The summer of 2000 was really rough for me.
The girl I had a crush on moved away. To Australia. Nothing says death to young love more than moving across the world in the days before Facebook. She and her family could have boarded the Lost plane and crashed on a haunted island, and I'd still have no idea.
Not only that, but my buddies started to get growth spurts. I'm still close with my two best friends from childhood, I lived with one of them this summer, they'll both be groomsmen in my wedding, we try to hang out any chance we can. But when we all stand together, you'll notice one thing.
One of them is a stout 6'4". The other is a giraffe-like 6'3". Me? I'm a scrappy 5'11" (or 6'0" if you ask the DMV).
Being shorter than your friends isn't a big deal, but it led my third grade self to one horrifying discovery. Tall children become tall adults, and if you don't grow, you can't play in the NBA. Nine years old, and my dream of becoming a professional basketball player was already dead.
Not only was 2000 the summer of heartbreak, it was also nerve wracking when it came to school. You see, the jump from third to fourth grade doesn't seem like a big deal, but there's one large change. The grading scale shifts from "Excellent", "Satisfactory", or "Needs Improvement", to the standard A-F metric you'll see for the rest of your academic life. Gone were the days of "hey, my teacher says I'm good at math", and in came a legitimate mark that could fall on your permanent record.
(Side note: why, as kids, were we so obsessed with the idea of permanent records? Like the government keeps tabs on everything we do from the moment of birth until the moment of death, all being monitored by some guy in a dark room. Permanent records, quicksand, and dinosaurs coming back to life to rule the world. Three things that all seemed like serious threats to my life in June of 2000, but turned out to be nothing.)
(Side, side note: Three things that turned out to be nothing...so far.)
I couldn't stop thinking that anything that happened before, everything from kindergarten to third grade, mattered slightly less. How could it be important if it's graded on a completely different scale?
But when I expressed my concerns to my parents, they gave me one piece of advice. Nothing's changed. You still take the same classes at the same school, you'll get the same report cards at the same times of year, there'll just be different letters in the boxes. And everything you've learned before, you'll use moving forward. It all matters, even if it's graded differently.
And that, my friends, is how you transition into talking about the Virginia Tech men's basketball team. Who leave behind the non-conference schedule to take on the meat of their season against the rest of the ACC.
What they did in November and December matters. They way they ran Iowa into the ground during the second half of their ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchup matters. Their comeback against Ole Miss matters. Falling apart in Lexington, disappointing against Saint Louis in Madison Square Garden, looking like crap against Presbyterian. It all matters.
But, it's all less important than what's to come. If the Hokies win four games over the next two months, who cares if they almost beat Kentucky on the road? This is where the team will make their case for being an NCAA Tournament contender, and possibly a threat to be reckoned with in the best basketball conference in the country.
But before we all dive head first into ACC play, let's look back at how Buzzketball got here. And because we're not into the meat of the schedule yet, we'll grade the team on the Coventry Elementary School third grade scale. We'll look at where they've been excellent, where they've been satisfactory, and where they need improvement.
For the most part, the Hokies have been a really good basketball team over the last two months. In my eyes, the coolest thing about them is that they have a single identity, and you know exactly what they're trying to do every time they take the floor.
The Hokies want to run, but not with the kind of frenetic pace you see elsewhere. They want to shoot threes, but not rely on them (the Syracuse game being a depressing exception). They want to get to the free throw line, but without any single player hogging possession. And they do a great job in all three areas.
They're currently 62nd in the country in pace of play, averaging 74 possessions a game. Again, that's fast, but not rushed. Their halfcourt stuff can take some time off the clock, but they look to run in transition any chance they can.
Look at poor Washington. The Huskies miss a shot, and before anyone knows it, Ahmed Hill flies down the floor and picks up a three-point play. Tech can be so good at creating a transition opportunity off a standard defensive possession and turning it into a layup or free throws.
