The loudest cheer at Cassell Coliseum on Saturday afternoon came during the first media timeout, when Virginia Tech head football coach Brent Pry stepped on to the court and addressed the adoring Hokie faithful.
It was all the crowd had to get excited for on an otherwise forgetful day in Blacksburg.
Such is the current state of the Virginia Tech men's basketball team, as they fell to Wake Forest 80-61 in the ACC opener for both teams. It was the third loss in four games for Tech, who were trounced by a Demon Deacons squad that they beat by 38 points just nine months earlier. While Wake is incrementally improving under second-year head coach Steve Forbes, the Hokies are still searching for an identity.
In analyzing this game, I was frustrated at the frequent miscommunications on defense, surprised by the Deacons' incredible shooting performance, and more than anything, disappointed when I came to the realization that the visitors were simply more talented than the home team. Mike Young gets the most of the talent that he has, but it is an unfortunate reality that the construction of this roster has limited the team's ceiling.
Defensive Gaffes Lead to a Long Afternoon
First and foremost, this was an atrocious defensive performance. Virginia Tech surrendered 132 points per 100 possessions on 63.5% FG shooting, the highest mark allowed by a Power Five team all season. The 61-point offensive output doesn't look good, but it's deflated by how slow the Hokies played: there were only 61 possessions, as Tech ranks 343rd nationally in adjusted tempo. Part of that is Young's coaching style (he's never liked to play fast), but it's also a byproduct of his personnel: Young doesn't trust that he has the athletes to get out in transition, and thus has resorted to making each game a methodical half-court affair. It's worked for the most part, but when things don't go to plan, the end result is what we just saw.
I anticipated Tech would beat Wake because they had superior guards. In hindsight, I underestimated the degree to which the Deacons' length and athleticism would give the Hokies problems. And boy, did it.
To start, Wake's seven-foot center Dallas Walton had a huge impact on both ends of the floor. On the defensive end, he displayed impressive lateral quickness to keep up with Keve Aluma on some of his drives to the rim. Aluma still got his buckets (22 points on 8-16 FG), but it was clear that he was not very comfortable posting up his counterpart. Walton reminds me a lot of Rudy Gobert, not just because of his physical stature but in the way can glide on the court almost effortlessly for a player of his size.
That said, I thought Walton made a bigger impact on the offensive end, where he took advantage of Tech's poor defensive rotations.
On the above pick-and-roll, Cattoor wisely decided to go over the screen, and Aluma came up to trap the ball handler Alondes Williams (#31). Walton (#13) rolled to the hoop, and Williams found him for an easy bucket at the rim. While Justyn Mutts was slow to rotate, there wasn't anything he could do because he had to ensure Jake LaRavia (#0), a skilled three-point shooter, wasn't left open on the perimeter.
Ball screen defense was an issue throughout the game.
On this play late in the second half, the ball handler, Isaiah Mucius (#1), looks for a pick from Walton (#13), who decides instead to slip the screen and finds himself wide open after Aluma traps Mucius on the wing. This time, Mutts does rotate over, but two players guarding one means someone was open, and that was Khadim Sy (#20). He dunked it home to cap off a 17-7 run that effectively iced the game.
I don't know what Aluma was doing here: if he was going to trap, he needed to make himself big and interfere with the passing window. Instead, he hesitates and gets stuck in no-man's land. (When Young talked about "playing with high hands" in the postgame press conference, I suspect this is what he meant.) If Aluma was expecting help from Nahiem Alleyne, then Alleyne should've had a foot in the paint, eyes toward the ball, ready to take away the passing lane (which he had done a good job of on a previous pick-and-roll with Walton). I can't pass judgment because I don't know what the coverage was; in any case, communication is essential to ball screen defense, and it was severely lacking in this game.
This was probably Aluma's worst defensive game of the year. In this next sequence, he decided to help on Cameron Hildreth's (#2) drive, even though Alleyne stayed with him step-for-step, leaping for a wild shot contest and, in doing so, leaving Walton (#13) all by his lonesome under the basket. Credit to Hildreth for making a nice mid-air adjustment and finding Walton for the deuce, but this was not a play that needed to be made.
In an earlier possession, Walton found himself open on the perimeter, and with Aluma rushing to close out, executed a simple shot fake on which the Hokies' forward bit hard, leading to an easy layup. Why Aluma left his feet to guard a center who came in shooting 3-of-16 from three I don't know. He seemed to be overly aggressive the entire afternoon.
Aluma, however, was far from the only Hokie culpable for poor defense. As a unit, Tech struggled to get back in transition. Mutts lost track of cutters multiple times, which led to open layups. Williams took Cattoor to school when Wake got him the ball in isolation. Darius Maddox, who gave the offense a lift with five points in 12 minutes, got bullied on drives to the rim, which certainly isn't surprising given that he still has a very thin frame. I have heard from Tech fans who want to see Maddox get more playing time, though I understand Young's reservations about his defense. Perhaps some concessions will need to happen in the interest of providing a spark offensively.
