A Marathon, Not a Sprint

Previewing Virginia Tech men's basketball next two games — Maryland and Wake Forest — and how finances have played a role in dragging ACC hoops down.

Hokies point guard Storm Murphy handles the ball against Xavier. [Virginia Tech Athletics]

The Virginia Tech men's basketball team departed Brooklyn last weekend knowing they missed an opportunity to earn a statement win. The Hokies lost by eight to a Memphis team that is surely talented, though perhaps not as much as initially thought, and fell at the buzzer to an Xavier squad that, while formidable in its own right, was missing four key players. It was a disappointing end to a month that began promisingly.

Unlike some sports, however, basketball is a marathon, not a sprint. The lengthy regular season provides teams ample opportunities to work out their kinks early so that they can improve late. No one ever got a ring in November, and though Virginia Tech would have liked to come away from the NIT Season Tip-Off with a victory in hand, they still have multiple chances to earn a marquee non-conference win.

The first of those opportunities begins today.

Preview: Maryland

Maryland has gotten off to a fairly sluggish start this season. The Terrapins are 5-2, having suffered a brutal home loss to George Mason and most recently fell to Louisville 63-55 in the Bahamas Championship on Saturday, a game in which they collapsed down the stretch, scoring eight points in the final seven minutes as they struggled to generate open looks with a lack of perimeter threats. This is a team that had substantial preseason hype, as they were picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten by the league's media and began the season at No. 18 in the KenPom rankings. Since then, they have fallen to 45th, trailing nine opponents in their increasingly stacked conference.

Maryland has had to somewhat remake their roster from last year. They lost talented guard Aaron Wiggins a year early to the NBA Draft, while four-year starter and defensive stalwart Darryl Morsell transferred to Marquette. They did, however, return senior guard Eric Ayala (15.1 ppg), who leads the team in FGA by a comfortable margin and is good for about 35 minutes per game, foul trouble notwithstanding. At the other guard spot is graduate senior Fatts Russell (12.9 ppg), a Rhode Island transfer who is the team's primary distributor and an early candidate for the All-Name Team.

Junior forward Qudus Wahab (10.7 ppg) is the man to watch down low. Wahab spent the previous two seasons at Georgetown where he led the Hoyas to a stunning Big East Tournament championship run. At 6'11, he's an elite defensive rebounder that will alter some shots. Though he has started every game, he only plays about 19 minutes per contest. Wahab was a target of Mike Young's coaching staff in the transfer portal last spring, but decided to take his talents to College Park. I suspect the defense might have been a concern for Young, as Wahab is not exactly fleet of foot; any guard that gets him on the perimeter will blow right by him, and he does not seem to play overly physical nor contest well for a player of his size.

Another talented forward in the rotation is freshman Julian Reese (7.9 ppg), effectively the team's sixth man who will play whenever Wahab isn't. Reese was a four-star recruit from Baltimore and rated as the 60th best overall prospect according to the 247Sports composite. He does all the things Wahab does and will be a challenge to contend with on the offensive glass.

This is not a "prove-it" year for Mark Turgeon in the sense that his job is on the line — Maryland did ink their head coach to an extension through 2026 in April — but it would help to start winning sooner rather than later. The Terps snuck into the NCAA Tournament last year with a 16-13 overall record, but were quickly dispatched by Alabama in the second round. Part of the reason for this was their defense, which, while respectable, took a step back from previous years. Historically, Turgeon teams have excelled at holding offenses to low shooting percentages (his units have ranked top 80 in eFG% defense eight times since 2013, a feat accomplished by only a handful of defensive-minded coaches). However, the Terps fell to 113th in eFG% defense last season, and this year currently sit at 135th. If the season were to end today, that would rank as the highest eFG% allowed for Maryland since Turgeon arrived to College Park in 2012. In particular, their perimeter defense has been weak, as they surrender threes at an above-average rate. Expect Storm Murphy and Hunter Cattoor to capitalize accordingly.

Even so, the Terrapins are struggling more on the offensive end of the court, and the primary reason for that is they cannot shoot. Maryland is connecting on just 28.5% of their three-point attempts, ranking 295th nationally. Ayala has over one-third of the team's triples, and he's barely hit 30% of them. Russell has never been a great long-range shooter, but this year he's a dreadful 4-of-17. When your guards aren't threats from deep, it's going to invariably impact your spacing, which probably explains why Maryland has seen a substantial drop in their 2P%. This team doesn't really shoot threes anyway; with three starters at 6'8 or taller, they are much more comfortable getting inside and drawing fouls.

