One year after Final Four run, Virginia Tech learning to ignore expectations

BLACKSBURG, VA - FEBRUARY 01:  Virginia Tech Hokies center Elizabeth Kitley (33) and Virginia Tech Hokies guard Georgia Amoore (5) watch the replay during a college basketball game between the Virginia Cavaliers and the Virginia Tech Hokies on February 1, 2024 at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, VA. (Photo by Brian Bishop/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Will Elizabeth Kitley (left) and Georgia Amoore lead Virginia Tech back to the Final Four this season? (Brian Bishop/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

SYRACUSE, NY — Expectations for Virginia Tech were high. Maybe a tad too high for a program that, while returning key headline pieces, looked almost completely different to start the season than the team that took the Final Four floor in Dallas last April.

“People, I think, underestimated what we had to do to get everybody else incorporated to our philosophies,” head coach Kenny Brooks told Yahoo Sports. “We’ve had to mesh ‘super experienced’ with ‘experienced, but not experienced at Virginia Tech,’ to no experience at all. And all had to come together.”

The Hokies returned only three players, added three transfers and brought on six freshmen. Even with so many new pieces, they began the season ranked top 10 in the Associated Press poll. Amid early losses to semifinalist Iowa, currently ranked No. 2, and reigning champion LSU in a blowout after Thanksgiving, they heard the outside noise about not playing to the expectations. They tumbled to as low as 19th.

They were mad. Until they decided only they could control the story and outcome of their season.

“We did get a lot of negative talk on [those losses], but I think knowing what we have on our team and not worrying about the outside talk is when we are getting really good,” fifth-year guard Cayla King said after a road win over Syracuse last month kept them in top contention for the ACC title. “We’re just focusing on ourselves.”

Brooks said he’s grateful the team is so tuned into game action every night across every conference, but they had to learn to become unbothered by the noise. Projections, rankings and opinions don’t determine the outcome of games or championships. It’s an altered approach that could lead them back to the Final Four floor in Cleveland.

“As opposed to the mentality we had last year [of] proving everybody wrong, we’re just trying to prove ourselves right,” Brooks said. “And that mentality in itself is healthier. And it allows you to really focus on you and what you need to do.”

The No. 16 Hokies (18-4, 9-2 ACC) won their first ACC tournament title last spring, but faced external doubts as the final No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament bracket. They reached their first Final Four in the school’s basketball history, men’s or women’s, after a previous women’s best of a Sweet 16 finish.

Naismith finalist Elizabeth Kitley, the program’s all-time leading scorer, announced she would forgo the WNBA Draft and return for a fifth season to dominate alongside Georgia Amoore, a tournament darling and one of the nation’s best point guards. Combined, they averaged 34.5 points per game. King also opted to come back.

“We were 31-5 [last year] and that’s just ridiculous,” Amoore told Yahoo Sports. “Saying that we’re going to do it again this year is unfair to last year’s team and what we achieved because it’s not easy. I think [the] Final Four is definitely on our mind, but it’s not like we’re just going to be like, it’s easy, let’s do it again. It’s a whole-year process and we have new pieces.”

Brooks dipped into the transfer portal to add all-Big Ten players Matilda Ekh out of Michigan State and Alanna (Rose) Micheaux from Minnesota, as well as fifth-year forward Olivia Summiel at Wake Forest. A six-player freshman class filled out the roster.

Other than the Iowa and LSU matchups, Virginia Tech used a light non-conference schedule to slowly improve as a newly formed team. Their offensive rating is better than last year’s and they have scored fewer than 70 points just four times, including the mid-January loss to Duke on a wild night of ACC upsets.

Amoore, a Wooden top-20 finalist for the nation’s best player, missed most of the first half with a head injury, leading to the Hokies' only back-to-back losses since 2021-22. She was ruled out for the Clemson game the week following, but the rest of the roster answered the call in her absence to snap the skid.

“Again, it was prove ourselves right,” said Brooks, who called the win a confidence-booster.

A loss to Duke during the same stretch last year catapulted the Hokies into a 15-game winning streak through the regular season, ACC tournament and to the Final Four. Only three games were decided by single digits in the stretch. At the time, the Hokies had dropped four ACC games and were projected as a No. 4 seed in the tournament — just barely holding onto hosting duties for the first weekend.

It’s exactly where they sit now in ESPN Bracketology, while Her Hoop Stats places them as a No. 5 seed. Not that they’re paying any mind to those projections or any other noise.

“We don’t get mad. We just say, 'OK, that’s what it is, and keep playing,'” Brooks said. “That's what I love about this group and I think that’s going to help us, or bode well for us, as we head to the final stretch of the ACC.”

Amoore and King view this year’s team as a group more unselfish and lethal from 3-point range. Brooks highlighted the change in depth, calling it the deepest team he’s ever had in his eighth season at the helm.

“There’s not a lot of drop-off in talent when you go one through 10,” Brooks said. “Last year, when you got to seven there was a little bit of a drop-off, and therefore it was kind of like piece-patching it together. This year we can still do the same things that we’re doing when the starters are out there, it’s just a different case of characters.”

The trade-off of adding depth — a hot commodity this season as programs deal with a rash of season-ending injuries — was those younger players needed time to gain experience before the Hokies could close in on the high expectations. Those early losses were beneficial.

Kitley and Amoore are still leading the way. Kitley’s 21.7 scoring average ranks 11th in Division I and her 11.5 rebounds per game ranks seventh. Amoore is averaging a career-high 17.7 points per game and her 7.6 assists per game trails only Iowa star Caitlin Clark.

Virginia Tech moved into the ACC lead on Monday night when No. 3 NC State (19-2, 8-2) defeated No. 15 Louisville (19-4, 8-2). All three teams have two losses in a tight race that also includes No. 23 Syracuse (8-3 ACC), No. 12 Notre Dame (7-3) and even Florida State (7-4) and North Carolina (7-4), which both received votes in the AP poll this week.

The Hokies travel to NC State on Thursday for a rematch of their buzzer-beating victory last month that featured a Kitley bucket, King pass and Amoore screen on the final play. A win would go a long way to locking up the regular season title since they would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The ACC tournament is shaping up to be upset heavy again, and up to nine teams from the conference could earn a berth in the NCAA tournament. A few of the Hokies know firsthand the road only becomes tougher from there, with or without the expectation of a Final Four return.

“Making the Final Four is the most difficult thing you can do, obviously for a reason. Only four teams make it,” Amoore said. “It’s a blessing that we did it and I’m thankful that we did it, and there’s always expectations to go back there, but it’s never going to be that easy.”