The Virginia Tech men's basketball team put their flaws on full display against Louisville on Saturday afternoon.
The only thing more dumb than the name of the KFC Yum! Center (the Cardinals' arena) were the abundance and types of turnovers committed by the Hokies. They played poor defense. They allowed far too many open threes. And they lost their third ACC game 94-86.
Yet, despite all of their mistakes, Tech had a chance to win for the first 38 minutes and 45 seconds. They traded baskets (and giveaways) with the Cardinals, in a fun back-and-forth affair that was both exciting and allergic to defense.
But as Louisville began to pull away, Tech desperately needed a stop. And down six, with just under 90 seconds to go, Nickeil Alexander-Walker came away with a steal. He hit Justin Robinson, who was screaming up the court.
At the moment of the catch, the junior point guard had hit the Hokies' last three field goals. Even with a teammate streaking alongside him, there was no doubt who'd take the shot to cut it to four.
The crowd at the Yum! Center knew it.
The entire ESPN2 viewership knew it.
And Deng Adel knew it.
The Louisville guard lead all scorers with 27 points. He lead his team with 11 rebounds. And he lead all players with one game-altering block.
Chasing Robinson down, Adel took two gargantuan steps from the free throw line, lept, and blocked the layup from behind. The clock read 1:15, but it could've just blinked double zeros.
It's a shame for the Hokies, who despite all their mistakes could have (or should have) secured their second straight road win. Though they suffered from a massive size disadvantage, Buzz Williams' squad attacked the rim furiously.
Robinson scored 23, primarily from lightning quick drives. Chris Clarke held court in the post, lead the team in assists (five), and was the primary playmaker on the night. Kerry Blackshear and Kerry Blackshear's footwork consistently bested the Cardinals' shot blockers, scoring 19 and getting to the line 10 times.
But for every positive (there were many), there was at least one negative (again, many). The Hokies turned the ball over 19 times. Some of them on offensive fouls (mostly excusable), some of them on travels (mostly inexcusable), and some of them on a collection of the worst/laziest/riskiest passes of the season (self explanatory). They allowed Louisville—the 250th best three point shooting team in the country—to hit 57% of their shots from deep. They gave up 11 offensive rebounds.
"We always say the same thing," Williams said in his post-game press conference. "It's our turnover rate and it's the opponent's offensive rebounding percentage, those are our Achilles heels. Obviously when we get a shot, we're pretty good. We shot close to 50 percent. We made 18 free throws, that's really good. We didn't get completely hammered on the glass, but that's still an issue. I don't know. I need to do better. I need to do better. We're not an 11-to-19 assist-to-turnover team."
It's the kind of yo-yoing that Hokie fans will have to brace for over the next two months. Don't let the Syracuse and UVA games taint you, Buzz's bunch has the talent to run with anyone. Their seven-man rotation (Robinson, Clarke, Alexander-Walker, Bibbs, Hill, Blackshear, Bede/Wilson) is tough to guard.
But it's the games like this that'll be the difference between an NCAA Tournament bid and a mildly entertaining jaunt in the NIT. This wasn't like the trip to the Yum! Center last year, where Tech was kept alive by an insane shooting streak from Ty Outlaw and were ultimately put down by a more talented opponent.
The Hokies showed that they're good enough to run with the Cardinals. They're good enough to go to Tallahassee, Coral Gables, or Chapel Hill, and win. But it's not just about talent. It's also about not making an insurmountable amount of mistakes. It's about playing well enough for a full 40 minutes, not just the first 38:45.
The Hokies have a full week off before two crucial matchups. First, they welcome Florida State to Cassell Coliseum next Saturday. And just two days later?
Such is the life of an ACC schedule.
"I'm just demented," Williams said. "That's why I tried really hard to get the Virginia Tech job. I think it's the best league in the world, other than the NBA. I don't think that there's a night off. Hall of Fame coaches, the most NBA prospects, incredible home courts - playing here- what a great atmosphere this is."
Asking for a win between the two games isn't too much. But if the Hokies can't hide their flaws, it's a very tall task. Luckily, they have the right man to lead the way.
A few quick thoughts
There was a lot of talk on Twitter during the first half about Tech's perimeter defense, and how they can give up so many threes.
Admittingly, it was infuriating to watch the Cardinals shoot 8-14 from deep during the first twenty minutes. But not every three is created equal. Adel shot 30% from behind the arc coming into the game, yet hit three triples in a four minute stretch. If you're a coach creating a game plan, you give Adel those looks.
But, in the same vein, you can't just say "well Louisville is a bad shooting team, so we'll give them open looks to protect the paint." Just because a team shoots poorly doesn't mean you don't have to close out on shots. It doesn't mean that your hands shouldn't be up when their best shooter rises and fires from 22 feet. Even bad shooters hit their wide open, uncontested shots in practice.
Clarke is the most mind-boggling player I've ever seen play for Tech.
He can be amazing with the ball in his hands, isolating or as the playmaker in the pick-and-roll. He's great in the open court, and throws the most beautiful full-court bounce passes this side of Russell Westbrook. He also leads the team in turnover percentage, giving the ball away 24.4 out of 100 possessions. HE TURNS IT OVER A QUARTER OF THE TIME HE TOUCHES IT.
He does a great job making plays on defense, flying around to get in passing lanes. He crashes the boards extremely well, especially for a 6'5" shooting guard who plays power forward. But he also loses his man off-ball, and tends to (seemingly) freelance too much.
He's great. He one of the big reasons why the Hokies are so hard to guard. But he also commits more dumbfounding giveaways than anyone else on the roster.
And finally, I hate typing exclamation points in articles. Typing Yum! Center even once makes me want to stab something. I don't care that Yum! Center sounds dumb, but can we at least take the ! out of the name?