"If the Hokies can pull out one win during this two-game stretch, it's a success."
That's how I ended my column last week. Virginia Tech did just that and captured their first signature win of the season against North Carolina, 80-69.
It wasn't all rainbows and sunshine though. The former of the pair of games pitted the Hokies against Florida State, a contest that Tech struggled in, and eventually lost 91-82.
Heading into two crucial road games, the Hokies sit at 14-6 (3-4). Buzzketball travels to Notre Dame and then on to fiesty Boston College. It's a key five-day stretch.
Virginia Tech 82–Florida State 91
Frustrating. It's the best way to describe this game.
The loss for the Hokies revolved around two main issues: turnovers and free throws.
The Hokies committed 13 turnovers against the Seminoles. Those giveaways turned into 20 points for FSU — an impressive 1.54 points/turnover. By comparison, the Hokies forced 10 turnovers but only converted them into 8 points — a ratio of .8 points/turnover. If my math is correct, a difference in ratio of .74.
On the free throw front, Tech was uncharacteristically cold. Before the Florida State game, the Hokies were shooting 74% (325 for 439) from the charity stripe. Against the Seminoles, Tech shot just 53.3% (8 for 15).
From my perch on press row, the Hokies always felt one step behind. Whenever Tech made a run, the Seminoles were eager to get to the basket to hit a dagger layup. To further frustrate the home fans, the star of the game for FSU was M.J. Walker — a 5-star recruit that the Hokies missed out on in the 11th hour.
There's not much to say about the game that I didn't write already in my recap. The Seminoles looked like the better team. FSU had the height advantage and capitalized on it in the second half, wearing down the undersized Hokies.
Virginia Tech 80–North Carolina 69
It was crucial for the Hokies to win this game. To further compound the sense of urgency, the Hokies played only 48 hours after their loss to the Seminoles. The high stakes were obvious. Tech hadn't picked up a quality win, and risked starting ACC play with a f 2-5 record. If there was ever going to be a must-win game in January, it was this one.
As I mentioned in my post-game recap, Tech excelled in areas of play that pundits and fans expected for all season. The three-point shooting was up. The turnover rate was down. The rebounding was up. The fouls were down.
The sequence to end the first half made it clear that it was going to be Tech's night from deep. A 15-2 run, including four treys, gave the Hokies a lead they would never relinquish. Those daggers came from unexpected players though. Wabissa Bede, Chris Clarke, Kerry Blackshear Jr., and Justin Robinson. Out of that group, Robinson is the least surprising. The rest of them though, less predictable. Blackshear Jr. and Clarke have been known to knock down a deep shot every now and then, but not consistently. Bede has only hoisted 13 total shots from beyond the arc all season.
That spurt gave every ounce of momentum to the Hokies heading into the locker room. Tech used the Big Mo on Big Monday after the break to push back against every run the Tar Heels made.
Quote of the week
Robinson when asked on whether the team was able to exhale after the UNC game.
"Yeah. For a second. Until 12 o'clock. We felt good. We played hard all game. We got back to our identity as a team, and just played how we know how to play. Just the overall atmosphere as a team, before the game and after, was pretty big as a family."
Play of the Week
This buzzer beater from Robinson created an atmosphere I had never heard in Cassell before. It was loud.
January 27: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame
The Hokies catch a huge break against the Irish. 2017 All-ACC forward and preseason All-American Bonzie Colson is still recovering from a broken foot suffered in early January. Before being sidelined, Colson was easily one of the elite post players in college basketball. He's like a LeDay 3.0. Undersized, scrappy, mentally and physically tough.
Addendum: As I was writing this paragraph, it was announced by head coach Mike Brey that Irish point guard Matt Farrell will be out indefinitely with a bone bruise. Colson and Farrell are the two leading scorers in South Bend.
"Notre Dame, without Bonzie Colson, is No. 1 in the league in offensive rebounding percentage, tied with Florida State and North Carolina, entering today," said Williams after the UNC game. "It's absurd."
The Irish are now seventh in-conference, snagging 11 rebounds a game on the offensive end. Don't let that six spot drop deceive you. It's a gap of just 2.6 rebounds from No. 1 to No. 7.
Tech needs to demonstrate the UNC game wasn't a false positive. The Hokies flashed their potential against the Heels — good shooting, fast pace, better rebounding, less foul trouble. All the things I've mentioned before. But it hasn't been on display in the other ACC games.
Tech has turned the ball over 10+ times in every ACC game except against Pittsburgh (the Panthers are 0-8 in the ACC) and UNC. They've shot under their season average (40%) from deep in five of their seven conference games.
For the Hokies, a quality road win is ripe for the picking. Notre Dame is at No. 30 in the Pomeroy Rating. Buzzketball sits at No. 49. The Irish have struggled after losing their engine (on the) block. The Irish are currently on a four game losing streak. Tech has confidence following their shallacking of the Tar Heels. Hopefully, the perfect storm creates some more lightning.
January 31: Virginia Tech at Boston College
Ah yes. Conte Forum. More like, Can't-Win Forum. Say it quickly with a British accent. It basically sounds the same.
Tech is 3-11 in Chestnut Hill. 3 and 11! However, there's always a silver lining: Two of those three wins have come under Williams. An even better silver lining: Tech has only played in Chestnut Hill twice with Williams as head coach.
The Eagles have been a tough team at home this year. Victories over Florida State and Duke have helped propel BC to a 3-5 ACC record.
Boston College has a week off before the Hokies roll into town. Their last game out is an 18-point loss against Syracuse on January 24.
Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman lead the Eagles again this season, averaging 18 and 16 points per game respectively. Jordan Chatman, the sharpshooter who lit up the Hokies from deep in Cassell last season, returns as well. If you don't remember his performance, let me hurt you again. Chatman made his first nine attempts from deep. He finished the game 9 for 11 from three — setting the record for most threes made against a Tech team. Ever. Chatman is averaging 13 points/game and is a 44% shooter from deep this season.
Road wins don't come easily in the ACC. However, it's entirely possible that the Hokies can string together two Ws away from the Cassell. The amount of confidence and momentum that scenario would provide this squad can not be understated.
Going 1-1 is acceptable — as long as the loss is to Notre Dame. The Irish are still a tournament quality team once Colson and Farrell return, so a loss in South Bend won't hurt the resume too much. A loss to the Eagles would. Boston College is still a couple years out from being an ACC contender. An absolute no-no for the Hokies is an 0-2 road trip. Buzzketball must win one.