On Friday, Nov. 4, three days before the season-opener, Virginia Tech announced forward Justyn Mutts was suspended for one game for participation in a non-NCAA certified event. Less than a week later, Mutts returned to the floor on Thursday vs. Lehigh and had a double-double in the Hokies’ 78-52 win.
He didn’t get bad advice when he participated in the Tampa Bay Pro Combine in early May. Rather, it was the opposite. The 6-7 forward from Millville, N.J. was considering all options after finishing his fifth year of college. To stay for one more season or pursue a professional career?
With encouragement from the Tech coaching staff, Mutts ventured to Florida to get feedback on his game. He fully understood there was a possibility he’d have to sit a game or two due to NCAA rules. And that’s how it played out – Mutts received a one-game suspension to start the year.
“I want everybody to understand that he did nothing wrong,” Tech head coach Mike Young said on Tech Talk Live on Wednesday. “I don’t want that to be taken the wrong way. He was suspended and I was afraid he was going to be suspended for three games. … When that news came around late August that he had been suspended for one game, I was overjoyed. Sign me up. I’m good with that. He did nothing wrong. I encouraged him to participate in the event because there was going to be a number of people there to see him play.”
Against Delaware State in the first game of the year, Mutts was in a black suit and orange tie cheering on his teammates from the bench. The Hokies won big, 95-57, and Young joked after the victory that he never wanted to coach another game without Mutts.
He didn’t have to wait very long. Against the Mountain Hawks (0-2) in Cassell Coliseum on Thursday night, the reigning Skip Prosser Award winner looked like his usual self: 16 points (6-of-7), 11 rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block, good for his 17th career double-double.
“Every time the ball’s in his hands, something positive happens,” Young said of Mutts after the win. “Why anybody in the world would double him is beyond me. You double him because he’s going to crush whoever’s guarding him, but as soon as you double him, he makes the easiest, most routine ball to where it’s supposed to be for a lay-in, as he did tonight, or on the other side for a made three. He’s a good one.”
Lehigh, who finished 13-19 in 2021, played Syracuse closer (an 18-point loss) in its first game than the Hokies. Tech (2-0) got out to a quick 9-0 lead, all from Mutts and Grant Basile, in the first four minutes. Then the defense, which Young was not happy about in game one, kicked in. Lehigh’s first bucket came at the 16:17-mark.
It was a back-and-forth affair in which the Hokies couldn’t pull away until seven minutes left in the first half. Leading by eight, Tech ripped off a 10-0 run, which featured an and-one from a slithery Sean Pedulla, and extended the lead to 18. The difference remained in double digits the rest of the way thanks to Tech’s defense holding Lehigh to just 36.5% from the field.
“Let’s say that we had a couple that were encouraged to play better defensively, and I think that they did,” Young said.
Hunter Cattoor shut down All-Patriot League performer Evan Taylor, who finished with just four points (2-of-9). Basile was improved from game one, where Young made it known the senior needed to guard better. And Mutts pulled many of the strings behind the scenes, vocal all the while, and helped the Hokies be in the right positions.
“Casual fans don’t see and admire enough what a remarkable defensive player he is, whether it’s the point guard, whether it’s the two-guard, their five,” Young said of Mutts. “He just guards everything and does a remarkable job, just so responsible. He takes a lot of pride, has long arms and he’s a special, special player.”
On the other side, the Hokies found success offensively for 40 minutes. Basile didn’t drop 30 points like he did in his Tech debut, but he had a quiet 11. Pedulla scored a game-high 20, tying his career high.
Young’s crew wasn’t good from behind the arc, hitting just five of their 18 attempts. But they were methodical and worked the ball around. They finished with a 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio – 15 assists to five turnovers – and got into a rhythm offensively. The Hokies were 31-of-58 (53.4%) from the floor, controlling the pace all the while.
Eight of the ten players who saw the floor scored for Tech. Darius Maddox dropped eight while Lynn Kidd, Mylyjael Poteat and Cattoor added six apiece. True freshman MJ Collins also contributed five, including his first collegiate 3-pointer, and he’s looked the part on both ends.
“MJ is gonna be a star,” Mutts said. “He’s playing with confidence right now. I think as he starts to get more minutes, a little more experience, it’s just gonna come on more and more. I think he’ll be the best freshman guard in the ACC.”
With fellow true freshman guard Rodney Rice out with an injury, Young hasn’t had many options outside of Collins. However, the Clover, S.C. native helped himself a lot and showed he can help win games. Meanwhile, Young said Rice is expected back “soon,” and though it’ll take the DeMatha product some time to get up and running, it’ll give Virginia Tech a 10-man rotation.
After Sunday’s clash with William & Mary (6 p.m., RSN), the Charleston Classic awaits. Beyond that lies a four-game stretch with Minnesota, North Carolina, Dayton and Oklahoma State. Larger challenges will soon appear in the Hokies’ rearview mirror.
“[I’m] still trying to get my arms around it,” Young said of how to utilize Tech’s depth. “I’ll have a better picture of it real soon.”
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