There's nothing better to summarize the Virginia Tech men's basketball team's disheartening 84-75 loss to Miami than this:
With nine minutes left in the first half and his team down 14, Buzz Williams pulled star big man Kerry Blackshear in favor of rarely-used freshman P.J. Horne. He wasn't injured, he didn't have foul trouble, he wasn't sick. But the head coach proceeded to keep his junior forward stapled to a seat on the bench for the rest of the half.
And for the beginning of the second half.
And still after the under 16 timeout. And the under 12. And the 10 minute mark. And finally, with 9:02 left in regulation, Blackshear checked back in. Why the extended benching?
Williams isn't one to mince words, and if asked about his team's performance against the Hurricanes, I bet he'd give a similar analysis. This isn't to say Blackshear's two point, one rebound performance is the reason behind Tech's flat tire of a first half, but it is indicative of the bigger overall problem.
The Hokies combined poor defense with atrocious shot selection to dig themselves a hole nearly impossible to climb out of. Miami continuously lead by double digits before intermission, the cushion yo-yoing between 12 and 16 points as Tech couldn't get it together.
The infuriating part? They played really well after halftime.
Buzz's bunch protected the ball and forced turnovers, they played harder on defense, forcing more difficult and contested shots, and they didn't settle for bad jumpers like they did early on. If it wasn't for such an impossible deficit due to lack of effort from the jump, this was winnable.
"We didn't turn it over at a high rate today," Williams said. "We just took too many average-at- best shots, particularly early."
"We were trying to, trying to defend their 3s," said Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga. "They were very explosive from the 3-point line and have so many different guys who can make them and get it going. Then it kind of snow balls with one guy making one and then two or three guys start making them. I think Justin Robinson is maybe the hardest point guard in the league to guard."
With 22 points Robinson nearly willed his squad back into the lead. The junior point guard was the architect of a frantic run that pulled the Hokies to within three. Justin Bibbs left his standard three-point shooting barrage behind and consistently got to the rim. Freshman Nickeil Alexander-Walker continued his upswing with 15 points and used his crazy wingspan to alter jumpers.
It was a disappointing way to break a three game win streak, particularly with the last two victories coming on the road. Tech played their way back into the NCAA Tournament bubble, with multiple chances in Cassell Coliseum to impress the selection committee. And beating an opponent with a sure-fire bid would further solidify the Hokies' status among the 68.
But now, with just a month until the ACC Tournament, Williams and company face a tough task. They play three teams with an RPI in the top ten (Virginia, Clemson, Duke twice), another squad on the bubble (NC State), and the Hurricanes in Coral Gables at the end of the year.
The schedule provides multiple chances for the Hokies to prove themselves. But if they come out as flat as they did on Saturday, Tech also has multiple chances to make the wrong kind of impression.
A few quick thoughts
And despite struggling from the free throw line, Horne provided energy on the glass and on the defensive end the rest of his teammates lacked.
"P.J. doesn't always look like he fits," Williams said, "but when you watch him play, see how hard he plays and how intense his heart is beating, you know how much he cares. He played 23 minutes and him and Chris [Clarke] were the only ones who had offensive rebounds. I thought he was very efficient."
He doesn't space the floor, but Horne provides the kind of hustle reminiscent of Zach LeDay. There's something to a guy making up for his size (he's 6'5") by simply trying harder than the other bigs on the floor. It's something LeDay combined with his renowned mean streak to astounding success. It should be interesting to see if Horne gets more run moving forward.
Something I'm thinking about: can Horne play as a second big alongside Blackshear? With KJ's ability to space the floor, Horne could stay closer to the hoop to crash the offensive glass. It negates Tech's advantages when Clarke takes them to hyperdrive, but it could help against teams with serious size (like Duke).
Before we go, let's look at a few numbers:
Ahmed Hill's three point percentage out-of-conference in 2016-17: 45%.
Ahmed Hill's three point percentage in-conference in 2016-17: 29%.
Ahmed Hill's three point percentage out-of-conference in 2017-18: 51%.
Ahmed Hill's three point percentage in-conference in 2017-18: 32%.
The redshirt junior went 0-6 from the field with some bad misses from behind the arc against the Hurricanes. He went 3-13 against BC, and 3-8 against Notre Dame. I don't know what's going on with him, or if this is just a blip in what's been a very solid season.
But what I do know is that the Hokies need Hill more than they did last year. Buzz can't just whittle his minutes down if he's not hitting shots, which means we'll have to ride a potential wave of questionable shots while Ahmed looks for his groove.