March Madness: ‘Blind faith’ in Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks leads to full-circle moment at Final Four

DALLAS — Kenny Brooks brought his daughter, Chloe, to Dallas for the 2017 Final Four as a “daddy-daughter date.” They watched one of the game’s most iconic upsets and moments when Mississippi State snapped Connecticut’s 111-game winning streak in overtime of the semifinal.

“I wish I could give you a story, a Disney story ending and saying, ‘Hey, baby, one day we’re going to be here, too,’ but we didn’t,” Brooks said on Thursday from American Airlines Center.

It doesn’t need a cliche quote to be a full-circle story ending. Brooks is back in Dallas at the Final Four — more like “in” the Final Four, as his star transfer Taylor Soule said — with all four of his children, his wife and his No. 1-seeded Virginia Tech Hokies. The ACC tournament champions have made their deepest run in program history and will play No. 3 seed LSU on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

The 2017 Final Four concluded Brooks’ first season at Virginia Tech after 14 seasons at James Madison. At his introductory news conference the year prior, he referenced the run ACC school Syracuse made to the Final Four and asked “if Syracuse can do it, why can’t we?”

“There was a huge eruption, and everybody was like, ‘Yeah, we can do it,’” Brooks said. “Immediately I was like, ‘Did I just stick my foot in my mouth?’ Because it’s a very tough task to get here.”

Virginia Tech head coach Kenny Brooks celebrates with the team after earning a spot in the Final Four of the NCAA women's tournament on March 27, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Virginia Tech head coach Kenny Brooks celebrates with the team after earning a spot in the Final Four of the NCAA women’s tournament on March 27, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Virginia Tech went 20-14 his first season, a slim improvement from the previous year. It would be the lowest winning percentage of his career. The Hokies made it back to the NCAA tournament in 2020-21 for the first time since 2006, but with the same result of a loss in the second round. (They also would have made the 2020 tournament that was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Their loss in the San Antonio bubble was to Baylor, then coached by Kim Mulkey. Mulkey told Brooks afterward he should be smiling underneath his mask despite the outcome because of the young, raw talent that would only improve through the seasons. It was already more developed talent than he had during his successful tenure at James Madison.

“Nobody ever wanted to play him because he was that good a coach and just really did wonderful things there,” Mulkey, who will face Brooks again as LSU’s head coach, said on Tuesday. “And then when he got to Virginia Tech, he was able to recruit a different athlete, a more — how do I say it, just a more five-star, blue-star, whatever they want to call them, type of athletes that maybe he couldn’t get at James Madison. You knew, wow, when he gets those kind of kids what that program was about to do.”

Brooks said early in the week his early recruits had to take a “blind leap of faith” to trust that if they did what he asked, their championship goals would come to fruition. His first recruit was guard Aisha Sheppard in the class of 2017. Sheppard broke program records, was named an All-America honorable mention and won a WNBA championship with the Las Vegas Aces last fall as their No. 23 overall pick.

In 2019 came Elizabeth Kitley, the 6-foot-6 center and Naismith Award Player of the Year finalist who broke Sheppard’s record for points. The next season was Georgia Amoore, the sharp-shooting point guard who won the ACC tournament MVP award for her strong 3-point streak. Brooks said Thursday he felt the program “stole one” by finding her in Australia.

Ahead of their record-breaking season, he brought in Soule from the transfer portal. Soule, a 5-11 forward, played four seasons at Boston College and said the vibe and energy she felt speaking with Brooks after their ACC games was part of the reason she joined him.

“I think we can call it blind faith,” Soule said in the locker room. “You get a gut feeling when you’re in a good place with great people. I definitely took a leap of faith in him and the program and being in Blacksburg. I’m glad that I went with my gut.”

Things began to come together for players in the summer and the first day of practice is when Soule said she realized a Final Four could be reality. The group had the right attitude, a solid work ethic, and a culture that one needs to make the final weekend.

“I could see we had the makings of a team that wanted to get better and wanted to not just be OK with being ranked third in the conference,” Soule said. “It was a team that was like, no, I want to be better, I want to be a 1-seed, I want to be in the tournament, I want to make it as far as we can.”

It’s a team with plenty of individual accolades, which come with various trophies and perks. Kitley received more on Wednesday in a watch and jersey from being a Naismith finalist. But most of those reside in Brooks’ office, and have for a while. ACC Network noted Kitley’s first ACC Player of the Year trophy was there early in the year.

“They’re in my office because they just haven’t come to pick them up,” Brooks said. “The only thing they want to do is win. So if you walk into my office, you might think I’m a decorated basketball player with all the trophies in there, but that’s just their unselfishness, and that’s what’s gotten us here.”

Virginia Tech is one of the two No. 1 seeds remaining in the tournament after Indiana and Stanford both dropped out before the Sweet 16. The Hokies were viewed as a weak 1-seed that some believed would be the first to lose. They didn’t even win their regular season championship, but they were also fighting for seeding with Notre Dame (then healthy) and Duke amid top-to-bottom conference parity.

The players aren’t out to prove anyone wrong, nor are they angry about any perceived disrespect, Brooks said. They’re confident in themselves, and in their growth from that tournament game against Mulkey. Virginia Tech’s 15-game winning streak is the longest active of any tournament team behind South Carolina. The Hokies have trailed for the least amount of minutes (9:27) during the tournament of any Final Four team (Iowa 17:32, South Carolina 19:25 and LSU 19:51).

“He’s just brought Virginia Tech back up to being a name,” Amoore said in the locker room. “And he is just so passionate. I met him halfway and he’s taken me all the way. Clearly, we’re at the Final Four. And he’s just done such a great job of sticking with it through all the adversity he’s been through throughout the years. And it’s very much paying off for him. It’s a full-circle moment for him.”

If Virginia Tech advances, and if it upsets South Carolina to ruin the Gamecocks’ 42-game winning streak six years after the Brooks family watched arguably the biggest one of all time, Disney would be smart to come calling even if the coach didn’t call his shot back then.

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