It was an all-too-familiar script on Sunday afternoon in the Buckeye State. Virginia Tech got off to a poor start, staged a late rally to make things interesting, but with the game in the balance couldn't hit shots to close it out. The end-result was the same: a loss, the Hokies' fourth in their last six games. This time, the Dayton Flyers and their star-studded cast of freshmen defeated Virginia Tech 62-57.
At 7-4, the Hokies are still sitting pretty at No. 37 in the NCAA Net Rankings and No. 33 in KenPom, but their non-conference resume is quite weak, and there is very little time left to correct it. Tech is 2-5 against Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 teams, their best win coming against a reeling Maryland squad that recently parted ways with their head coach. Memphis is not as good as we thought, while Dayton appears to be nothing more than a respectable A-10 team. Irrespective of the result against St. Bonaventure on Friday, Tech has a razor-thin margin for error when they begin the brunt of ACC play on Dec. 22.
Having observed the way in which Tech has manhandled their small-conference competition but struggled to defeat any team with size, it's evident that the Hokies have an athleticism problem, emanating from the point guard position. By no means is Storm Murphy the only culprit in the Hokies' struggles: Nahiem Alleyne played perhaps the worst game of his career against Dayton, with a 1-for-10 shooting performance, a pair of turnovers, and lazy defense. Hunter Cattoor seems less efficient as a full-time starter, while Darius Maddox is still growing into his game. However, a good point guard is like a good quarterback: you can win or lose games without one, but having a good one makes everything easier. Sadly, there is very little that comes easy with Tech's offense.
Quarterback of the Offense
Hokie fans were understandably excited when Storm Murphy announced his decision to transfer to Tech. In came a veteran point guard who had not only played under Mike Young for two years, but performed at a high level. He could distribute the ball, finish at the rim, and shoot threes, providing an adequate scoring threat at point guard which would accelerate Young's motion offense into top gear.
However, the production has not lived up to the hype. In 11 games with the Hokies, Murphy is averaging 7.4 ppg while shooting a career-low 43% from the floor. His assist rate and usage rate are down by nearly 10 percentage points. Box Plus/Minus, an all-encompassing stat that estimates how many points a player contributes per 100 possessions, gives Murphy a rating of -0.9, the worst mark since his freshman year at Wofford. One of Murphy's biggest strengths — his ability to shoot threes — has been negated, as he is shooting just 34% from behind the arc on three fewer attempts per game compared to last season. He has effectively been a net negative while on the court.
When I observe Murphy's game, I see a crisis of confidence. He appears much more hesitant to shoot the ball compared to his Wofford days, presumably because he is facing longer defenders who can close out better. More so, opposing teams have applied smothering on-ball pressure on him for 30 minutes a night, making every one of his frontcourt advancements a perilous adventure. This would take a physical and mental toll on any player, much less a six-foot guard who is still getting used to playing at the highest level of college basketball.
One thing I worry about is the cumulative effect of the amount of time Tech guards spend beating the press.
In this early first-half possession against Dayton, Murphy faces a double-team in the backcourt and has to lob a pass to Cattoor to advance the ball over the timeline. By the time he retrieves the ball and the Hokies can get into their offense, there are only 19 seconds left on the shot clock. In what has become a frequent sight, Murphy cannot find a lane from which to penetrate to the rim, being sealed off by 6'10 forward DaRon Holmes (#15). Unsure of where to go, he whips a pass to Justyn Mutts on the perimeter, who forces up an errant and contested three-point shot. While this isn't the worst look in the world, I suspect that Mutts forced it knowing the clock was running out. All that time and energy spent in the backcourt adds up throughout the course of a game.
Young did what he could to make adjustments. He tried having Cattoor bring the ball up the court; other times, it was Alleyne. In one stretch in the first half, he subbed out Murphy and went with an all-two-guard lineup featuring Cattoor, Alleyne, and Maddox. Ultimately, it did nothing to change the fact that Tech was physically outmatched, producing their second-least efficient offensive output of the year with 57 points in 65 possessions.
Some of those possessions were just bad basketball.
Maddox (#13) tries to take matters into his own hands. He was driving towards the baseline, but freshman big Mustapha Amzil (#22) stays with him step-for-step, forcing him to pass back out to Murphy near mid-court. Storm takes a wild three-pointer, and the rebound caroms to Amzil, who sends the outlet pass to Holmes for a rim-rocking slam dunk, capping off a 10-0 Dayton run. While this play was early in the game, I thought it was a tone-setter. (As for the ensuing possession? Another Murphy drive, stop at the elbow, double-team, kick to Maddox, contested two-point jumper missed. Repeat, ad nauseum).
A Solution in Waiting
We need to talk about Sean Pedulla. The freshman from Edmond, Okla. provided the Hokies a big lift off the bench Sunday, scoring five points in 10 minutes and providing a spark to an otherwise lifeless offense.
