Every trouble and tribulation that plagued the Virginia Tech Hokies men's basketball team was summarily put to rest in a cathartic 86-49 beatdown of St. Bonaventure. It was a much-needed win to conclude the non-conference portion of the regular season, a victory that reminded us all who this team is and who they can become.
There was truly nothing that went wrong for the Hokies inside the Spectrum Center. Virginia Tech held St. Bonaventure to a putrid 18-of-54 shooting night (33%) while knocking down 55% of their own shots, including 46% from long range. Nearly a third of all the Bonnies' possessions (29%) ended in a turnover. St. Bonaventure guards Kyle Lofton and Jaren Holmes came into the contest averaging a combined 34.8 points per game; Nahiem Alleyne and Hunter Cattoor held the pair to just three.
Whereas Virginia Tech was focused and unfazed, St. Bonaventure was unorganized and undisciplined, beset by a combination of poor shooting, lazy defense, and atrocious shot selection. Give Tech credit: they gave nothing easy to the Bonnies, just as their previous opponents did.
I have been critical of this team's play as of late, but Friday's drubbing left me with no choice but to focus on the positives, of which there were many. After all, Christmas is the season of giving, and what better present could I give to you all than an in-depth analysis of everything that went right for Virginia Tech in the Queen City.
Rolling with Defense
A critical component of Tech's previous losses to Wake Forest and Dayton was their dreadful pick-and-roll defense. That completely turned around in this game, and it was evident from the very first defensive possession.
Jaren Holmes (#5) passes out of a double-team to Kyle Lofton (#0) who was curling around a screen set by the big center Osun Osunniyi (#21). Note how Alleyne (#4) fights through the screen (one thing that he did not do against Dayton) to stay with Lofton on his path to the rim. Cattoor (#0) provides help in reaching in to smack the ball away, forcing Lofton to kick back out to the perimeter. Reverse the ball once more, and again the Hokies trap the ball screen on the left wing. Holmes tries to feed Osunniyi on the roll, but he was smothered by Cattoor, and Alleyne rotates over to take away the passing lane, providing Justyn Mutts (#25) enough time to recover. The end result was a long and contested three-pointer that hit nothing but air.
The ball screen defense was probably the best it has been the entire season. Keve Aluma was active with his hands and did more to disrupt the flow of St. Bonaventure's offense. That was evident in this pick-and-roll early in the first half.
Aluma (#22) uses his long reach to seal off the passing window to Osunniyi (#21). Instead of an easy layup, the Bonnies have to settle for a long fadeaway two-pointer, certainly the least efficient shot in basketball.
It's remarkable to observe the difference that defensive positioning can make. On numerous occasions Tech deflected and altered the trajectory of passes to the roll man, which resulted in turnovers. While St. Bonaventure is an okay three-point shooting team, they don't take very many from downtown, and in neutralizing Osunniyi, Tech took away their inside game. Good shooters are always on-line even when they miss, and given how many airballs and bricks the Bonnies threw up, it was clear they were not comfortable operating on the perimeter.
The following sequence was another demonstration of that. It also showed Tech's stout defensive rotations.
After a disjointed pick-and-roll, Holmes (#5) sends a skip pass to Dominick Welch (#1), who was open in the corner. This should've been an open shot as there are two shooters guarded by one defender; instead, Welch hesitates after a strong closeout from Alleyne, providing Cattoor just enough time to rotate to the open man. Holmes gets it back, and on a wild drive runs over the hustling Sean Pedulla, who drew the first of his two charges on the afternoon. Mike Young said in Monday's press conference that his team did a much better job of contesting threes on the catch, and this was a textbook example.
For the first time all year it felt as if the Hokies were able to comfortably execute their offense against a quality opponent. They shot a season-high 55% of their FGA from behind the arc against St. Bonaventure. The difference between this performance and the Wake Forest game (aside from the fact that Tech actually hit open shots) was that their three-pointers stemmed from good spacing and ball movement rather than a complete inability to penetrate. Storm Murphy played his best game of the year, scoring a season-high 18 points. He found the confidence to drive to the rim and finish over the Bonnies' taller guards, and was certainly a beneficiary of the attention drawn by Cattoor.
My biggest surprise of the game was why St. Bonaventure chose not to pressure Murphy in the backcourt, nor face guard him in the frontcourt, as other teams have done. My best guess is that coach Mark Schmidt did not want to overwork Lofton in his first game back from injury, nor wear out his team's thin guard depth. In any case, the strategy proved to be fateful, as Tech churned in a season-best 67.7 eFG%.
Elsewhere, Aluma was very effective in his post-ups against Osunniyi. While Osunniyi is an elite shot blocker when rotating over as the help-side defender, he didn't do much to alter Aluma's game in one-on-one matchups. Because of this, St. Bonaventure had to pay much more attention to the preseason All-ACC selection, and Tech's shooters made them pay for it.
