On Thursday night, Virginia Tech men’s basketball assistant coach Christian Webster and head coach Mike Young joined Zach Mackey and Mike Burnop on Tech Talk Live during the team’s off-week. The Hokies (13-9, 5-6 ACC) are back in action on Saturday at Notre Dame (5:30 p.m. ET, CW).
That was a tough one down there in Miami.
Probably the toughest one of the year, to be honest with you. Especially if it would have been a big one on the road, a Quad 1. It was tough, but hopefully we can bounce back against the Fighting Irish.
A game of two halves for sure. The first half, you held them to 26 points. What were you guys doing well defensively in that first half?
I just think we did a good job of enforcing those really good scorers — Wooga Poplar, Nijel Pack — into just tough twos. We were in the gaps. Lynn [Kidd] and Mylyjael [Poteat] did a great job hedging the ball screens and getting back to the big fella in the paint, Norchad Omier. And we just forced them into tough shots and got the rebound and we played great on the other end, we shared the basketball and we were up at the half almost 10 points. We had a lot of shots go in and out of the basket. In the locker room, we’re like, ‘Man, we could be up 20 if those shots were going in.’ We just played really well in that first half.
But you still had everything under control. I mean, still a 10-point lead at the under-12 timeout and you guys were up six at the under-eight timeout. So how did it go south?
Just the three things we’ve been harping on: turnovers, obviously, the shot selection and then the rebounding. Obviously, the turnovers in that game really affected us. They turned us over. I don’t know how many times in the second half. Seven from Sean Pedulla. It was just tough down the stretch, giving them extra possessions on the offensive glass and with the turnovers. You can’t win that way.
Is it one of those things too, as a coach, that turnovers are a little bit more difficult to dive into and repair?
Yeah, and we were seeing in a lot of our games, there’s a tipping point in the second half. And obviously, you look at the box score from the Miami game, we only played seven guys and you see all those guys playing and it kind of is a dip there. So maybe there’s mental errors, fatigue errors, down the stretch of the game. So we’ve got to figure out how many guys we want to play. Jaydon Young, and Brandon Rechsteiner, who wasn’t even at that game. He was sick. So having those guys available I think will help our depth and hopefully keep those guys with the ball in their hands fresher down the stretch in a game like what we have coming up on Saturday.
And is Mekhi Long getting closer to getting back as well?
He’s getting closer. Just waiting on the medical guys that give us the go ahead, but he’s getting closer for sure.
That’s a tough one too because I know you got outrebounded in that game against Miami, but it’s one of the areas that Mekhi has been so good at.
He’s so good. We definitely missed his athleticism. It’s tough when it’s getting Robbie Beran off the floor for a click. Tyler Nickel has been pretty good bumping down to the fourth spot, he had three or four rebounds against Miami. So we definitely missed that toughness and athleticism that Mekhi brings, for sure.
You had a heck of a career at Harvard yourself, all those games that you played and Ivy League Championships and NCAA Tournaments and all that sort of stuff, and the ups and downs. How do you communicate with those guys? You’ve got a psychology degree, right?
I use it every single day. The nature of the job is changing so much. But what we do on a daily basis in the ACC is so different from the Ivy League. I mean, we had to play on a Friday night and Saturday night, back-to-back, traveling from Ithaca, New York, to New York, New York, to play against Columbia, like that was tough. So it’s a little easier on these guys to be able to go from a Wednesday to Saturday and then shoot ,we’ve had a week off Saturday to a Saturday, so it’s been good to kind of sharpen the saw, if you will, a little bit in practice and get some rest and get some rejuvenation and than go up to South Bend, Indiana, and try to get a win.
How do you coach them through the ups and downs? As a coach, it’s got to drive you semi-crazy, the inconsistency like to score great this game and then you’ll disappear. That’s got to be hard.
