They won? Yes, the Virginia Tech men's basketball team won a game this weekend, ending their losing streak at ten games. Despite it being their second ACC win, the strain of the last 10 losses made their first win (against Miami in early December) feel like three lifetimes and a thousand Jarell Eddie misses ago. What's worse is that the win was during that random period of conference games before the bulk of ACC play had actually started. While they may count all the same, picking up a conference win between games against Winthrop and VCU took some of the magic away from it.
Let's just not dwell on the negative though.
Virginia Tech 52, Miami 45
It wasn't pretty, which may be the biggest understatement since someone at NBC asked Bob Costas if he needed Visine, but a win's a win. This wasn't a win by accident either, this came from a good plan that James Johnson seems to have pulled out of the Greenberg playbook: he made it ugly. Cursed with a shallow bench and limited rotations, Johnson looked at his team and realized that the only way they could win was by doing two things: letting the opponent beat themselves, and taking the air out of the ball offensively.
Now, by saying that they let their opponent beat themselves, turnovers probably come to mind. And while that may be true for some teams that employ a zone (teams like Syracuse), Tech's MO is much simpler than that. What they are trying to do, it seems, is to simply let their opponents miss shots. And while that sounds incredibly tongue-in-cheek, it is exactly what they are trying to do. The zone is to help teams who, for whatever reason, can't guard their opponent in man-to-man situations regularly. In theory, it encourages the offense to shoot outside shots, ones that if a defense closes on in time are more likely to miss (especially in college). Well, Tech's defenders have been closing out well over the last two games and the opposing teams missed their shots.
Will a team the Hokies face ever shoot as badly as Miami did in the first half of Saturday's game (5 of 27)? Almost definitely not, but remember that Pittsburgh shot 45% from the field in the first half last week, a game that Tech should have won. It's a simple strategy that relies a little bit more on chance than one would like, but it's far and away the best option that they have for the rest of the season.
The defense was helped by an even more boring offense. The plan against Pittsburgh and Miami was to limit the number of offensive possessions by milking as much time off the clock as possible. Tech took their time setting up their offense as the shot clock ticked away. While that obviously limits offensive output, it also limits the amount of time the opponent has the ball, and cuts down on the opportunities for mistakes.
It's no fun to watch, but it helps control the pace of the game. Keeping Tech's young players reigned in with a slower tempo has proven prudent over the last two, close, games. A faster game spearheaded by inexperienced players on the floor lends itself more mistakes and easy points for the other team.
C.J. Barksdale's return helped Tech overcome the absence of Cadarian Raines (flu). Playing with a little extra pep in his step, Barksdale got a few nice buckets while also being very active rebounding on both ends. Someone needs to be a sparkplug for the team inside, and while it can be Raines at times, when he's not shooting fade-away jump hooks, Barksdale is seemingly the best bet for a few nice buckets in the paint. He's even gotten to the point where I'm not Jeff Allen-level terrified every time he puts up a three.
It wasn't great, but this team finally got another win and found a formula that I wished it had used all season. If things keep trending in the direction of the last two games (defensive effort and just enough on offense), I wouldn't be shocked to seem them win another one.
Tech/Virginia: The Rematch
I would be shocked, however, to see them beat UVa. I've watched Virginia on a handful of occasions during ACC play and as much as it pains me to say it, they are just as good as advertised, if not better.
First of all, they play the Tony Bennett Pack-Line defense that will always be suffocating. The Pack-Line is basically the opposite of Shaka Smart's "HAVOC" system at VCU; they just squeeze you like a boa constrictor until you don't have a gasp of air left. The Cavaliers are first in the country in scoring defense, allowing just over 55 points a game, and make it nearly impossible for their opponent to get a good shot off consistently.
The biggest problem with Bennett's previous teams has been that they never had the bench to successfully rotate players. Their guys would wear down, especially with the effort exerted on defense, and their offense would suffer, often resorting to "hero ball" from Mike Scott or Joe Harris. This year, however, it looks like Bennett has the deep bench he needs, bringing a rotation of eight to ten players to Blacksburg. And while they still only score 66 points a game, they're a much bigger threat offensively than I ever remember them being before (and that's with Harris playing fewer minutes). Pulling off the upset would be a huge task for Tech.
Now, if there were only a blueprint as to what the Hokies could do to pull off such an accomplishment. Oh wait, there is. Hokies 47, Cavaliers 45 in what was one of the biggest ulcer-inducing games of the Greenberg tenure. Coming off four consecutive losses, including a shellacking against North Carolina the game before, the Hokies knew what they had to do to win. Keep it ugly and pick their spots. The plan worked, as Virginia only hit one 3-pointer and the duo of Erick Green and Dorenzo Hudson did just enough offensively. The problem with exactly copying the 2012 blueprint is only 6 Wahoos played heavy minutes that game. By the end, no one had the legs to hit a jumper and Tech stole one from a tournament-bound Virginia squad.
If the Hokies want to steal another one, they'll have to follow a similar plan but make sure they do a few things specifically:
- Close out on Joe Harris: The dude can shoot from distance (hitting 43.5% of his shots from downtown), and giving him an open shot via bad rotation or lazy closeout is basically ceding points. Making them with a hand in the face is one thing, getting open looks like it's the 3-point contest is another.
- Hit the defensive glass: A problem with the zone is that it's easy to for a player to lose his box-out assignment. Miami had 15 offensive rebounds on Saturday, a number which would be unacceptable against a team that wasn't colder than Winter Storm Pax. Virginia averages 11 offensive rebounds a game already, but the Hokies must make the most out of every defensive stand they get.
- Someone needs to have a huge game inside: While their depth has improved dramatically over the past two years, Virginia is still a relatively small team, routinely playing three guards at a time. If you could pick out one thing that they occasionally struggle with on defense, it would be an active big man inside. Duke's Amile Jefferson put up a 10 point 15 rebound game in UVA's last loss. Clemson forward K.J. McDaniels' 24 points was the sole reason the Tigers kept the game competitive in a five point loss on Saturday. Big men have found just a little bit of success, especially if they can stretch the floor (as McDaniels can). Enter C.J. Barksdale. Hampered by injuries, Barksdale only played 13 minutes in their first meeting. Things would have been interesting had he been able to play longer, however, because 4 of his 7 points came on jumpers in the first two minutes of the game. If anyone can help Tech's cause the most, there's a good chance that it's going to be C.J.
- Pray someone hits shots: It doesn't matter who, but one of the four other primary scoring threats (Eddie, Emelogu, Raines, or Wilson) need to hit jumpers in order to maintain the space needed to operate inside. While it would be nice to have multiple guys on this list hit their shots at the same time, but I'm just being realistic.
It's going to be tough for Tech, but they are playing much better (if we can call it "better") basketball as of late. I'm just hoping that they go out to Cassell and show that they're still working as hard as ever to salvage what's left of their season. Should we as fans expect any miracles? Probably not, but I'm much less interested in what we expect than what this team expects of themselves. More close grinders like the past two games, no matter how hideous, is a sign of progress. If they can somehow make tonight's game ugly, yet tight, things may be closer to looking up after all.