I think what Maryland is learning is that when you incorporate numerous transfers into your rotation, it takes time to develop chemistry. The same could be said for the Hokies, who are still trying to ameliorate their point guard situation with Murphy having been benched in favor of freshman understudy Sean Pedulla in nearly the final 12 minutes against Xavier. Until Virginia Tech proves they can handle a team with considerable length and size, I will always worry about a matchup like this. The Terrapins are also deadly in transition, and will look for every fast-break opportunity on live-ball turnovers. Still, I like the Hokies' odds simply because they have much better shooters.

With this in mind, expect Maryland to make 15 three-pointers on Wednesday evening.

Preview: Wake Forest

When Steve Forbes took the Wake Forest job in April of 2020, he certainly knew that he was partaking in one of the biggest rebuilds in high-major basketball. Since 2010, Wake Forest does not have an NCAA Tournament win, nor a winning season in conference play. Their lone appearance in the Big Dance came in 2017, and it ended in Dayton about as quickly as it started.

Last season, when Forbes took over for Danny Manning, the bottom dropped out on Wake. The Deacons won just three conference games and plummeted to No. 175 in KenPom, the lowest rating among all major-conference teams. I do believe that Forbes was a fantastic hire, given the remarkable job he did at East Tennessee State: in five seasons with the Buccaneers, Forbes won 79% of his conference games and two SoCon Tournament titles, all while building ETSU into a mid-major powerhouse.

Having watched Forbes' teams at ETSU, they were very much oriented towards inside shooting. Not once in Forbes' five seasons in Johnson City did the Buccaneers rank outside the top 70 in eFG%. They bucked a recent trend and did not accomplish this by shooting many threes; instead, Forbes invested heavily into the transfer market to recruit athletic guards and talented bigs who could score in the paint. ETSU frequently had large roster turnover year-to-year (as an example, their 2019 team had just three non-transfers in their 10-man rotation), but they overwhelmed teams with sheer talent and size. How could those poor SoCon defenders stop a talented seven-footer like Lucas N'Guessan? (Before you ask: yes, they are brothers. Now that I think about it, we should just rename the SoCon the "ACC Development League".) The point is this: if Forbes can continue cashing in on the transfer portal, Wake will be competitive soon enough.

That said, the rebuild in Winston-Salem will take some time. Spearheading that project is graduate senior guard Alondes Williams (19.5 ppg), who transferred in (surprise!) after two years at Oklahoma. He began last season as a starter for the Sooners, but missed two weeks due to COVID issues and never got back in the starting lineup. The increased playing time with the Deacons has allowed Williams to blossom both as a scorer and a passer. He is an incredibly efficient shooter on a high volume of attempts, mostly on two-point FGA, where he is shooting 66%.

The other backcourt fixture is senior Daivien Williamson (14.8 ppg), who came with Forbes from ETSU. Williamson shoots well from everywhere (he has missed just two FTA in 32 tries), but his biggest limitation is his size: at 6'1 and 180 lbs, Williamson struggles to penetrate against longer teams like LSU, and he will not give Tech's guards fits in the way that Memphis and Xavier did.

Another Demon Deacon transfer (of which there are many—such is a prerequisite to reviving a moribund program) is junior forward Jake LaRavia. The former Indiana State Sycamore owns one of the best eFG% in the country (72.1%), and at 6'8 can stretch the floor with his ability to shoot threes. LaRavia has stepped up his game against Power Five competition, scoring 32 points in two games at the Emerald Coast Classic.

One player I also want to focus on is freshman guard Carter Whitt. If you recall, Whitt was a four-star recruit out of New Hampshire that was highly sought after by Virginia Tech. He ultimately chose Wake Forest, and at least for this year, it's probably a decision from which the Hokies will benefit. To put it bluntly, Whitt has had a horrendous season: he's shooting 27% from the floor and has made almost no offensive contributions despite having the third-highest possession rate on the team. His statline against LSU was what we in the basketball meme community call a "Snell": in 12 minutes, he recorded no points, no rebounds, no assists, no steals, and four turnovers.

I'm not trying to pick on the kid, and I know it takes some players time for the light to come on, but I highlight his struggles because I think they play into Tech's favor. In general, I believe guards win games, and Wake Forest just doesn't have the guard play to match up with the Hokies. Williamson is undersized, Whitt is still finding his footing as a college basketball player, and while Williams and his teammates have put up stellar numbers, it should be taken within the context of Wake's lightweight strength of schedule, which ranks 319th among 358 Division I programs. The Demon Deacons have played one great team in LSU, and the result was a 14-point loss. Tech needs to win this game convincingly, and they should.