It’s hard and it’s always hard for especially young guys just to be consistent. Guys like Hunter Cattoor, you know what you’re getting from him every single night. Robbie Beran, a fifth-year guy, Lynn Kidd’s played a lot of minutes, Mylyjael Poteat has been at a couple of places. Those older guys, you certainly know what you’re getting every night, but it’s always tough for young guys just to show up every single day. It’s tough for them to show up every single day in practice. That’s something we always try to harp on with the youngsters like, ‘Hey, man, you’ve got to be consistent. You got to do it every single day and that’s how you gain your teammates’ trust and that’s how you gain Coach Young’s trust.’
A lot of the folks who are listening on the radio, they don’t get a chance to be at shootaround and see practices when you’re running the scout team. A lot of times you’re playing one of the players. Has that always been your style of coaching and kind of the way you take charge?
Yeah, I mean, I mentioned it just a minute ago. It’s such a different generation. I think they really are very visual. And so I pride myself on being able to go out there and not only tell them what to do, but show them what to do. Like, ‘Hey, this is how I want you to do it and get out there and take the ball’ and be like, ‘No, do it like this. Crossover like this, guard him like this, or whatever.’ And I think they really like that. And we have a whole staff of guys that do that. It’s not just me. I mean, Kevin Giltner was a great player at Wofford and J.D. Byers, he’s 40 years old, but he’s just as live as any of us, he’s moving and bouncing around just as Kevin and I are. Our staff does a really good job of not only telling guys what to do, but showing guys what to do and sweating with them and I think they really like that.
What’s the best part of your job? Is it recruiting, the coaching on the floor, scouting, gameday?
That’s a great question. I mean, for me, I just love the game of basketball. Basketball has opened up so many doors for me in my life. I love being around it, I love the team atmosphere, I love the relationships that I have with the guys. Seeing former players that we’ve had here over the years, at my other stops too, seeing what they’re doing. It’s just all about relationships. And being a guy that’s played the game and they can kind of hopefully see themselves in me you know hopefully a couple of them say, ‘I like the way Coach Webbie does it or Coach Giltner does it and I want to be a coach because of them.’ So that’s probably the most rewarding part of it to me. I love to recruit and I love the scouting and the game plan, and especially in the Atlantic Coast Conference when you’re going against Hall of Fame coaches every night, that’s pretty cool.
I know you guys were on a couple of planes all over in the last week, how is the recruiting front?
It was good. It’s always good to utilize the bye week to go see prospective student-athletes and we got out to some places around here, which is great. We’d like to put a fence around the DMV area so we got out to 757 and then up to Northern Virginia and D.C., Maryland, and it was great. We saw some really good players. Now we have to try to go get them.
What does the roster look like in terms of roster management? What do you think next year in terms of how many you’re going to have and how many guys you’re going to need?
In this day and age, you never know. But obviously, we’ve signed two players from the state of Florida that we think are going to be very good for us early and they’re now actually in their state playoff stuff getting going, one of them plays tonight. So we’re hopeful for them and then looking at the transfer portal, hoping to add a couple of guys obviously, Robbie Beran and Mekhi Long can’t come back. So there’s a hole at the four spot. We think one of the kids from Florida could play some four and then Hunter Cattoor’s obviously out of eligibility, unfortunately. So we’ve got to go probably get another player at the guard spot. So those are probably the biggest holes on the roster. Other than that, you never know.
How tough is that? Because you can’t really have the conversations and you don’t want to have conversations until the season’s over. You guys are so limited in how many scholarships you have and you don’t know what guys are thinking or doing until after the season’s over.
You just try to keep them focused on winning, winning from game-to-game from getting better every day. And the next game and the next game and the next practice and the next scouting report. I think the coaches kind of look at that stuff and think about it, but we try to keep the players gung ho on what we have to do to win the next game. And that’s what we focus on.
Walk us through the portal process? How does that work?
The coaches try to stay away from that throughout the year. But we have GAs and people that kind of look at that throughout the season. This guy may be a potential portal guy. He has a number of years of eligibility left. He’s doing this at a high level at a low level. He could graduate and transfer. So we kind of delegate that responsibility to the other guys on staff that are, quote on quote, below us, if you will, and they kind of report to us if there’s anybody that we need to be aware of.
How do you guys separate the recruiting front? How do you guys split that up?
