater. Now? 7-7 with six games to play, three of which come at home.
Virginia Tech is on the bubble and is continuing to make its NCAA Tournament case. Powered by intense defense, good ball movement, wicked 3-point shooters and a squad filled with triple-double talent, the Hokies are hot.
Virginia, whom Tech lost to by two, 54-52, in Charlottesville on Jan. 12, is the next challenge on Monday.
“We’re on the bubble, so we just have to keep doing what we’re doing,” Mutts said. “Can’t let up and can’t get content.”
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