Which gets to the next point. There's a point guard renaissance in the NBA right now. The position is (over)loaded with talent—most of the bad teams have a good one, and the best teams have more than one—and even guys who don't look like a traditional lead guard can still act as a secondary ball handler. The Warriors have Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green. The Rockets have James Harden, Chris Paul, and Eric Gordon. The Celtics have Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier. The Cavaliers have LeBron James, LeBron James, and LeBron James.
When you look at the Hokies, they have multiple guys who can make plays on offense, and are at their most dangerous when they have more than one on the floor at once. They may not all look like they fit the prototypical one spot, but their presence on the court together makes Tech extremely difficult to guard for stretches.
Be it Hill grabbing a rebound and sprinting the other way, Nickeil Alexander-Walker driving and kicking, or Chris Clarke reading defenses like a book, the ability for Hokies not named Justin Robinson to create offense is plentiful. (We will, however, get to the actual point guard position in a later section).
All of those bright basketball minds combine to do one thing really, really well:
They find open shooters with ease. And that manifests itself in the single most impressive stat of this young season. The Hokies are second in the entire country in effective field goal percentage. eFG% is the best way to measure a team's shooting ability, because it accounts for a made three counting more than a made two. Robinson, Alexander-Walker, Hill, and Justin Bibbs all shoot above 40 percent from behind the arc, and can turn around a deficit in a hurry.
That shooting will keep them in almost every game the rest of the way, but it overshadows the most important team stat. Tech ranks eighth in the country in free throw rate (.336), meaning that Buzz's bunch gets to the line 33 times for every 100 shots from the field.
And the best part? They're making them. The Hokies shoot a cool 74% from the line, which isn't great, but it's still the highest percentage of Williams' tenure. Much of that is due to the soft touch of Kerry Blackshear Jr, whose assertion and aggressiveness in the post makes him look like a completely different player than the one we saw two years ago.
Blackshear is maybe the most important player on the roster, and has been largely great. He has eight double-digit games, was the go-to guy down the stretch in Oxford, and was the best player in maroon against Kentucky. His health and ability to avoid foul trouble will be the difference between Virginia Tech: Bubble Team and Virginia Tech: Six Seed.
Shooting well and getting to the line aren't team priorities by accident. In the world of basketball analytics, there's a theory called the "Four Factors of Basketball Success." The short summary of the idea is that to win, teams need to do four things (or eight, if you flip each around to equally account for defense): shoot well (eFG%), get to the line (FT rate), rebound, and protect the ball (turnover rate). Is it any surprise that the Hokies do two of the four at a what seems like an intentionally high rate?
The turnovers are bad, but, not all of them are alike. Because while the team gives the ball away far too often, some of those are excusable in the bigger picture of what they mean. For instance, it seems like Blackshear is called for taking an extra step in the post once a game.
It's annoying, but he hasn't slowed his aggression. Why? Because both he and Buzz have faith in his footwork and his ability to be nimble around the basket. Sometimes it can result in a misstep and a travel. But it often results in a bucket. And sometimes it results in a highlight.
That's a 6'10" center taking a defender off the bounce, believing in both his footwork and his handle to make the play. If an occasional walk is the flip side to a bevy of excellent plays from KJ, I'll take it every time.
The same goes with every Clarke fast break where he's out of control and accidentally dribbles the ball over his head. The way he gets out and runs leads to a number of transition chances. It also leads to turnovers. It's not great, but the good outweighs the bad.
Speaking of the positives outnumbering the negatives, is anyone else surprised at how slightly-above-average the defense has been?
Don't get me wrong, it's not good. And they have halves that have been downright awful—the first halves against Ole Miss and Iowa, second half at Kentucky, the entire game vs Saint Louis. They do a lot of switching and helping, which can cause problems for their opponents. But every screen or double on the post has the potential to go wrong:
Sometimes their rotations are good. Sometimes they're not. But to Buzz's credit, it's gotten a lot better. Before the Cuse game, KenPom had them 57th in adjusted defensive efficiency, which is eighth best in the ACC. They're 47th in eFG% allowed and 54th in opposing free throw rate, neither of which is great, but is good enough when paired with an offense of this caliber.