It is just about the relationships. Coach Byers recruits the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area as much as I do and I’m from the D.C., Maryland, Virginia area and he’s from Pennsylvania and Coach Giltner spends a lot of time in South Carolina and in Tennessee. So he does a lot of the southeast stuff. I also do a lot of Southeast stuff. It just comes down to who has the relationships where and who has the best chance of helping us sign a kid and the relationship is everything.
This is your eighth season now, you’re the longest-tenured coach on the staff. Is that kind of crazy?
It’s crazy. When I came here, I really didn’t know much about the highest levels of college basketball, to be honest with you. And Buzz Williams took a chance on me and I was 25, 26 years old. And now I’m 33, so I really feel like I’ve grown up here. But I’ve been a part of some really cool stuff. I’ve learned a lot from some really good coaches, obviously, Coach Buzz Williams and Coach Mike Young being at the helm of that, but I’ve been very fortunate.
What’s the biggest thing that has changed in recruiting since when you started here?
It’s like night and day. I mean, the two buzzwords are NIL and the transfer portal. Those things have changed everything. It’s become so transactional. I keep talking about relationships, but that’s the unfortunate part about the transfer portal and NIL. Everybody wants to know what you can do for him, whether it’s NIL or minutes or you know, shot attempts or whatever. So just try to keep the relationships at the front of everything and try to spend time with our guys as much as we can because there’s all types of stuff swirling around out there trying to keep them away from all that crap.
At the end of the day, when you get in the gym, it’s basketball, right? Is that what you’ve seen out of those guys that you’ve gotten from the portal that winning and just playing basketball is top of mind?
You know, it’s crazy you say that, because Coach Byers and I were just talking about this today. Like, at the end of the day, we want guys that love the game. And those are the guys that we’ve had here, that have been so successful, from the Justin Robinsons, from the Kerry Blackshears, Ahmed Hill, and to the guys in the Mike Young era — Justyn Mutts, Keve Aluma, Hunter Cattoor. Those guys love basketball. And so before any of the NIL, transfer portal, all the stuff going on with college basketball, conference realignment. At the end of the day, you’re bouncing the ball and shooting in the hoop. And that’s the game we fell in love with. That’s the game I love. That’s why I’m still coaching and out there on the floor running around like a chicken with my head cut off during scout team so we’ve got to find guys that love the game of basketball at the end of the day.
You think about how valuable Mutts was, the way he could pass the ball, he was like a Swiss Army knife.
He was incredible. He’s having a heck of a career right now in Japan. Still playing and still making a lot of money doing what he loves to do. I think he’s a future coach in the making. He called me the other day and said, ‘Webbie, what do I have to do to get into coaching?’ And it’s really cool to have those types of conversations with guys like that, because he was a heck of a player and an even better person. And he’s gotten more degrees than I do and he still wants to coach, so it’s pretty cool.
How difficult was it, playing Division I basketball while also getting a degree from Harvard. How tough was that to manage school and basketball?
I envy guys because we didn’t have academic advisors. We didn’t have anybody helping us to schedule classes and to be there. First, we weren’t taking any planes to games. I mean, in the Ivy League, you’re bussing everywhere in conference play. So we didn’t have an academic advisor with us and so we didn’t have that sort of academic support. If you get into a school like that at Harvard or Princeton or Yale or whatever, that you can do the work, that you got into the same admissions door that the normal kid that doesn’t play sports got into. So that part was tough, but our coach did a great job, Coach Tommy Amaker, giving us time. Practices were never too long, he gave us a lot of time to get our work done and to be involved in any extracurricular stuff that we want to be involved in.
And you worked with them a little bit for a couple of years. How hard was it to recruit there?
