It can feel a bit strange to label a late January game as a "must win" for a team's postseason chances. After all, the ACC is an incredibly deep conference that provides plenty of resume-building opportunities. Yet Saturday night's ACC matchup with Notre Dame had that vibe.
The Irish were without their two most important players, PG Matt Farrell and Preseason ACC Player of the Year Bonzie Colson, giving the Hokies a distinct matchup advantage. Even with Farrell and Colson in the lineup, Tech's athleticism and desire to run would level the playing field somewhat. However, the absence of ND's offensive maestro and their physically dominant — albeit undersized — post guy gave the Hokies an incredible opportunity to earn a vital ACC road win.
The Hokies led by as many as 15 points midway through the second half behind lights out shooting from all over the floor. After an apparent knee injury to Irish wing Rex Pflueger with 14:20 to play, the Hokies looked ready to bury an already thin Notre Dame squad for good. With the Irish looking a bit disheveled on the defensive end, Justin Robinson and Ahmed Hill nailed three-pointers on consecutive possessions to extend the Tech lead to 14. After a TJ Gibbs bucket and a well-timed timeout by Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey, Pflueger returned to the lineup and the Irish looked like an entirely different team from thereon.
The Hokies nailed two more three-pointers on their next two possessions — making it 12 points in 4 trips down the floor — but Notre Dame held serve behind Gibbs and John Mooney. A red hot Tech team suddenly went ice cold from the floor, struggling to find open shots behind the arc and in the paint. The Irish used an 11-1 run over a four minute span to cut the Hokies lead to 3 before a Nickeil Alexander-Walker three-pointer gave Tech some breathing room.
The two teams traded baskets down the stretch, but a plucky Tech team that played the final 4:16 without Kerry Blackshear, Jr. was able to maintain at least a two point cushion throughout. After a missed three by Notre Dame and a crucial Chris Clarke rebound, Buzz Williams called a timeout with 36 seconds to play.
Despite Justin Bibbs' strong shooting night and Robinson's playmaking abilities at the top of the circle, Buzz put the ball in the hands of his most athletic guy to simply go out and make a play. Clarke took his man off the dribble, grabbed his own missed layup and put it back up with a quickness only Clarke has. It was an incredible play that highlighted Clarke's prodigious bounce, but also his instinct to follow his miss and go up quickly with his shot.
Clarke scored the Hokies' final six points in a 30-second span and 10 of the Hokies' last 12 points, helping Tech seal their second win all-time against the Irish and their first since the 1973 NIT. Once again, Clarke was the catalyst for the Hokies. So often he would grab a rebound and immediately turn and look to push the pace against the Irish. While the Hokies were relatively underwhelming in transition on Saturday, finishing with only 6 fast break points, they continued to regularly push the ball. Their transition game was highlighted by this gem from Clarke, yet another example of his freakish athleticism:
Bibbs paced the Hokies with 20 points and 5 assists on 8-10 shooting (4-4 from distance). Clarke chipped in 12 points and 14 rebounds. Robinson added 12 points and 7 assists; KJ finished with 9 points, 3 boards, 3 blocks and 3 steals; and NAW and Hill added 11 and 9 points, respectively. The Hokies went 14-25 from behind the arc (56%), with six players (including KJ) notching at least one triple.
It was a solid win for the Hokies, albeit one that never should have come down to the wire. The Hokies cruised through the first 30 minutes of play, pushing the basketball off of defensive rebounds and looking fluid in their half court sets. But as they've been prone to do this season, they went cold from the floor. They turned the ball over. They struggled to create clean chances. They failed to close out shooters. They picked up chippy fouls.
The good news is that the Hokies held on. The bad news is that they squandered a sizeable lead against a team devoid of scoring options. Though it was frustrating to watch the lead slip away, it was encouraging to watch them grind out the win. It's easy to think that the Hokies would have lost this game if Farrell and/or Colson were healthy. It doesn't matter. College basketball isn't played in a vacuum. The important thing is that the Hokies were able to leave South Bend with a win. What the performance means for the rest of the season (if anything) will reveal itself as the conference schedule plays out.
A Few Quick Thoughts
There has been a lot of discussion this season about the absence of Seth Allen and Zach LeDay. The lack of a true alpha dog on this Hokies team has had, and will likely continue to have, an impact on their ability to withstand offensive droughts and close out tight games. It was clear all night long that the Hokies were considerably more athletic than Mike Brey's depleted squad. So what does Buzz do? He dials up a play for his most explosive player, isolating him at the top of the arc and asking him to beat his man to the rim. Simple as that.
Not only was it a low-risk play call by Buzz — the worst case scenario is Clarke thinks he's "Pistol Pete" Maravich and dribbles the ball off his foot — but it also increases the Hokies' chances at grabbing an offensive rebound. Here's why:
If Tech runs their standard offense with Robinson at the point, they're almost surely going to settle for a mid-range (or deeper) jumper. This essentially isolates Tech's only viable rebounding option (Clarke) against Notre Dame's two bigs (Mooney and Martinas Geben) and increases the chances of a defensive foul, putting a ND player at the free throw line with a chance to tie the game. Typically, mid-range and three-point shots are low-percentage looks, but the Hokies are one of the best distance shooting teams in the country so that increases their odds somewhat. However, I'd be willing to bet Buzz prefers attacking the rim (and potentially earning some free throws) over hoping to find a clean jumper in the 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Clarke succeeded in getting to the rim, missed his layup, didn't get fouled, but used his instincts and hops to put back his miss.
When we compare this year's roster to last year's, the failed emergence of a true closer or alpha is glaring. Here we are in late January and there is considerable worry about Tech's NCAA Tournament chances given the remaining schedule. As strange as it sounds, I would argue this team is more talented than last year's. KJ is an upgrade over freshman Khadim Sy. Without a guy like LeDay, Buzz can trot out a more dynamic lineup that can score from anywhere on the floor and run a team out of the building. And defensively, the team is able to utilize a stronger defensive option alongside Justin Robinson in crunch time, as opposed to the sphincter-tightening pairing of JRob with Seth Allen down the stretch. What made fans feel good about Tech's chances last year were Allen and LeDay and their ability to keep the Hokies alive. Everyone is acutely aware of the glaring hole that guys seem reluctant to jump into. Buzz's decision to play the matchup advantage Saturday night may be his best approach to closing out games, given the present state of the roster.
While the Hokies' tournament chances received a boost with a decent ACC road win (ND's RPI currently sits at #78), there is still a ton of work left to do. The Hokies' remaining schedule includes road trips to UVa, Duke, Miami and a suddenly formidable Boston College team, as well as home games against Louisville, Duke and NC State. You could look at that schedule as an impossible path to 8 or 9 ACC wins. Or you could see a ton of opportunities to earn resume-strengthening wins over top-ranked teams. With one of the worst non-conference records in the country, it will be imperative for the Hokies to win a couple games against their toughest foes if they want any shot at earning a second consecutive invite to the Big Dance.
They took care of business on Saturday to earn an RPI Top 100 road win. They get another crack on Wednesday when they travel up (#73) Boston College.