The Financial Gap

In today's age, success in college athletics is highly correlated to one thing, and that is money. With the ACC-Big Ten Challenge upon us, I thought it would be informative to delve into the fiscal standing of both leagues and how it has impacted performance on the court. In the 2020 fiscal year (the latest numbers I could find), the Big Ten paced all conferences with $770 million in total revenue. The ACC came in fourth at nearly $500 million, trailing the SEC and Pac-12. It's obvious that the ACC is an inferior football conference to both the Big Ten and SEC, with money (primarily from gaudy television contracts) funding their success. I believe that financial discrepancy is now leaking over to basketball, and we have results to back that up.

Historically, the ACC has rested its laurels on being the premiere basketball conference in the country. Duke and North Carolina are two of the biggest sports brands in America, and ACC schools have combined for eight national championships since the turn of the century, more than any other conference. Even so, KenPom's conference rating formula has not tabbed the ACC as the nation's best conference since 2007. Those ratings are designed to evaluate how deep a league is from top to bottom; given that the league has won more national championships than anyone else, you can make a reasonable argument that while the ACC may not have the most quality depth, they have certainly had the most talent at the top.

However, I don't think you can make that argument anymore. The ACC currently has one team (Duke) in the KenPom Top 25. The Big 10 has six; the football-lovin' SEC has seven. Sure, it's early, but this is a trend that has gone on for several years now. What about the actual results on the court? Since 2019-20, the ACC ranks fifth in win percentage against major-conference opponents, trailing the Big East, Big Ten, West Coast, and Big 12. Tournament bids? Again, the ACC is beat, averaging fewer tournament bids per team (0.9) than the Big Ten (1.2) and the Big 12 (1.3) over the past three seasons.

From 1999 to 2008, the ACC won every ACC-Big Ten challenge. Since 2009, the Big Ten has gone 7-2-3 in the duel. When I watch Big Ten basketball, their players certainly pass the eye test — teams like Illinois, Ohio State, and Purdue just look bigger, stronger, and more talented than almost anyone we see in the ACC. (This is to say nothing of the league's tremendous coaches, the likes of which include Tom Izzo, Matt Painter, Brad Underwood, and Juwan Howard.) There is a growing gap between the ACC and its high-major competitors, and it's headed in the wrong direction.

Though Virginia Tech is sitting pretty in relation to their conference peers, the better the ACC is, the better the Hokies will be. I hold this opinion for football just as much as I do for basketball. Yes, playing in a conference with better teams will make it more difficult to win games, but iron sharpens iron. It will elevate you above the surrounding competition, and when you have superior athletes it makes it much easier to win at a high level if you find the right coach.

On Tuesday, it was announced that the ACC had reached an agreement with Xfinity/Comcast to carry the ACC Network. This is a great thing, because it would potentially generate hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue for the league. That money, when distributed to the league's schools, can go to assistant coach salaries, support staff, and the general infrastructure that supports a college athletics program.

You know the old saying: a rising tide lifts all boats.

Comments

You sound like my wife

lol

Onward and upward

Great read - always appreciate your perspective and insight on Tech basketball!
Quick note - Joe Bamisile plays for George Washington, not George Mason.

"That move was slicker than a peeled onion in a bowl of snot." -Mike Burnop

Thanks for the heads up. Too many Georges.

Dang! Bad miss on my part. Thanks for the catch.

VT '21

Whit looked totally lost last year early on as an early enrollee (should have been a HS senior). But watching their games you could see him improve by the minute. Surprising he is struggling this year.

'Its easy to grin, when your ship comes in, and you've got the stock market beat,
but the man worthwhile, is the man who can smile, when his shorts are too tight in the seat'

Don't sleep on Wake, they are much improved this year. This will be a tough ACC opener.

With this in mind, expect Maryland to make 15 three-pointers on Wednesday evening.

This was my exact thought reading this.

Now that I think about it, my exact thought probably wasn't 15 specifically. More just, way above their season average. Glad I was wrong on that one!

All good. I applaud bold predictions. The Hokies do have the 2nd best 3-pt defense in the nation and Maryland shot over 30% from 3 only 3 times in their previous 7 games.

Maryland basketball coach fired. Some week for VT knocking off coaches ey?

Turgeon and the administration "mutually agreed" that he'd step down.

The timing seems really odd, as they won't hire another coach until after the season.