It was very hard because there’s such a small pool of players that are one good enough to play Division I basketball and are smart enough, and are willing to go to school and pay their own way. I mean, I believe you’re not allowed to get an athletic scholarship. You’re not allowed to get a merit-based scholarship, whether athletic or academic. So you’re in a pool of players that are getting recruited by Georgetown or by Vanderbilt, by Stanford, who we’re about to be playing against next year. The Cal Berkeley’s of the world. It’s really hard so you have to find guys that are not only good enough, but willing to pay some money. And if you’ve got a scholarship to Northwestern, I mean, it’s hard to turn that down. I mean, I’m still paying student loans from my time in Harvard. I was one of the few dummies to want to do that. But it was a heck of an experience and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
You’re walking around campus with folks that could be the next president or Supreme Court Justice or something. Are there any classes that you think back about and go, ‘Holy cow?’
The first thing when you started talking about that, I think of a kid on our team who’s godfather was Barack Obama. And he wasn’t at practice one day, it was like a Tuesday or Wednesday. And we were looking around the locker room like, ‘Where’s Alex?’ And we check the group chat and he’s sending us pictures. He’s at the White House, and he’s sending us pictures of Stevie Wonder, Bill Gates, Alicia Keys, I guess it was like Michelle Obama’s birthday. I forget what year it was like, but dude, like, what is going on? Like we’re about to be running sprints in like 30 minutes and you’re at the White House with Barack and Michelle, like it was crazy. There are a number of stories like that. But that is the one that sticks out the most.
You mentioned some of the alums of the program — Wabissa Bede, KJ, JRob and all those guys. Where are they, what are they doing now?
Yeah. Bede, actually got a chance to see him in Orlando for that tournament. Obviously, he’s working for Buzz at Texas A&M. He is on staff and getting his start in coaching. That’s what he really wanted to do. He was like me, he didn’t play overseas, he didn’t take that leap of faith and go across the water to play basketball professionally and he just wanted to get his coaching career started and so he’s doing a great job there. I saw him, he looks great. He looks like he can still play. I thought he was the strength coach. He’s still muscular. So that’s Bede. I got a call actually from Seth Allen at the beginning of the year, like our season was just beginning. We’re playing non-conference games and he said he wanted to coach and he’s playing. He just finished playing. I think he was in Northern Virginia visiting his family, but he wants to coach and get involved and was asking me how he could get his start. So that was pretty cool and you know how good of a player he was. I’ve never seen anybody do the things he did with the ball in his hands getting to his left hand off ball screens. He was incredible.
How about JRob and KJ, where are they?
I think they’re both still playing. I talked to Justin Robinson maybe two, three months ago. I think he’s in Australia. Having a heck of a year. He’s playing really well. I haven’t talked to KJ at all. Last I heard he was still playing, though. I know he worked out in Orlando this summer. I think him and Hunter Cattoor actually did some sessions together in Orlando, which is pretty cool. Hunter Cattoor and Kerry Blackshear’s brother are actually really good friends. They all grew up together in Orlando, so there’s a cool connection there. I try to keep in touch with all those guys as much as I can. Ahmed Hill was gonna stop by this past summer and see us when he was driving up to his home in Augusta, Georgia. And he was driving up to Canada to start I guess training camp in the NBL or whatever they call the league up there, the Canadian Basketball League, so all those guys are doing great. Try to keep in touch with them as much as I can.
What can you tell us about Notre Dame this weekend on Saturday?
I mean, when you look at their record, obviously, like, we can win that game. But this is a really good team. They are in every game and we’ve watched countless hours of film on them. They’re tough. That kid Markus Burton is one of the best freshmen in the conference, right behind RJ Davis in terms of shot attempts and makes, he’s good. He’s really good. They’ve got a number of guys that stretch the floor. Braeden Shrewsberry, Matt Zona is a really good player, he can really shoot and score and then they’ve got a couple of guys inside that will give Lynn and Mylyjael some trouble, and they’re gonna have to guard. So it’ll be a tough game. And as you know, it’s hard to win any game on the road, especially in the ACC.
Burton had a heck of a game last night. I think he had 19 points against Duke.
He’s a really good player. Not a lot of people know about him, but he is definitely one of the best players in the ACC and one of the best freshmen in the conference. He’s darn good.
A little bit different without that midweek game. How have the last couple of days been?
