Virginia Tech went 1-1 at home last week. Tech dropped a disappointing game against Miami, but bounced back to beat N.C. State. Tech sits at 16-7 (6-5) with seven regular season games remaining.
There's no rest for the weary though. The Hokies travel to No. 2 Virginia and No. 9 Duke over a 5-day span.
Virginia Tech 75–Miami 84
How not playing defense will make it really hard to win, my column.
Virginia Tech played one of their worst halves of basketball this season to open the game. Miami scored 44 points on 60% shooting (including 6 for 9 from deep). The 12-point halftime deficit matched the largest the Hokies faced in conference play all season.
And yet, even with the lead ballooning as large as 16, the Hokies fought back and were on the cusp of taking the advantage. An 8-0 run capped by a Justin Robinson dunk cut the score to 66-63, and it seemed like the Hokies were about to pull off a huge comeback win.
Instead, star freshman Lonnie Walker IV scored 5 straight points to widen the gap back up, and the Hokies never got the game back to a one-possession affair. As Brian said in this post-game recap,.
"If it wasn't for such an impossible deficit due to lack of effort from the jump, this was winnable."
The two main storylines for me from this game were the benching of Kerry Blackshear Jr. and the pure grit of Justin Robinson. Blackshear Jr. only played 15 minutes and contributed just 2 total points. When asked after the game, Buzz Williams offered a simple explanation.
"I just didn't think he played hard."
Hokie fans love how intense Williams is as a coach, and sometimes the consequence of Williams' style means Tech's best player rides the bench for a game.
Meanwhile, Robinson single-handedly almost won the game for the Hokies. Of the final 14 Tech points, Robinson had 12. His energy and unwillingness to fold showed leadership. Following last season, it was unknown who would step up and fill that role after the departure of Seth Allen. Robinson demonstrated he's that guy.
This loss hurts because of all the normal reasons: Home loss, feels like Tech could've won, a stain on the tournament resume. But for me, I look at the bright side. If the Hokies can actually play a full 40 minutes, they'll have a chance to steal a quality road win in the last game of the season against the same Miami team.
Virginia Tech 85–NC State 75
Miami game: Worst defense of the entire season.
N.C. State game: Best defense of the entire season.
Defense would obviously be a focus when Devin Wilson was announced as a starter. Wilson is arguably the best defender on the squad, and it was a clear signal.
"It's kind of that message where he [Williams] knows that when he gives someone an opportunity, you kind of already know that message that he's putting you in for a reason," said Wilson after the game. "I thought my reason was to, you know, be that spark plug, be that defensive guy."
And it worked. Wilson came out, was disruptive on the defensive end, and contributed some layups as a nice bonus.
On the offensive side of the ball, the obvious bright spot was, yet again, Robinson. A career-high 32 points seemed easy for the point guard. And in reality, he could've racked up 40-or-more.
"I missed three bunnies at the rim, layups, and then I missed six free throws. So, when you add that up, it's over 40," explained Robinson.
For all the non-math majors (me), if Robinson hits all those shots and free throws he mentioned, he finishes with 44 points. That easily sets the Tech record for scoring in an ACC game, a record currently held by Malcolm Delaney's 37-point performance against Clemson in 2009.
February 10: Virginia Tech at No. 2 Virginia
The setting in Charlottesville for Virginia on Saturday: College Gameday. Opportunity to be No. 1. Rivalry game. 12-0 in the ACC.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say Virginia is going to be prepared for the matchup. On the flip side, being ready won't be enough for the Hokies.
The 'Hoos traveled to Blacksburg and blew the Hokies out by 26. And let's be honest, the Cavaliers have improved since then. To keep the final score within single digits would be a win for the Hokies.
If you've been living under a rock or just don't want to admit it (it's okay, I try to ignore it too), Virginia's defense is probably at an all-time high in terms of potency. In their recent win at Florida State, the 'Hoos didn't allow a Seminole made field goal for the final 9:01. They're the No. 1 team in the Pomeroy, RPI, and Sagarin ratings. They allow 52.4 points per game, and hold their opponent to 37.5% from the field. Oh, and they have a +5 turnover margin, and commit the 5th least amount of fouls.
There's no way around it. UVA is currently the best team in the country. They will absolutely deserve the No. 1 human ranking they'll get if they win on Saturday. It's going to take a complete 40 minutes from the Hokies, and also an off night from UVA, to pull the upset.
Williams and his coaching staff have to figure out how they want to approach the game. UVA's pace will win. That's a given. Do the Hokies want to at least try and push the ball up the floor some, or do they need to figure out how to play a half-court game for 40 minutes? There's one thing for certain. Tech can't run whatever makeshift press they used against UVA in early January. The 'Hoos tore that up.
February 14: Virginia Tech at No. 9 Duke
You know what's more fun than one road game at one of the nation's elite? Another one of them right after that!
Duke inexplicably lost to St. Johns earlier this week, and compounded the issue by losing to North Carolina on Thursday night. Between now and the contest with the Hokies, they'll play at Georgia Tech. I expect a very pissed off Duke team in Cameron on Wednesday night.
So who will the Hokies have to match up against? Some pretty good players, to be modest. Here's the starting five.
Marvin Bagley III could be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. He's a 6'11"
rebound double-double machine, averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds per game. Oh, and he's 16 months younger than me. His best game was a 32-point, 21-rebound effort against Florida State. Remember how outsized the Hokies were when they played Florida State? Yeah. Consider that while I rattle these players off.
Wendell Carter Jr. is probably the best player that nobody is talking about in the country. Standing at 6'10", he is basically averaging a double-double as well (14.5 points and 9.6 rebounds per game). And he also has 48 blocks this season, twice as many as Bagley III. In the same aforementioned game against Florida State, Carter Jr. had a stat line of 14 points/16 rebounds.
Gary Trent Jr. is another freshman. He's a sharpshooter, with his three-point percentage hovering around 45%. He's only 6'6" and averages 14 points and 4 assists per game. Trent Jr. averages the second most minutes a game, with only Grayson Allen playing more. Speaking of...
Grayson Allen is a household name by now, and I don't think he stumbled into that notoriety. He's the senior (thank goodness) leader of the team, and is averaging 14 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists a game. He's a very steady player, just not one to break out and score 30.
Trevon Duval is one of the best rebounding players for Duke, and he's a 6'3", 186-pound shooting guard. He's snagging 6 rebounds a game and also contributing 11 points each time out.
Yeah but Henry, surely they rotate out and the Hokies don't have to worry about them for the entire game right?
Wrong. Coach K didn't sub ONCE in the second-half against UVA.
Nobody is expecting Buzzketball to win either of these games. If the Hokies are still above .500 in the ACC at this time next week, it will be a gigantic lift for Virginia Tech's tournament hopes.