In the first of these two clips, Aluma draws the attention of three Bonnies in the paint, and kicks out to Alleyne, who drills an open three. In the second clip, Aluma posts up Abdoul-Karim Coulibaly (#12), while Quadry Adams (#2) comes over to help. That leaves Murphy wide open on the perimeter, and he promptly nails the triple.
This was also a clinic in terrible defense, because you should never leave a shooter to double on the low post, but nonetheless evidence of Aluma's impact on the game.
Mike Young does just as well as any coach in diagramming open looks for his shooters, and that too was on full display.
Alleyne curls around a screen set by Cattoor on the elbow. The Bonnies decide to switch as Cattoor flashes to the top of the key after getting a pindown from Mutts, while Welch (#1) makes a grave mistake in going under the screen. An open Cattoor is about as automatic a shot as you'll get in college hoops.
At the risk of sounding overconfident, I still expect ACC teams to play Murphy in the way that Memphis and Xavier did, pressuring him every time he brings the ball up the court for 30 minutes a night; only time will tell if Storm can adjust. If nothing else, we saw what this offense is capable of when their bigs are scoring and they execute their sets at a high level, which provides open looks for one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country.
The Blue Devils are off to a roaring start in Mike Krzyzewski's final season as a head basketball coach, owners of a 10-1 record with marquee wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga. No bigger challenge will Virginia Tech face than the one in Cameron Indoor Stadium this evening.
Duke is no stranger to sensational freshmen, and the youngster leading the Blue Devils this year is forward Paolo Banchero (16.5 ppg). Banchero is a consensus lottery pick and widely projected to be taken first or second overall in the upcoming NBA draft. A quick look at his game reveals why: at 6'10, he can handle the ball like a guard and score in a multitude of ways: as a spot-up shooter, off the dribble, and certainly in transition. The one weak spot in his game is that he doesn't shoot threes, so you can sag off him if he gets the ball on the perimeter. The question is who will guard him? He's too tall for most guards and too athletic for most forwards. Tech might just have to take their lumps and hope to hold him under 20 points.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for Duke is the development of junior forward Wendell Moore (16.9 ppg), a former top 30 recruit who struggled the past two seasons but has turned into the team's most complete player. Moore is an incredibly efficient shooter (51st nationally in eFG%) and has by far the highest assist rate on the team (28.4%). He has played himself into a mid-first-round draft projection, in large part because he can now create his own shot.
At center is the formidable sophomore Mark Williams (9.2 ppg), who stands at 7'1 with a 7'7 wingspan. A native of Virginia Beach, Williams owns the fifth-best block rate in the country and is an elite offensive rebounder (you may see several back-taps on missed three-pointers). Oh, and he also shoots 70% on two-point field goals and is a projected first rounder. Coach K has an embarrassment of riches on his hands.
Last year, just about everything that could go wrong for Duke did go wrong. The Blue Devils went 13-11 and .500 in ACC play, failing to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995. Though they suffered poor close-game luck (2-7 record in games decided by six points or less), this was by far Coach K's worst team in the KenPom era (36th). The freshman class wasn't as good as people thought they would be, and while COVID affected every team, it certainly hamstrung the Blue Devils, who were one of the youngest teams in the country.
Fast forward a year and almost everything has changed. This year's team, though not much older, is certainly deeper and far more talented. They have a talented freshman guard in Trevor Keels (12.6 ppg) as well as a key bench piece in Marquette transfer forward Theo John, who is probably the team's best on-ball defender. (John fouled out late in Duke's lone loss to Ohio State, which undoubtedly had an impact in their late-game collapse.) Sophomore Jeremy Roach (9.3 ppg) is the starting point guard, though unlike Duke point guards of years past, he plays a fairly passive role in the offense and isn't a great shooter. That lack of offensive production will probably hurt Duke later in March, but for now, this team is stacked with enough talent to cruise past their ACC competition.
What makes Duke so dangerous is that they have stud athletes at every spot who can guard multiple positions. Statistically, there is almost nothing this team doesn't do well — they can shoot inside and outside, they don't turn it over, they share the ball, and they can defend. A big contributing factor to their defensive improvement is their foul rate, which ranks third best in the country. Given Tech's inability to get to the line, I wouldn't be surprised to see a large discrepancy in foul shots.
Additionally, Aluma will have a harder time posting up Williams than he did Osunniyi, who is longer and more refined as a player. Presuming that will be the case, Duke will not have to send additional help in the post and can stay on shooters, where they can use their superior athleticism to prevent Tech's guards from getting open looks.
Duke is favored for a reason — they are a very good basketball team stocked with NBA talent. While the Hokies have ample opportunities throughout the course of the year to prove themselves as an ACC contender, tonight's game will be a measuring stick against one of the nation's premiere programs.