Hokies capture opening victory
But Tech coach says atmosphere at Cassell ‘stunk’
BLACKSBURG— Even in victory, Virginia Tech basketball coach Mike Young couldn’t deny something felt off about Wednesday’s season opener.
“It stunk,” Young said bluntly of playing at a nearly empty Cassell Coliseum and wearing a mask during his team’s 77-62 win over Radford on Wednesday. “Just different. Just really different. Thrilled to have the opportunity to play. We’re limited to 250 people. It’s not going to be what we’re accustomed to.”
Wofford transfer Keve Aluma scored a game-high 19 points in his Tech debut and sophomore guard Nahiem Alleyne added 14.
“I’m just glad to play again,” Alleyne said.
Tech’s win over Radford was one of 120 games on the schedule Wednesday. Another 20 were canceled or postponed because of COVID-19 issues.
Associate athletics director Tom Gabbard has been at Virginia Tech for 22 years. He’s seen Cassell Coliseum rock for Bimbo Coles, Malcolm Delaney, Erick Green and Justin Robinson. He’s heard it roar behind teams coached by Seth Greenberg, James Johnson, Buzz Williams and now Mike Young.
And he knew going into Wednesday’s season opener against Radford, even with the artificial crowd noise the program planned to pump into the arena, things weren’t going to be the same.
“Cassell Coliseum, when it’s full, is a very, very tough place for the visiting team to play,” Gabbard said this week. “We’re going to miss that. We’re going to lose most of that.”
As they did Wednesday, things will look different all season, not just in Blacksburg but in college arenas across the nation.
At Cassell for the Radford game, team benches were limited to 26 seats and— because of the 6-foot spacing requirements— stretched around the baselines and included seating in the first row of the stands.
Everyone on the benches, including players who aren’t in the game at the moment, are required to wear masks, per the ACC’s medical advisory report.
Young and Alleyne said the team tried to prepare for that with a scrimmage Saturday under the same setup.
The first rows seven rows behind the team benches are covered in advertising tarps, to give distance between fans and the teams and, of course, to
make sure the ads are visible on television.
Nearly every aspect of the program’s game-day operation has been affected by COVID-19 protocols. Tuesday, the Radford men’s and Richmond’s women’s teams held practices at Cassell in advance of their games there Wednesday.
Neither team was permitted to use the locker room areas and extra time was left between their scheduled workouts to allow Tech staffers to sanitize the court with a fast-drying disinfectant spray.
Teams that choose to have a postgame meal at Cassell this season will eat in a small side gym, down the hall from the game court.
One of the biggest curves Gabbard’s team was thrown came earlier this month when the governor’s office revised the limit on attendance from 1,000
fans to 250, with 40 of those seats being offered to the visiting team’s fans. (That number does not include players and staff necessary to the contest.)
Fans now only enter through Cassell’s main front gate and are screened for temperature. Re-entry to games is not permitted. Only two of the arena’s concession stands are open during games and fans will only sit in the north, south and west sections. The east stands are being used for television and radio broadcasters and crew.
The private event security company Tech employs at Cassell had its contingent — normally between 30-45— cut down to about one third of that number.
Emergency medical service personnel, on hand for every intercollegiate sporting event, have moved back from their normal spot on the floor to being stationed up in the stands.
And in the midst of all that, Young’s Hokies took the floor Wednesday, won their opening game by pulling away from Radford in the second half, and started their journey on a most unusual season.
Notes: Young said sophomore guard Jalen Cone, who didn’t see the court Wednesday, has been cleared to play but will be held out of the team’s next two games, in Connecticut. He said Cone could return to action Dec. 3 against VMI in Blacksburg. ... Young said sophomore forward John Ojiako is dealing with a knee “issue” and his status is unclear.