I'm not going to get too excited, because they've still only played five non-cupcakes out of 13 games. How much will a consistent stream of good teams expose problems we haven't seen yet? Six of KenPom's 30 best offenses reside in the ACC, so the toughests tests are still ahead.
The turnovers need to stop. If you're interested, check out the press conference after Tech's win over North Carolina A&T:
If you skip the four minutes Williams spends on the warpath against Mark Berman (that's another conversation for another time), you hear Hill talk about over-dribbling, while his coach nods rabidly. It's funny to think of a team that can often make too many passes in the halfcourt talk about passing more, but he's right. Too many guys are caught in the open floor and can't make the right decision. It's one of the consequences of creating extra chances to run.
While dumb giveaways may not always come back to haunt them, they're especially damaging against the best defensive teams. Just look at what happened against Syracuse. In an even matchup, Tech's flubs quickly cost them the game. And looking forward, seven of KenPom's best 23 defenses are in-conference. If Tech was blown out by a similarly talented opponent, they'll be devastated against the likes of Virginia, Miami, or North Carolina.
Part of the ball security issues comes in direct conflict with my love of their secondary playmakers on offense. Despite having multiple guys who can break a defense open with the ball in their hands, Williams has no reliable backup to Robinson. Remember when he went down against Saint Louis? For a brief moment, I thought the season was over.
You can see it any time the junior's on the bench. No matter who the coaches throw out there, be it Devin Wilson, Wabissa Bede, Tyrie Jackson, or Clarke, the offense isn't the same. And with the way Buzz subs Robinson, he must see it too.
Just look at the substitution patterns against Kentucky. Robinson was subbed out three times, and was checked back in within 90 seconds of game time twice. And this isn't a slight on Williams' decision. Each time his point guard sat, it felt like the Hokies were white-knuckling their way through the game until he checked back in. In fact, here are the team stats without Robinson on the floor against the Wildcats:
2-5 from the field.
0-1 from three.
(All the while, UK hit four threes over the same stretch. Not great, Bob.)
And I touched on it after the Syracuse loss, but Blackshear is so vital to the team, that any time he's in foul trouble dramatically impacts Tech's chances to win. It's not totally his fault. When a teammate is blown by on defense, Blackshear is often the last line of defense between that guy and the basket. Though he's not a rim protector in the traditional sense, his role as "only guy above 6'5"" dictates that he challenge the oncoming attacker.
But this immediately puts him in a catch-22. Help defending can be god send for the player who loses his man, but it can also be a cheap way for your center to pick up fouls. So does Blackshear meet the guy at the rim and risk a foul, or does he let him score for an easy two points? He's put in this position countless times, and his decisions in these moments are often the difference in whether or not he's disqualified down the stretch.
While I'm not trying to say every call against Blackshear is a do-or-die scenario, do you think it's a coincidence that his fewest minutes played this season (13) was the team's worst performance by far? You can slide down the advanced stats rabbit hole if you want to see exactly how important he is (he leads the team in both PER and plus/minus), but if you don't care about the numbers just use your eyes next time he has to sit for a stretch. The defense can't protect the rim, Wilson and Clarke are relied on way too much on the glass, and there are far fewer easy buckets on offense.
Though the trip up to the Carrier Dome may have disheartened some, the Hokies will be legitimately fun to watch over the next three months. They're fast, they're athletic, and they can bomb away from deep. But the road to March Madness is filled with potholes during the ACC schedule, and every game from here on out is important.
If the Hokies can fix some things over the next few weeks, we'll be talking about about the first back-to-back tournament trip in my lifetime. But if not, we'll know exactly what kept them out.