Die by the Three
I was concerned right off the bat when seven of Tech's first eight possessions ended with a three-point attempt. There was absolutely zero penetration before the first media timeout, at which point Young made some adjustments. He diagrammed lots of screening action to get Aluma the ball in the low post, and there was a lot more cutting to the hoop. I thought the connection between Aluma and Mutts was fantastic; the pair combined for seven field goals in the first half that were assisted by one another, including several well-timed passes on cuts behind Wake's interior defenders.
In the second half, the Deacons were able to shore up those defensive miscues, and the Hokies didn't really have a response. I saw too much standing around and too many careless turnovers. It is clear to me that no one on this team feels confident in slashing to the rim, and the stats back that up: the Hokies attempted 48% of their field goals from behind the arc against Wake, their highest percentage in a game this season.
Storm Murphy's play is troubling. The point guard is averaging 3.0 ppg on 5-of-24 FG shooting against four high-level opponents; this trend cannot continue if the Hokies have any interest in making the NCAA Tournament. When I watch his offensive game, I regrettably get some Wabissa Bede-vibes, where he will drive towards the rim, jump stop in the paint, and then turn around and look for someone to pass to after inevitably getting walled off by a lengthier defender. It is difficult to generate offense when your primary ball handler cannot score off the dribble. An elite scoring point guard makes so much difference; Tech fans were very spoiled watching Justin Robinson carve up defenses at a high-level for two years. Since his departure, the offense hasn't been the same.
While I won't waste time comparing Murphy to Tech point guards of year's past, I will add this: Bede was an elite on-ball defender. In what category is Murphy elite? Defense is certainly not his strong suit — his closeouts aren't very effective at his size and he gets blown by on dribble-drives on a regular basis.
For some reason, Murphy decides to back off at the end, giving Daivien Williamson (#4) space to get off a floater. (Was he looking to draw a foul? Williamson, for that matter, isn't even one of the more physical guards in the ACC. I dread the thought of the Paperboy going head-to-head against Duke's Jeremy Roach or UNC's R.J. Davis.)
We knew coming into the year that Murphy would be a liability on defense. The problem is that his offense hasn't made up for that deficiency, and I seriously question whether he has the physical attributes to succeed in the ACC on a nightly basis. One bad game can be a blip; four games is a trend. The Hokies need more production from the point guard spot.
The Jimmy's and Joe's
As much as it pains me to say it, Wake just has better athletes. You could see it on this beautiful drive from former Hokie Khadim Sy (#20), who took only two long strides from the free throw line to finish off the glass. Virginia Tech does not have a player on their team capable of finishing like this.
While I don't think Wake Forest will shoot 64% from the floor anytime soon, they did everything they could to generate open looks and utilize their superior athleticism. To some degree, you have to create your own luck in sports, and the Deacons certainly did that. They hit contested shots. They finished through contact. In some cases, they finished over multiple defenders.
By contrast, David N'Guessan has provided little for the Hokies off the bench, scoring five points on 2-for-10 shooting over the last four games as his playing time has dissipated. At times, he looks out of control, and seems to possess little touch at the rim. John Ojiako has been displaced from the rotation, presumably because his defense isn't up to par, and I question what role he will have going forward, if any. Sean Pedulla cannot yet be trusted with extended minutes. There is increasingly little depth on this team.
What concerns me the most is that Forbes, in his second year at a largely irrelevant program since 2010, has assembled a roster more athletic, explosive, and skilled than Young has in his third year at Tech. Last week I discussed how Forbes relied heavily on transfers at ETSU, bringing in talented veteran players who were tall and long and could dominate the paint. He has done the exact same thing at Wake, recruiting Williams (Oklahoma), Walton (Colorado), and Sy (Ole Miss) as transfers from Power Five programs, not to mention the talented LaRavia out of Indiana State.
I am not going to spell doom and gloom after a single loss; the nature of college basketball doesn't allow for it. Virginia Tech suffered brutal setbacks at home last year to Penn State and Georgia Tech, and neither derailed the season. But that team had numerous flaws, and so does this iteration of the Hokies. In all honesty, Tech fans need to reset their expectations for what this team is: a well-coached, instinctive, and high-effort group that simply lacks the caliber of athletes necessary to compete at an elite level.
The good news is that many of the mistakes we saw on Saturday are correctable. The bad news is that this team has obvious flaws that are not going to change within the course of a single season. While I consider Young to be an offensive mastermind, he may be starting to figure out what the rest of us have seen with our own eyes: the X's and O's can't beat the Jimmy's and Joe's.