Hahahaha what just happened?
With star senior point guard Justin Robinson on the bench in a walking boot, the Virginia Tech men's basketball team had seven available scholarship players (including little used freshman guard Jonathan Kabongo). Playing on the road against #23 NC State, who run an up-tempo press that gave Virginia problems just days earlier, meant sure doom for the Hokies.
But an ugly start for both sides left the door cracked open for Buzz Williams' depleted bunch, and what did the coach decide to do?
Make it even uglier.
The Hokies won 47-23, in a game that was somehow tougher to watch than the score suggests. Tech gummed up the Wolfpack offense with a combination of great defense and State's own absolutely frigid shooting, which lead to a scoring output that would have been underwhelming for Dave Doeren's football team.
But no matter how ugly it was—and my god it was ugly, the score was tied at two until 12:59 in the first half—it counts as Tech's 18th win of the year.
It was a rocky start full of turnovers, sophomore combo guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker struggled early as he shouldered much of the ball handling duties with Robinson sidelined. Tech only managed five points through the first eleven minutes of action, and seemed out of sorts on defense as well, surrendering many open looks. An output like that would usually put the team in an inescapable hole, like the one they faced in Chapel Hill a week earlier.
But luckily for the Hokies, the Wolfpack happened to be even worse.
To say Kevin Keatts' group couldn't buy a bucket is an insult to just how impressive their game-long cold streak was. By the end of regulation the Pack made just nine field goals on, wait for it, SIXTEEN PERCENT SHOOTING. They went 2-28 from three (a sterling 7.1%), and Braxton Beverly, State's sharpshooting guard who hit 39% of his triples coming into the afternoon, went 0-12 from the field.
And while the Pack started the game cold, the Hokies slowly got comfortable. They turned it over nine times in the first 20 minutes, but just three the rest of the way. Instead of settling for jumpers, Alexander-Walker, Ahmed Hill, and Wabissa Bede attacked the basket and weaved their way into open shots.
Kerry Blackshear Jr. became the force of emphasis in the second half, and let the offense flow through him both in the low post (11 of his 13 game after intermission), and at the top of the key (he continuously found cutters to keep the attack flowing).
And as the offense found its groove, the defense began to clamp down. Bede was everywhere, hounding the opposing ball handlers and attacking shooters off the ball. Blackshear did his best job so far this season by hedging without fouling. Hill and NAW were all over passing lanes, helping to force 10 Pack giveaways.
It was ugly, but it was exactly what the Hokies needed to do to pick up a win. And it wasn't just a win, they beat a ranked opponent by 20 points, on the road, without their most important player. It may be one of the most impressive victories in Williams' entire tenure in Blacksburg.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We doubled their output. It's kinda like art, depends on what you want to buy." — Buzz Williams— Joe Ovies (@joeovies) February 2, 2019
Despite the great result, Tech can't celebrate much. They head home to host fifteenth ranked Louisville in just two days, again without their senior point guard. Each game going forward with Robinson is a walking boot is going to be a struggle, and not all of them will end up as 20 point wins.
But this one? It was the prettiest ugly game I've ever seen.
"We might stop and get some ice cream." — Buzz 💀💀— Joe Ovies (@joeovies) February 2, 2019
FWIW, NC State football had 24+ in 21 of its last 25 games.— I'm David Hale? (@ADavidHaleJoint) February 2, 2019
So, #Hokies men's basketball game notes are incorrect. The last time Tech gave up less than 30 points was Jan. 9, 1959 in a 105-24 win over Washington & Lee...NOT Feb. 1, 1946 in Tech's 31-25 win against Richmond, as the notes indicated.— Norm Wood (@normwood) February 2, 2019
Let's talk about the path without Justin Robinson
This is usually a place where I put notes about the best or worst things from the game, but I think it's much more important to discuss life without Justin Robinson in realistic terms. The Hokies are no longer the fourth best team in the ACC, not without the most impactful player in the history of the program.
But that doesn't mean things will completely fall apart. Opponents won't always shoot 16% like the Pack did in Raleigh, but there's a pretty clear game plan that Tech needs to follow moving forward.
Step One: Play balls-to-the-wall defense at all times
That means Blackshear hedging high. Surprise twists to cause turnovers (the Hokies doubled the ball handler off a screen way more than they have before, expect to see more little wrinkles like this every game). Chasing shooters off the line, even if it means it leaves Tech open to a drive. They simply can't play conservatively, they need to use their defense to make deeper teams uncomfortable.
Step Two: Play point guard by committee
Nickeil is great. He's a good scorer, good defender, good ball handler. He can initiate the offense almost as well as Robinson. But asking him to completely fill a point guard's role is both asking too much, and it takes away the things he can do off-ball after the defense breaks down.
I wonder if Williams noticed that after the early turnover issues, because they switched to an attack that flowed through anyone on the floor. At times it was NAW, other times Bede or Hill. But Blackshear, Ty Outlaw, and even Isaiah Wilkins took a turn initiating offense and keeping the ball moving.
After the brutal start, Tech scored 42 points in 15 minutes. Again, that's not ideal, and they won't always (or ever again) face a team that played as poorly as the Pack did, but their attack won't completely break down.
(Side note: I was especially impressed by the way Tech frequently broke down the press. Alexander-Walker, Bede, Hill, and Blackshear all worked together to move the ball and not fall victim to the traps Keatts and company tried to spring on them. Hill's handle is too loose to move in tight spaces, but his speed is tough for anyone to handle.)
Step Three: Get great performances from "the other guys"
Alexander-Walker, Bede, and Hill all played 40 minutes. Be prepared to see those numbers all the time, barring foul trouble. Blackshear was able to get some rest, and seems at his best when he can sit for about six minutes a game. But the reason he was able to, was because of very solid minutes from both Outlaw (who didn't hit a shot, but rebounded well and played physical defense) and Isaiah Wilkins.
I said Wilkins wasn't ready for ACC play early in the year, but this was his best game of 2019. He's now strung together three solid games in a row, showing the same kind of improvement he's displayed since stepping on campus. If he can provide 15-18 solid minutes, it can be the difference in weathering a bad outing from one of the stars.
For instance today, we got a poor shooting performance from Hill (3-13, 1-7 from three), but it was mitigated by Wilkins and Bede (who hit three of his four attempts from behind the arc).
All is not lost without Robinson, but the ceiling is lower. With 18 wins already, Tech needs to win two of their final nine to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament. That will probably happen, unless more injuries strike. But let's look at the remaining schedule, grouped by likelihood of a win.
Yes it's at home, but...no:
2/18 vs #4 Virginia
2/26 vs #2 Duke
I love the Hokies. I believe in Buzz. But as currently constructed, without Robinson, it would take a miracle to win either of these.
I mean, anything can happen:
2/4 vs #15 Louisville
3/5 @ #25 Florida State
Louisville on such a tight turnaround will be tough, but it's in a sold out Cassell (where the Hokies haven't lost yet). Could they win off pure adrenaline? Maybe. FSU is tough on the road, but a win there isn't out of the question.
Road games against bad teams
2/9 @ Clemson
2/16 @ Pittsburgh
2/23 @ Notre Dame
These could all be wins, but games on the road are tough. Clemson will be the biggest challenge, but I wouldn't be surprised to see if the Hokies dropped two of these three (but they could just as easily win them all).
Food for Cassell
2/13 vs Georgia Tech
3/8 vs Miami
Even without Robinson, Tech should be able to win both of these.
It's not an easy schedule, but all things considered it could be worse. Things won't always shake out as well as they did in Raleigh, but if he can come back by mid-March, Buzzketball's tournament ambitions remain in reach.