You’ve got two breaks in your schedule and unfortunately for us, ours came in the first week you don’t want that. But here we are and gives you a chance, we played Miami on Saturday they’re all running together, fellas. It gave us a chance to spread some things out. We did practice Monday, gave them an additional day off. We’ve got some wear and tear of the season. An extra day to get their legs under them is helpful. Mylyjael Poteat, Hunter Cattoor and a few others. A really good practice Wednesday, Thursday, and a lot of preparation tomorrow for Notre Dame and we’ll go up to South Bend, look forward to that trip.
And you were recruiting. Where did you go and how did that go?
That was quite a day. Was a great day. It was awesome. Went to Norfolk and saw three really good players. Juniors, can’t mention their names for obvious reasons, and then to D.C., saw a young man practice and saw two games that night and then back to southwest Virginia, so beneficial day. It’s really hard to get out during the year with everything else going on. But when you have breaks like that, and we’ll have another one when we’ve got Virginia at home on Monday and don’t play again until Saturday, we’ll have that Tuesday to get out and about and never take your eye off the ball with that recruiting stuff, you’ve got to persist and hang in there with it and we’re in really good shape with a number of really good players. So you know that time will come soon enough.
Have you always enjoyed recruiting and going out and doing that?
Let me get this right. Oh, gosh, it has changed. The old days you dealt with a kid and his mom and dad, his family and you dealt with a high school coach and then 20 years or so ago you’re dealing with AAU coaches and others. We’re at a point now with this process, there are so many people trying to attach themselves to young people and it’s like swinging a ghost. You don’t know who’s the decision-maker? Is it the barber? Is it the guy down the street, is it this guy? You’re just gathering as much information as you can and getting to know as many people within that camp that you can and hope that you get it right and hope that you don’t miss something. I do enjoy getting to know coaches and people surrounding the kid and we’ve been fortunate in our time here, and prior to coming to Virginia Tech. Locking in on high-character people that they’re about the right stuff and know how to play and so that part of it’s fun. There are other parts, to be frank with you, that just aren’t a lot of fun anymore, but last time I checked, it’s a lifeboat. So we spent a great deal of time with it. The phone calls and everything else that goes along with it. It’s a big part of what we do.
We talked a little bit to Webbie about the portal and how that process works. I guess when does it come to your desk that like, ‘Hey, these couple of guys we need to really hammer down on?’
We’ve got a pretty good system in place. We have somebody that updates that thing every second. So the minute a young man goes into the transfer portal, we’re aware of it. Maybe we recruited him out of high school, maybe he’s in our league, maybe he’s in a league that we have a great deal of familiarity with. Now, there’s a lot of names. There’s a lot of waiting and you don’t want to waste time evaluating bad players, but you don’t want to jump too soon. You don’t want to be late to the punch either. It’s speed dating is what it is. It’s fast and it’s overwhelming for the young person. And let’s be honest, so much of it today comes back to NIL and it’s just different, man. Just different.
Brandon Rechsteiner didn’t make the trip down to Miami. What can you tell us about his status for this weekend?
He’ll be in uniform, he’ll be with us. He has practiced all week. He was deathly ill with a stomach bug, nothing more. Bless his heart. I saw him coming into the building to see Hisham Ziyout, our athletic trainer, just to run a couple tests. He had a stomach bug and it set him back, he lost a little bit of weight, didn’t have much weight to lose, but he’s healthy. He looks great, he looks strong. He practiced very well Wednesday. So he’ll be on the trip, we need him and expect him to help us win.
And Mekhi Long is getting better but not quite ready yet. What’s his status?
He’s in uniform. He does what he can right now. He is struggling with it. But we’re working really hard to get him back and when we can get him back, we’ll look forward to that.
You mentioned in one of your postgames, it’s been a long time since you’ve seen Hunter take a bad shot. What makes him so good about knowing when to pull the trigger and when not to?