Pedulla has been a net positive in his limited playing time. He had a +10 rating on the court against Dayton, in contrast to Murphy's -17. While I don't have per-possession numbers for individual games, I tallied up the plus-minus ratings and minutes for both of Tech's point guards in the five games they have played against high-level competition. In nearly 150 minutes of play, Murphy has a rating of -11.9 points per 40 minutes; for Sean Pedulla, that figure is +6.8 in 30 minutes of action.
Of course, stats like these should always be taken into context: coaches will only play their bench in situations they believe are advantageous to their success, while the starters will see all the ebbs and flows of a basketball game inculcated into their plus-minus rating. As more film gets out on Pedulla, defenses will adjust, and his weaknesses will be exposed, to the degree that they have not been already.
That said, the youngster has done some things that the fifth-year senior has not. He looks a step quicker and a bit more explosive off the dribble. More than anything, Pedulla has confidence. I loved watching him drive to the rim on this possession in the second half, quickly changing pace once he saw a path to the bucket and flying high in the air to draw the foul.
I don't recall seeing Murphy make a play like this all season (after all, he has not shot a free throw in the past five games). Pedulla followed that up by orchestrating a fast-break moments later, having to finish over two taller defenders. Though he missed the layup, Keve Aluma was right there to put it back, and quickly hustled back on defense.
This could be confirmation bias, but it seemed as if the entire team had more pep in their step with No. 3 in the game.
I can't think of a great reason why Young did not play Pedulla for the final 6:38 of this game. When Murphy returned, he was largely a non-factor in the flow of the offense. Although Pedulla is a huge liability defending one-on-one, it's not clear that Murphy provides much more in that respect, and I thought Pedulla did a good job of communicating defensive assignments. Maybe he needed a breather, but he played nearly the final nine minutes against Xavier. Perhaps Young wants to preserve the remaining confidence of the kid he recruited to play with him at his new school. In any case, Tech has an obvious dilemma at point guard, one that will not go away anytime soon as Pedulla continues to develop.
Preview: St. Bonaventure
Coming into the year, St. Bonaventure was widely considered one of the best mid-major teams in the country. They were ranked 23rd in the preseason AP poll, and were the unanimous favorites to win the Atlantic 10 Conference. A big reason for this was not just their talent but their experience: in the age of endless transfers, the team's top five players entered the season totalling 283 starts in a Bonnie uniform. Combine that with a veteran head coach in Mark Schmidt who enters his 15th year with the program, and Virginia Tech will have their hands full in the Queen City on Friday.
St. Bonaventure is led by senior guard Jaren Holmes (17.4 ppg), who does pretty much everything well: he can shoot, facilitate, and get to the free throw line. He also never leaves the court, playing in 96.2% of the team's minutes, ranking fourth in the nation. Since the injury to starting point guard Kyle Lofton (more on that in a moment), Holmes has excelled taking on more of a distributor role, though I'd be concerned about his workload, as he has played the entirety of the Bonnies' last three games.
By far the biggest matchup concern is 6'10 senior center Osun Osunniyi (10.2 ppg), the reigning A-10 Defensive Player of the Year. Osunniyi possesses incredible hops, as evidenced by his 12.4% block rate which ranks 17th nationally. He shoots the ball extremely well inside (62.8 eFG%) and demonstrates good defensive footwork and positioning which allows him to defend without fouling. That is certainly a byproduct of his experience, as the fourth-year big has seen his foul rate decrease every year of his career.
Throw in a pair of veteran guards in Jalen Adaway (14.6 ppg) and Dominick Welch (11.2 ppg) and you have the makings of a very solid team. The one weak spot for St. Bonaventure is that they are extremely top-heavy: their bench accounts for just 17.6% of their minutes, the eighth-fewest in Division I. They utilized a seven-man rotation last year, and with the injury to Lofton are back to playing seven again this year. The flip side to that is they possess a very high continuity of minutes, which is a key stat in KenPom's preseason rankings, and a huge part of why everyone thought so highly of St. Bonaventure: their core players have played together for multiple seasons, and everyone is on the same page.
That said, the injury to Lofton really hurts. The four-year starting point guard sustained an ankle injury in a Dec. 1 game against Coppin State and has not played since. (I heard broadcasters reference a two-week recovery time on Dec. 4, which would potentially allow him to return against Virginia Tech.) He was the team's leading scorer, but his absence has affected the Bonnies far more on the defensive end, where they have dropped 32 spots in KenPom's Adjusted Defense, now ranking 83rd. Lofton is long and athletic with active hands that disrupt ball handlers. He was replaced in the starting lineup by freshman guard Quadry Adams, who hasn't been very impactful. This is where the Bonnies' lack of depth has come back to haunt them. It would be huge if Tech can work the ball inside to Aluma and get their bigs into foul trouble, because Schmidt has no choice but to play them (though St. Bonaventure has done a very good job of avoiding fouls this season).
Although it is still December, the Hokies really need this win, much more so than I think most fans realize. A Quadrant 2 victory over the A-10's top program will certainly have Tech's resume looking more palatable to the NCAA selection committee; a loss will conclude a 7-4 record in non-conference play, and require that Virginia Tech dominate their weak conference slate even more. Which, given what we have seen so far, seems unlikely.