Everything about the Virginia Tech men's basketball game against Penn State in the ACC/Big-Ten Challenge sucked.
The television broadcast sucked. The announcers somehow talked too much without saying enough about the game that was happening in front of them. The play-by-play man's insistence that every call the referees made was "the right call" was infuriating, getting to the next point:
The refs sucked. They weren't bad in a way that favored either side, they were just inconsistent. They went to the monitor enough to make the game feel choppy, and were just all over the place so that the players never seemed to get a feel for how things would be called.
The crowd sucked. The Bryce Jordan Center wasn't very full, and the crowd mic sounded like it was latched to the lapel of three screaming students.
Penn State sucked. Well, maybe not sucked, but they weren't fun. They took the air out of the ball, shot a lot of jumpers and bricked many of them.
But, most importantly, Virginia Tech sucked. And lost to the Nittany Lions 63-62.
For a squad as talented as the Hokies, there are a few things that'll trip them up every time. Turnovers, abhorrent defensive rebounding (as opposed to the below average output we usually see), and lazy defense will always lead to a loss, and all three reared their head in State College.
Penn State shot 25-57 from the field, meaning they missed 32 shots. But they then grabbed 14 offensive rebounds, which comes out to grabbing an offensive board on 44 percent of their misses. Even for an undersized team like Tech, that is the definition of abhorrent.
The Hokies went through long dry stretches offensively, which seemed to make them uncomfortable and play outside their system. Both Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker frequently over-dribbled, turned it over, and took a long time to pull the team out of a few tailspins.
Even when Robinson threw his cape on and went into closer mode (something he's really good at), he took a bewildering three—from way beyond NBA range—with eight seconds left down just one. It clanked off the iron, ending Tech's last chance with a deflating thud.
Though Robinson had a chance to steal the game for the Hokies, it would have overshadowed a poor overall performance from the team. The defense often found itself scrambling in rotation, somehow neither closing out on shooter or being close enough to the basket for rebounds.
And while the players didn't have a great night, the bench wasn't far ahead of them. Buzz Williams shortened his rotation dramatically, playing Wabissa Bede just 11 minutes and P.J. Horne only five. The five-man unit of Robinson, Alexander-Walker, Ahmed Hill, Ty Outlaw, and Kerry Blackshear played nearly the entirety of the second half.
And when it came down to it at the end, Williams drew up a two-man action that got Blackshear the ball—18 feet away from the basket, and ended with Robinson's prayer. Buzz and his staff may be great, but that play was not.
The loss isn't a season breaker by any means, and it's less of an upset than it seems. Penn State came into the game 38th in KenPom to the Hokies' 16th, and played Tech very well. But it'll still go in the "bad loss" column when we get to March.
The Hokies have a slew of tune ups ahead of them (Central Connecticut State, VMI, South Carolina State) before meeting Washington in Atlantic City on December 15. Hopefully by then the Hokies have another rotation player they trust (Landers Nolley), and have the stench of this loss far behind them.
A few quick thoughts
Throughout the early part of the season, I've fallen somewhere between having no opinion and dismissive of Outlaw. I've had multiple conversations with Joey where we question the senior's role on the team as a guard who's not quick enough to consistently get open off-ball, struggles with his handle, and doesn't move well laterally.
Yes in theory he would fit into the Chris Clarke roll, but how could he do that if can't do most (if any) of the stuff that made Clarke so special?
But then I heard Buzz's post-game interview with Jon Laaser and Mike Burnop after the win over St. Francis:
"He offensively needs to shoot Buzz shots—which are the type of shots I'd shot if I was playing, that's the shots that Ty needs to shoot. And when Ty can't shoot it, I'm telling him hurry up and get rid of it and let five or Nickeil force help again so they can get it back to him. We need him to be a physical presence. He's pound for pound as strong as we have, and we need him to be in the fight down in there."
The offensive task is obvious (well, as obvious as Williams, the human em-dash, will allow it to be). Outlaw is a great spot up shooter, as we saw tonight. But as we also saw, I think his coaches would prefer him to take 0 dribbles a game.
But his role on defense made me reconsider him a bit as a player. Yes, he's not fast, and will lose a guy if asked to guard someone on-ball for long stretches. But if he simply blocks out and uses his strength rebounding he'll be just as equal a defensive contributor as someone like NAW or Bede. It's a different ask than either of the top flight perimeter defenders have, but equally as important.
I know everyone freaks out about Blackshear's fouls, and it's a relevant concern. But part of the reason Kerry's so important to this team is his role in perimeter defense, specifically hedging on screens. He's always been an average rebounder for his size, and he's not a rim protector, but his nimbleness throws a wrench in an opponent's offensive game plan.
Does it mean he picks up some fouls out there? Yes. But they're not dumb/unnecessary/misguided/whatever word you want to use after he picks up his third foul. They're risky. But they're risky because of what his movement can force down the line, especially as the cluster of athletic-but-undersized guards jumping passing lanes and coming with weak side help.
Buzz knows it's risky, but there's a reason he still uses the strategy. Blackshear will have to be cognizant of his foul situation every night, but an active Kerry means an active defense, and I'll never get angry about that.