He just knows how to play. It’s nothing more than that. He knows what is best for our team right now. We gotta get him more shots. We need to get him five to six more shots. That’s easier said than done. He is at or near the top of our scouting report. I thought Duke did a remarkable job on him a couple games back in that Big Monday game, Tyrese Proctor guarded him in Cameron last year when went down there and did a nice job. They’re not going to come off of him, penetration, ball goes into the post. But man, he works and he’s a great mover without the ball. We’ve got to get more screens for him. We’ve got to engineer five, six more looks for him every game, we’ve got to find a way back to get him 12 to 16 shots. And that’s easier said than done. Because again, some of these teams are going to do a really nice job on him.
The schedule is going to get rough here coming up because it’s two games every week from here on. So those minutes for guys like Hunter and Sean are going to be something to keep an eye on, right?
Yeah, it is. We’ve got Florida State at home on Tuesday after getting back from Notre Dame on Saturday evening, Sunday morning. Florida State home, North Carolina road, and Virginia in here again for Big Monday. So it comes down at you fast. I mean, it’s hard to believe we’re coming down the stretch here. We are coming down the stretch through that four-game stretch that would leave us what, five left, Syracuse Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Louisville [and Notre Dame], so time to get on the stick, start playing really good basketball and start stacking a bunch of wins together.
Coach Micah Shrewsberry in his first season over there with Notre Dame He was previously at Penn State, who you played in the past. What sticks out to you about Coach Shrewsberry?
We watched some of that game and we’re not going to get anything out of it. That Penn State team last year, they were men who were old. I can remember Jalen Pickett and Seth Lundy. But he’ll have three freshmen and two sophomores on the board at the same time a lot. So it doesn’t look the same. But Micah Shrewsberry is one heck of a basketball coach. He’s doing it the right way. He had a real rebuild when he took over with all those kids graduating, getting good with all those really good players. He’s doing it the right way. He’s doing it with young people. It’s hard at a place like Notre Dame because the academics too, just bringing in a bunch of transfers doesn’t work there. Because of the academic admissions, it’s hard to get into that school. So he’s got his son on the team who I really like, can really shoot the ball. I think 80 of his shots 60 of them from three and he could really shoot.
The little point guard, I heard Christian talk about him, Markus Burton is a dynamite little player, shoots it from three. They’ve got others, so their record is misleading. They played Boston College recently. You are what your record says you are said an NFL coach, I forget who said it, but they’re in every game. I just watched both Boston College games, home and away. They led the entire game at home against Boston College and lost down the stretch. Same thing at BC, Miami is a game right down to the wire. They beat Virginia by 18 early in the year. So we’re going to have to play a good ball game, but we look forward to getting up there. I guess we lost our first year and we haven’t lost since so let’s go up and play well find a way to win.
Duke got off to such a good start last night. A 20 to 5 start in that game against them. They kind of set the tone early for them.
They won’t go away. I mean, they came right back and they cut that thing to eight, seven, somewhere in there Duke maintained a comfortable lead, but we both know that there are easier places in college basketball to go play, certainly with a young team, than in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
What’s it going to take to match up on the boards with this good rebounding Notre Dame team?
Well, there’s a lot of missed shots. They’re really stingy defensively, they’re top-50 in the country defensively. They do a nice job of keeping a body on the body. Drop coverage and want you to take contested twos and you’ve got to resist that temptation. But when that shot goes up from an Irish player, you know they’ve got sometimes three, sometimes four, sticking their nose in there trying to get a piece of it, so that will be a big part of the game for us.
What do you think about the news that the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament, after this year in D.C., is going to go to Charlotte for two years, Greensboro, Charlotte, Greensboro?
Good. I love Charlotte. Won our first conference championship in that building in 2010. We played South Carolina this past year, St. Bonaventure a couple years ago. I love that building. I love that city. It’s great for our fan base. We’ve got a lot of Hokies in Mecklenburg County. Easy drive for us. I love that and I think it’s a great idea from Jim Phillips and our leadership group within the league. That is ACC basketball, Tobacco Road, Greensboro, Greensboro Coliseum, Charlotte, the old Charlotte Coliseum that’s still there. I think it’s called Bojangles Arena now. I coached a game there as part of the tournament in 2010. And the semifinals and the finals were over at the arena. So I think it’s a fabulous idea by our league, and I look forward to all those experiences, nothing like the ACC Tournament!