BLACKSBURG — The stars of a memorable Virginia Tech men’s basketball season have left town.
So new faces will get a shot to shine this season, such as Landers Nolley II, Jalen Cone and Branden Johnson.
They are eager for their chance at the spotlight.
“I’m excited,” Nolley, a redshirt freshman, said Tuesday during the Tech men’s basketball media day at the team’s practice facility. “I haven’t played in awhile, so it’s an honor to be back on the court.”
The Hokies will open the season Nov. 5 at Clemson.
“I’m very excited and very anxious,” said Cone, a freshman. “I’ve been dreaming about moments like this, playing at this stage.”
Nolley was not permitted by the NCAA to play in games last season. He watched from the bench as the Hokies won a school-record 26 games and advanced to the Sweet 16.
“I had fun on the bench, … cheering those guys on,” he said.
As a high school senior in 2017-18, the 6-foot-7 Nolley was named Georgia’s high school basketball player of the year by both the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and USA Today. He averaged 31 points and eight rebounds. Nolley was named the No. 93 player in the nation in the 2017-18 recruiting class by ESPN.
The NCAA did not clear him to play last season, taking issue with his ACT score. The NCAA made him retake the test but still would not clear him.
“Once I found out the information of me not being able to play, … at first it was hard,” he said. “I just put it behind me and moved forward.”
Nolley, who made the ACC’s academic honor roll for the 2018-19 school year, said the NCAA did not make him meet any academic standards to be eligible this season.
Nolley was able to practice with the Hokies last season.
“I added a lot to my game — added a lot weight-wise, height-wise, skill-wise. Just ready to put it on display,” he said. “I added more knowledge. Lateral quickness. Weight — about 25 pounds; I came in about 170.”
Nolley entered the transfer portal on April 8, the day after Virginia Tech named former Wofford coach Mike Young as its new coach. But Nolley exited the portal the following week, opting to stay at Tech.
“The [new] staff — amazing,” Nolley said. “Everything about Blacksburg drew me back in and made me feel at home again, like I was when I was first looking for a new home as a recruit,”
Young said Nolley is a small forward but will play power forward “out of necessity” for Tech, which does not have a lot of post players.
“I’m not a real proponent of that, but that’s what we have right now,” Young said. “He will have to guard some bigger people out of necessity.”
How will Nolley get his points?
“It all depends on the night,” Nolley said. “I might have a smaller guy guarding me, meaning I’ll get closer to the basket. I might have a bigger guy guarding me, meaning I can get around him and make other plays for my teammates.”
The Hokies must replace the top five scorers on last year’s team, so they will be looking for scoring threats.
Cone, a point guard, was an early recruiting coup for Young. The 5-10 freshman said he is ready for his college debut.
“I know they’re going to need me to knock down open shots when they come my way, but really just [need to] be able to run the offense, control the team and bring that energy,” Cone said.
He announced in early May that not only had he picked the Hokies, but that he also would graduate high school a year early and reclassify from the class of 2020 to the class of 2019.
“I felt coming to college early was a smarter decision … because I would be able to learn from the older guys,” Cone said.
“I just love Coach Young and his success he has had with Wofford. … His style of play, I just felt like it was meant for me.”
He went from being rated by ESPN as the No. 53 player in the class of 2020 to being ranked the No. 80 player in the class of 2019.
Cone averaged 25.7 points and six assists for Walkertown High School in North Carolina as a junior last season.
“The [college] level is totally different, and that was a big slap in the face since I stepped on campus,” Cone said. “High school, I was used to one dribble, two dribbles, I’m getting up any shot I want to. But here guys are stronger, they’re bigger. So I have to really make a move and really get into my defender and create space for myself to score.”
Young plans to play both Cone and junior point guard Wabissa Bede together in the backcourt at times.
“Being able to play by his side some is definitely going to be pretty exciting,” Cone said of Bede.
Johnson is a graduate transfer from Alabama State.
The 6-8, 230-pound Johnson is one of three post players who are eligible to play for Tech this season, along with junior P.J. Horne and freshman John Ojiako.
“I’m more of an energy guy, hustle guy, get rebounds,” Johnson said.
Johnson averaged 4.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 16.9 minutes for Alabama State as a fourth-year junior last season. He started 15 games.
Is he ready to make the jump from the Southwestern Athletic Conference to the ACC?
“I’ve been working hard every day, getting adjusted with players that played in the ACC already, so I think I’ll be pretty good,” he said.